Neal Olkewicz Has Slipped Back Into Obscurity

Washington Post

For this big-deal occasion, Neal Olkewicz has been nearly ignored. Camera crews do not stalk him in public; no reporter has pounded on his door after midnight.

Only in the season that ends today could the Super Bowl be the second-biggest event. Having been such a prominent Redskin during the strike, Olkewicz is more than content to slip back into being no-news Neal.

"It was most hectic near the end," he said, recalling his role as Redskins union steward. "Things were really falling apart. I was kind of isolated. The team was ready to go (back to work). Everything was happening at once.

"When the ship's going down, I'm the last one on it. I went down with the ship."

He can laugh about what three months ago was so painful for the union and so disruptive for management and fans, saying: "In an odd way, I liked it. I like a good fight, even though we lost."

Had his union leadership been voluntary or, like other historical situations, thrust upon him?

"You're the guy who doesn't step backwards," he said.

That also explains his position on the field rather nicely. He arrived with the Redskins, nine years ago, as a free-agent middle linebacker and bore ahead with such ferocity that veterans soon were all but welcoming him aboard.

"Usually after a week in training camp," he said, "you can tell the guys who have a chance of making it. The first 10 days or so Diron Talbert came up to me and said: 'Keep going.' "

A more meaningful moment came when Talbert, shortly before retirement, entrusted Olkewicz with continuing a decades-long tradition. Talbert did that by handing Olkewicz a beat-up volleyball.

Going back to the time when George Allen was an obscure assistant coach with the Bears, his players have batted a volleyball over a goal post during prepractice the day before a game.

Sensing that Olkewicz would be around for quite some time, Talbert appointed him social chairman. He has outlasted the one Talbert presented, but did tuck the ball--dare we say replacement ball?--among his Super Bowl duds.

When the striking players returned to duty, Olkewicz could be found in an unfamiliar position--the bench. Yes, he said, the thought that his union activity might have been a factor "crossed my mind once or twice."

Later, he realized: "I'd hurt my knee (in August) and wasn't fully recovered. Then there were so many other changes it was obvious they were doing what they thought needed to be done."

Having replaced the fellow who moved ahead of him, Rich Milot, Olkewicz is where he wants to be this week in nearly every way possible.

"It helps to get in the playoffs," he said. "The guys are getting some of their money back."

Looking back, Olkewicz figures the strike eventually will be seen as "just another variation in the season. Nothing earth-shattering. . . . There was a little animosity (toward me), but I thought there'd be more."

Olkewicz and the other veteran linebackers have been as critical to the Redskins being in three Super Bowls in six years as any unit. Yet they do not have so much as a halfway-catchy nickname.

"Before the first Super Bowl," he said, "we started calling ourselves the Blue Collar Crew. But since Washington's a white collar town, that didn't go over too well."

Occasionally, Monte Coleman spoils their anonymity with a spectacular quarterback sack. Most of the time, he and Olkewicz, Mel Kaufman and Milot earn little more than a paycheck.

Changing defenses--defenders--often contributes to their no-name image.

"Richie (Petitbon, the assistant head coach-defense) is the mastermind, along with (defensive coordinator) Larry Peccatiello," Olkewicz said. "Richie's a gambler type, the calm in the storm. When everything's raging around you, he's standing there with the same look on his face."

So much variation appeals to Olkewicz, although he dislikes being replaced on passing downs. He does like the idea of diagramming something new on the sideline, in the heat of battle, or at halftime. Only defenses dotted with veteran players can make those seat-of-the-pants adjustments.

He calls the scrambling skills of Denver quarterback John Elway "the biggest play in football. He gets you a little gun-shy. . . . Sometimes your best work isn't good enough."

If he had the power, Olkewicz would play the Super Bowl the week after the conference championship games. No free week in between. That might be great for the NFL; for the players, he said, "you have more time to think instead of doing what you've been doing for 16 weeks."

Olkewicz has been around long enough to mourn the disappearance of so many characters, with the Redskins and throughout the league. The more money that becomes available to players, the more corporate the NFL gets.

At the table reserved for him during interviews at the the Redskins hotel, even Olkewicz could be seen poring over the stock market tables.

Still, he could recall vividly moments of merriment and folly from Washington's hall of fame runner-cutup, John Riggins.

"In the meeting room once, after one of his late-night binges," Olkewicz said, "John got up and just said: 'Hey, Joe, you go ahead and fine me; I don't care. I'm not going to practice today, but let's just go out and kick their ass.'

"He walked out.

"I think Gibbs had a heart attack every time he saw Riggins raise his hand."

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