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It’s Old Home Week at Redskins Park. The old-new ball coach is back. Buges, the Boss Hog, is back. And, sometime in the next few months, you can be sure, the Boy Wonder owner will make certain that a big, bruising back in the Riggo mold will also be back.
But the biggest return to the Skins next season will be the return of Jesus.
Because, let’s face it: Above and beyond the legendary coach’s counter-trey and the long-forgotten-but-now-sure-to-return H-back sets and those vaunted halftime adjustments about which even immigrant cabbies can wax poetic, there was the piety, the sanctimony, that made it possible for an entire city to swallow the notion that football is really and truly a religion.
Yes, this town was Redskins-mad before Joe Gibbs arrived in 1981. But it was not football-crazy the way that, say, the state of Texas is, or Florida, or whole swaths of the Deep South. Winning big, and winning consistently, helped change that, of course, lifting us from being merely fanatical to being the sort of devoted—nay, obeisant—followers we have become today. But it was more than that: The Redskins under Gibbs did not merely win; they won the right way. The played the game the way it was meant to be played. They exuded an aura of almost saintly perfection. Every organization is a reflection of its leader, none more so than a successful organization, and the Redskins under Gibbs were a team built not merely in his image, but also, crucially, a team built in His image.
The young, boyish coach who came east from San Diego was by then already a changed man, a born-again Christian who, even in the midst of the five-game losing streak that inaugurated his career (and very nearly got him fired by irascible billionaire owner Jack Kent Cooke), never cursed. Oh, he threw chairs. He raised a ruckus in the locker room. A flurry of “dang”s littered the air. But no profanation ever sullied those lips.
No coach before had ever worked so hard or been so public in letting it be known that he maintained a fanatical work ethic. His 16-hour days were well-known, as was his penchant for spending four nights a week in his office and sleeping on his cot. Could anything have been more ascetic, more pure, or, for that matter, more inspiring than the image of Coach Joe on his cot, a humble, hardworking servant of the greater good?
Gibbs was not the only coach to proclaim that what he valued most was a player whose priorities were, in this exact order, “God, family, and football,” but he was one of the shrewdest in turning his entire team into an emblem of this fundamentalist philosophy. Gibbs, as Tom Landry had done before him, equated success on the gridiron with solid family values off it. Talent was important, yes—but so was character, integrity. Never mind that the roster of those years might have been dotted with the occasional drug abuser, alcoholic, or wife beater. Just as an injured player could be sent to rehab, so, too, could a damaged soul undergo a transformation of the heart. The Redskins were a family, and in the end, the family was there to save them—provided, of course, they had not lost a step in the 40.
A master motivator, Gibbs turned pep talks into prayer meetings, during which he urged each and every one of the young men assembled before him to dig down deep within himself and lay it all out there for the team. To give to the team, to subsume one’s identity into the larger whole, was the ultimate sacrifice. A classic piece of coachspeak—and yet Gibbs somehow elevated it above cliché#, brought it into the priestly realm. Gibbs had been touched by the light. He saw. He knew. And, equally important in the minds of the increasingly egocentric players, he was successful. He became, in this way, more than a coach. He became a conduit.
The Redskins won three Super Bowls, and yet, except for a few beloved heroes who are still fondly remembered among the local faithful, those Gibbs-era squads were curiously devoid of star quality. Joe Theismann and John Riggins and Dexter Manley—they all came and went during those first few years like so many prodigal children. The team, the family, endured. It was the quieter, self-effacing players who became the public face of the team—Art Monk, Charles Mann, Mark May, and, of course, Darrell Green, the born-again-Christian corner, whose stunning longevity (20 years!) seemed offered up as a parable of the good that can come of a life that is lived cleanly and with noble purpose.
Gibbs’ credibility as a winner—as a consistent winner—validated his approach, and his cloying fundamentalism was every bit as important to understanding the man, the coach, and the growing myth as his mastery of X’s and O’s. There was a moment, toward the end of his first term, in 1988, when it was apparent to me that Gibbs had crossed a previously uncrossable line. Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ had just been released, to critical acclaim but also to a fair amount of public outcry. Gibbs was one of the dissenters, dutifully standing outside the Avalon Theatre one day and handing out leaflets that proclaimed his distress at the purported treatment of Christ and urging strangers to boycott a film he had never seen—nor, if he could help it, would ever see.
Few of us, then, were bothered by the fact that Gibbs had gone from mingling football and church to mingling church and state, just as few of us, now, are going to allow ourselves to get too riled up about the do-gooding solemnity, the insistent pigskin piety, that will soon find its way back into the world of our beloved Skins. And why not? It’s been 11 long and depressing years without Joe Gibbs and his command, not just of the fundamentals that separate the bad teams from the good, but also of the fundamentalism that separates the good teams from the great. If a little old-fashioned godding up is what it’s gonna take, then who are we to complain? —Todd Kliman