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Two days before the Redskins/Eagles game, a harried Jess Atkinson wasn’t sure if he’d have the time to watch. “Oh, I’ll try to catch the end of the game, at least,” said the hometown-boy-made-good. “That’s the kicker in me.”
Yes, in a previous life, Atkinson was a kicker, but the 33-year-old Camp Springs native now works the feel-good beat for WRC-TV. The unfailingly optimistic worldview that sustained him during his tenure as an NFL vagabond shines through when he goes live from a doughnut shop at sunrise or does a remote from the Taste of D.C. festivities. Atkinson’s high Q rating locally is almost exclusively attributable to his Channel 4 persona, not his on-field exploits. But Atkinson the football player definitely had his moments. Along with being among the leading scorers in University of Maryland history, he is the most accurate kicker the Redskins ever had.
That’s right. Atkinson never missed a field goal or extra point attempt while wearing the burgundy-and-gold. You can look it up.
Before he donned a game uniform here, Atkinson played for three other NFL teams and was cut a total of five times. None of those pre-Washington stints were auspicious, but his proverbial cup of coffee with the then-St. Louis Cardinals in 1986 was memorable—for all the wrong reasons.
“St. Louis was a horrible experience,” Atkinson remembers. “I was living in a Holiday Inn and eating all my meals in the Pro Bowlers Hall of Fame. My first kick was a 45-yarder on Monday Night Football, and I hooked it and got booed. After one kick! I missed two more kicks the next week, and the Cardinals cut me and hired some guy who kept garlic in his shoe.”
Despite the St. Louis debacle, Washington signed Atkinson to replace the struggling Max Zendejas (of the Kicking Zendejases) near the end of the 1986 season. Once he found himself in such familiar geographic surroundings, something magical happened.
“I’d been playing with strangers, really, and it was weird walking into the Redskins locker room for the first time and knowing every face, just from being a fan,” he recalls. The proximity to the site of his collegiate heroics may have had something to do with the new juice in his kicking leg, but for whatever reason, Atkinson was suddenly shank-free. He rode along as the team made it to the NFC championship game (only to get trounced by the Giants).
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But Atkinson’s Washington campaign wasn’t nearly as joyous as his perfect record indicates. During another Redskins/Eagles tilt, this one in 1987, Atkinson attempted and made his seventh and final field goal for Washington. The kick came in the first quarter of the first game of the season. He still keeps a copy of the last action photo of his Redskins career—shot as the ball was splitting the uprights—framed in his house.
“That’s my favorite picture,” he says. The statement is akin to Jackie O. calling the Zapruder film her favorite home movie. A nanosecond after the treasured photo was snapped, Philadelphia safety Andre “Dirty” Waters, a fabled headhunt er playing in the incomparably evil Coach Buddy Ryan’s debut with the Eagles, dove into Atkinson’s firmly planted left leg. Waters’ inarguably vicious hit begot one of those gasp-inducing videobytes that come about every so often in the NFL, like when two Giant defenders snapped Joe Theismann’s shinbone like a twig, or when Raiders tailback Napoleon McCallum’s lower leg did a Linda Blair on national television.
“I couldn’t hear anything,” Atkinson recalls of the immediate aftermath of being submarined by Waters. “But I could see things moving, people moving around me, waving for doctors to come on the field. I was just lying flat, and looking at my right leg jutting straight out, and then looking for my left foot, and thinking that it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to. It was pointing in this weird way. I’d never seen any of my limbs just flopping around like that.”
The injury report indicated that Atkinson’s left ankle was dislocated, though that term hardly does justice to the amount of damage the joint suffered. Every ligament in the vicinity was shredded.
“The team surgeon [orthopedist Dr. Charles Jackson] told me he still sends X-rays of my ankle around to medical conferences and hospitals,” Atkinson says. “I’m told it’s extremely rare to have the ankle ripped away like that without breaking any bones. It’s an injury that’s a whole lot worse than a regular break, though.”
The damage Waters did to Atkinson’s football career was equally severe. Atkinson never kicked for the team again. An intense rehabilitation program allowed him to suit up again in time for the first round of the 1987 playoffs, but Joe Gibbs opted to go into the postseason with another gypsy kicker, Ali Haji-Sheikh. After the Sheik got the shakes and shanked two field goal attempts in the NFC Championship game against Minnesota, Gibbs was pressured by fans to bring Atkinson back on board for Super Bowl XXII. But league rules limited the number of roster moves a team could make prior to the big game, and Gibbs spent his last available transfer getting Art Monk off the disabled list.
On the way to a 42-10 romp over the Broncos, the Redskins scored five touchdowns in the second quarter, which is generally regarded as the finest 15 minutes in team history. Haji-Sheikh’s five extra points in that one period set a record that will likely never be broken.
Atkinson watched the game from the stands of Jack Murphy Stadium in San Diego, but the Redskins dispensed a Super Bowl ring to him anyway. “It’s not the same for me as it is for the guys who were actually on the field,” he says. “I’d never worked so hard for something as I did to get ready to play, so when I think of the ring I don’t think about the Super Bowl, but of getting prepared to play again. It also helps to know that the Redskins could have won that game even if Joe Jacoby had to do all the kicking.”
Just a few months after the Super Bowl slight, the Redskins selected Chip Lohmiller in the second round of the college draft, an unusually high pick for a kicker. And when the team gave the untested rookie from the University of Minnesota a signing bonus of $200,000, Atkinson assumed that he’d never be given a chance to sully his perfect kicking record as a Skin. He was right.
Though fairly soured on the kicking profession by then, Atkinson agreed to join the Indianapolis Colts in the middle of the 1988 season after that team’s kicker, Dean Biasucci, was injured. Atkinson was hit with what he thinks was a bout of food poisoning hours after his only game with the Colts, and he was cut for the seventh and last time over the phone, while puking up hot dogs in his hotel room.
Atkinson packed his bags, flew home to Washington, and called it a career. He used the positive, if passing, notoriety he’d gained as a Redskin to hook up with WRC. His No. 4 home jersey, still soiled with the RFK Stadium turf that he writhed on after the Waters hit, is stored in a box in his basement. His only connection to football these days comes in the lessons he gives to aspiring kickers in the area whenever his duties at home or at the station allow. Atkinson doesn’t charge students for the tutelage, which he says is his way of paying back the elders who helped him when he was a young booter.
Speaking of paybacks, one of Atkinson’s early assignments with Channel 4 was to interview the very man who’d intentionally inflicted the wound that knocked him off the Redskins and out of football. Though Waters never formally apologized for his atrocity, Atkinson came away from the interview feeling more pity for the safety than bitterness.
“Andre was dirty in a way that others weren’t,” Atkinson says. “There have always been people in this league, like Conrad Dobler, who are dirty in order to get an advantage during a play, and they’ll gouge and bite. But Andre was dirty in the way that he tried to put you out of the game, which means injure and maim.
“He never appreciated he was going to be remembered as somebody who played the game in a terrible, terrible way,” Atkinson says, shaking his head. “He clearly didn’t get it. There was no understanding on his part that putting a guy out of the game could also mean you’re putting him out of a career. He said he would do anything to stay in the NFL. Anything.”
Malevolence has its rewards in the pro football realm: Last week, Buddy Ryan, now coaching the Arizona Cardinals—whom the Redskins will visit this weekend—brought Waters out of retirement.
And in case you missed it, last Sunday Atkinson got to see the Redskins lose to the Eagles in overtime. By a field goal.