RUNNING TO CANTON

The scene will forever guide any thoughts on Darrell Green, reminding those who observed him up close just why he's endured. And why he's beloved.

It was in Pittsburgh four years ago, a few hours before kickoff in a nearly empty stadium. Yet Green trotted onto the field already in uniform, ready to play. Except all he wanted to play was a pickup game with two teammates: punter Matt Turk and kicker Scott Blanton.

Green would run pass patterns against Blanton, trying to catch passes from Turk. Then Blanton would run routes against him. For a half-hour, at least, they played their little game. Even as the band warmed up on the field.

There was Green, smiling and having a good time.

Which is what he's done for the past 18 seasons.

Green officially end the worst-kept secret and announce his retirement, effective after the season. This isn't a surprise: last season, those close to Green said he'd stick around two more years (including 2000), hoping to raise money for his youth foundation, and then retire. Nothing changed those plans.

And this is a well-thought out plan. By announcing the decision before the season, Green gets a farewell lap around the league, becoming a focal point for out-of-town media. The exposure allows his Youth Life foundation to raise more money. If not for the foundation, Green might have retired before this season.

On the other hand, his love for the game hasn't changed, even as his role in life has expanded from football player to husband to father to director of a foundation and public icon.

How many future Hall of Famers would have bothered to play a pickup game against a couple of kickers?

Others have seen that enthusiasm. And they still see him connecting with teammates even after all these years. Surely, it would have been easy for Green to distance himself from this newer generation. That wouldn't have been a good teammate, but it might have been understandable.

After all, he'd played in three Super Bowls and won two. He'd been to seven Pro Bowls. And most of his close friends retired long ago.

Actually, few if any of his current teammates would be considered close friends. There's too much distance in age. And, in some cases, maturity. He often joked he had more in common with reporters, in terms of his stage in life, than his teammates.

Yet Green didn't budge from what he thought was important. And that was being a good teammate.

''This is what defined the guy to me,'' Redskins safety Sam Shade, a teammate since 1999, said. ''We used to have a defensive night out once a week (in '99), when we all had to go out as a group. I kept saying, 'Darrell's not going to come. This guy has so much going on. He has his foundation, TV and radio shows, his family. He's not going to make time for this.' And he was there every week and probably one of the first guys to get there and just about the last one to leave.

''Whenever he does leave the game, he's really going to miss it and miss being around teammates and the camaraderie and friendships.''

Certainly Green might not be everything the public thinks. No one is. And no one is perfect. Green isn't a dominant team leader and some in the past complained that he didn't help younger players by rarely working out at Redskin Park, opting instead for the seclusion of George Mason University. Others in the locker room held the team together through their words more than Green did.

And when Green first came to the Redskins, those who covered him remembered a kid with a surly attitude, rarely making time for the media. It's a demeanor that obviously changed.

But, make no mistake, Green did lead. Mostly by living his life right, by honoring his wife and kids. By investing of himself in the community. Live right and prosper sums him up. Younger players can look at him and know, if they take care of themselves and don't screw around, they can play a long time, too.

He also became a coach of sorts to his younger teammates, something he started doing several years ago under former secondary coach Tom Hayes. He'd tutor the rookies, and players such as Champ Bailey, during minicamps on his ''days off'' from practice.

''I learned a lot of new tricks from him,'' Bailey said. ''He taught me how to study guys and study teams. He didn't feel his job was threatened. To have a guy come out and try to make you better or as good as he is, that's real appreciated.''

''I heard other stories,'' Redskins safety David Terrell said, ''of other guys not opening up to the younger guys. Darrell wasn't like that at all. He made you feel real comfortable around him.''

Another thing: on the Redskins' 2000 Yearbook magazine last year, Green shared the cover with Deion Sanders. Both are highly religious men. But, while Sanders wore a bandana with the word, ''Jesus'' written on it, Green simply wore his uniform.

Green didn't need to broadcast his beliefs because that's who he is. He lets the way he lives his life spread the word, rather than by advertising a message on a piece of headware. Nor did Green ever point to the heavens after a great play, or pray in the end zone. His religion was private; but it was very real.

Thing is, way back when Super Bowls were being won, the Redskins had many guys like Green. Some of them might even attend his press conference today: Art Monk and Charles Mann, among others, have been invited (as was former Redskins coach Joe Gibbs).

''The guy stood for a class act,'' Redskins defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson said. ''He's a guy you love to be around and he's one of the guys. He's a lot older than everybody, but it's how he relates and communicates to each player. The time I've spent with him has been great.''

He stressed to players the importance of treating kids right. He reminded them of their importance in the community, that everything they did was being watched. And judged. So do it right.

Green can still play and his competitive drive is as great as ever--as much as his speed, that's what helped him survive. Man, or corners, cannot live off speed alone (though it helps). He's no longer a top starter. And he might not even start this season. But he's certainly no worse than Washington's No. 3 cornerback. For someone his age, that's remarkable.

Green endured his toughest camp, physically and mentally. He learned new techniques and he quieted some critics, some of whom were coaches. Meanwhile, he impressed another generation.

''It surprised me that he was as fast as he is,'' rookie corner Fred Smoot said. ''There's no doubt he's still the fastest man on the team. I'm sorry. That amazed me. The first couple of days I sat there with my mouth open. How can this man still be this fast and quick? Retire? I don't see why he's retiring.''

Because his body takes longer to recover from aches and pains. Because it's exhausting to go through these seasons. Because of the preparation needed to stay near the top. Because he has other things, his life's calling he says, that must be done.

Green always seemed to be in a hurry. Another memory: my first season on this beat, in 1994, I wanted to interview Green after a practice in Carlisle. So I waited, and waited, for him to emerge from the locker room. When he finally did, I asked him if he had a few minutes. He looked at his watch, backpedaling, and said, ''I've got two minutes.''

Ten minutes later we stopped talking. Funny thing is, he always gave more time than he had. Ask for five, receive 15. But, for a while, I figured he just was trying to elude reporters. Or just me.

Turns out it was time he was outrunning.

Until now.

But we're the ones who won't run into another like him. Not for a long time. Maybe not ever.

John Keim covers the Redskins for The Journal Newspapers and is a correspondent for Pro Football Weekly.


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