The rift never developed between $6-million linebacker Wilber Marshall and his much poorer Washington Redskins teammates.
The other day, running back Kelvin Bryant told Marshall, “You’re my hero,” to which Marshall replied, “No, you’re my hero.”
Bryant also chimed, “Hey, I’ll call you,” which is an about-face from last season’s playoffs when Bryant spit on Marshall, then a Chicago Bear.
By signing Marshall to such a skyscraper contract, the Redskins were risking teamwide alienation. Earlier in the season, Marshall often was eating his daily burger and fries alone. But a bandwagon has formed more recently at his Redskin Park locker, and most everyone has jumped aboard--including defensive end Dexter Manley.
Manley previously appeared offended by the size and width of Marshall’s contract, but shouted the other day: “Wilber, that’s my man.”
One reason Chicago didn’t match Washington’s staggering free agent offer to Marshall was the threat of ripping apart its already thin-skinned team. The Redskins faced a similar calamity, but Marshall’s businesslike manner has erased doubts and made the signing a clear success.
Marshall’s willingness to practice with a swollen knee helps, as does his 3 interceptions and his on-field vigor that rivals Manley’s. Whereas the Redskins used to have only one big talker in the defensive huddle, now they have two.
“I don’t ever get the call (in the huddle),” Manley said, “because I’m hollering and talking all the time. The huddle breaks, and I say, ‘What’s the defense?’ and Darryl Grant looks at me like I’m crazy. I look over at Wilber, and he’s talking his head off. He’s hollering, ‘C’mon, let’s bring the house down!’ He’ll be hollering, I’ll be hollering, and we never understand what each other is saying, like we’re not even listening to each other. I ask Wilber, ‘What’s the defense?’ and he hasn’t once told me. I have to go ask Neal Olkewicz.
“But Wilber gets me going out there. In that Eagles game, it was so hot, I was weak. But Wilber got up and hollered in my face, ‘C’mon!’ Instantly, I shifted into another gear. I used to be the only one to get the team going, running up and down the sidelines. Charles (Mann) would stand there all dignified, and I used to be thinking, ‘I can’t do this all by myself.’ But now I’ve got a partner!”
Manley, of course, hasn’t dismissed Marshall’s contract. “The man sure makes a lot of change,” he said. “I wish he’d drop some--not 50-cent pieces but big bucks . . . But, no, I’m glad the Redskins have him. He had a sore knee, and I said, ‘If Wilber can’t (play), who’s going to get me going’ . . . If I was going to war, Wilber is the one I’d take with me, he and (defensive tackle) Dean Hamel. Wilber, he’s a man.”
Away from a football, Marshall comes off as gentle. He buttons his usually dark dress shirts up to the top button, and he has myriad black, gray and white sweaters. On the plane back from Dallas, teammates chided Manley that Marshall is more the GQ dresser than he, which also illustrated the new-found camaraderie.
That Marshall plays as hard as a starving rookie makes a difference, not to mention his poised off-field personality. Manley often will bait him--once calling him “The Black Lee Majors, the Six Million Dollar Man” on television--but gains little response. If Marshall is comparable to Manley on the field, he’s most like Alvin Walton off it. Walton is subdued, and Marshall is, too, except when asked to elaborate on his goals for the season.
First of all, he still wants to be league MVP, and his 3 interceptions are valid indications of his talent. He never promised to be a blitzing Lawrence Taylor, but said rather that he gained more glee from interceptions and deflected passes. His 52 tackles and assists are third on the team behind Walton’s 75 and Olkewicz’s 57, and that he leads the team and is among the league leaders in interceptions--as a linebacker--is virtually unheard of.
His hands are sticky, for he was a college tight end. And assistant coach Larry Peccatiello said, “See how many linebackers have two or three (interceptions) at the end of the year. There won’t be many.”
Marshall said, “I think I’m playing well enough to be the top linebacker (in the league)--no one else has really done anything. I have three interceptions, and I’ll get more. That’s my goal, to be player of the year, and if I can get myself four more (interceptions) and get some sacks (he has two) and we win and get to the playoffs, well . . .
"(Seven interceptions), that’s a lot. My average is about five. I’d be happy to just get five, but if I can get between five and seven . . . But whose ever team does well, that’s who’ll get (MVP).”
As for avoiding an internal rift, Marshall said, “People were kind of skeptical about what was going to happen, but (teammates) understand I’m only trying to do my best. I’m trying to give leadership if I can and not let people think that it’s just the money (that drives him). It’s the game. And when we win, everybody wins and everybody gets paid.
“I think they accept me more that they know I’m a normal guy. They see me and say, ‘He’s getting paid, but he’s busting his rear. He isn’t saying I can do this and you can’t and I can miss practice and you can’t.’ I show up every day.”
With injuries last Sunday to left linebackers Monte Coleman and Mel Kaufman, Marshall’s durability is even more relevant. He has tree trunks for legs, which sets him apart and makes him so sturdy. At first sight, he appears an average-sized fellow, but the width of his thighs rivals wide receiver Eric Yarber’s waist.
Coleman and Kaufman have banged up knees, and Ravin Caldwell may start on the left side against the NFC East leading Phoenix Cardinals Sunday at RFK Stadium. But Marshall has stayed in one piece.
He has missed only one practice this season, a busy Wednesday practice, and teammates ribbed him the next Wednesday when he did show up in full pads. They said, “What’s this Wilber, you’re practicing on a Wednesday?” But Marshall took solace in the fact that people don’t usually kid you unless they like you.