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The Life

November 12, 2002
Hard Head
ESPN The Magazine

Something's wrong with Shaddy. Something's wrong, and his mama can't watch anymore. She still spends Sundays in the stadium suite that Shaddy bought her, but she turns her back to the field. Turns her back on the Redskins and the genius they just hired. Every now and then, from the rear of the suite, she'll ask, "Is Shaddy dancin'? Is he hoppin' up and down?" But she won't watch it, won't be a witness to the crimes of Marvin Lewis.

"You've got to know my mom,"explains Shaddy. "She loves hard, and she hates hard."

LaVar Arrington
Arrington's speed and power evoke memories of another #56.
It's not that she truly hates Marvin Lewis, who is Shaddy's boss, it's just that she hates what's become of Shaddy. He breaks the Redskins' defensive huddle bewildered sometimes, which is why he's got the plays scratched on his wristbands. "They're on my wrist in case I get what some people call a brain fart," Shaddy says. But that's just the problem: Shaddy's thinking too much. Shaddy's being asked to learn two positions, and it's making his mama miserable. "They've got my son playing defensive end," she says. "But he's a linebacker! He's too small to be lining up against all those meat-eaters. He's not happy. He doesn't have that hop. I see his long face. So I'm not watching this year -- until things get better."

This was supposed to be his LT year. The year LaVar RaShad Arrington -- known to loved ones as Shad or Shaddy -- was going to dominate. Two years ago, as a rookie, he sent Troy Aikman to his last CAT scan. Last season, he assassinated (his word) Emmitt Smith on a screen pass. "He hit Emmitt so hard that Emmitt quivered," says Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff, who works as a broadcaster for the Redskins radio network. And this year, even non-Cowboys were going to pay. He started last year's Pro Bowl, and this off-season, the Redskins hired Marvin Lewis, the man who X-and-O'd Ray Lewis (no relation) into your 2001 Super Bowl party. Put Shaddy and Marvin together, and you were going to have defensive nirvana.

But instead, Shaddy is a zombie. After practice on a late September afternoon, he gives you a dead-fish handshake -- his sprained right wrist is swollen like a catcher's mitt -- and tells you to follow him in his convertible T-Bird. He's taking you to a restaurant where he'll explain his malaise, but along the way, he makes a wrong turn. "I've got so much on my mind," he says. "Was I swerving?"

He sits down, and you notice a neck that looks like a third thigh -- which is why he can stun anyone he tackles. Add the neck roll he wears during games, and he's not afraid of the buzz you get from helmet-to-helmet contact. "When I hit somebody, I tense up," he says. "And because of the neck roll and the way I have myself scrunched in there, it's like having a bulletproof vest on."

Except he's not decking people this season. Terrell Owens ricocheted off him in Week 3 and ran for a TD, and all Shaddy could say was, "Last year, I would've knocked him out." He also swung and missed at Donovan McNabb and Ahman Green. It's baffling. Shaddy has some explaining to do. He orders a Smirnoff Ice and gets into it.

"Marvin and I aren't to the point where we totally trust one another," he says. "I guess I'm a role player now." His next words are, "I'm tired of 88." What eventually comes clear is the Redskins are taking the fun out of LaVar Arrington's football. Three years, four head coaches, three defensive schemes. "My biggest fear," he says, "is I'll go down in history as a guy that could have been the greatest ever but never settled into a system."

So that's why he's been a zombie this year; why he's been slow to buy into Marvin Lewis; why his mama can't watch. For the first time in his life, LaVar Arrington has started to hate football. Hard.


Marvin's lived in Pittsburgh. Created monsters there. He coached the Steelers linebackers for four seasons, and they all owe him. Greg Lloyd? Marvin made him. Levon Kirkland? Made him, too. Chad Brown? Got him a fat free agent contract. It was while he was in Pittsburgh that he first heard about a prep linebacker from North Hills High. The kid was always breaking people's collarbones, and he punted and played tailback, too. One night he was punting from his own goal line, and when the snap sailed over his head, he retrieved it and ran 108 yards for a TD. Marvin saw that one on the tube, and chuckled. Wondered if he'd get his hands on the kid some day.

The kid was coming out of Penn State around the time Marvin was turning Ray Lewis loose in Baltimore. They bumped into each other on an airplane, and the kid wanted to know all about Marvin's Steelers linebackers.

"We battled each other," Marvin told him.


"We battled. I battled every day with Greg Lloyd, with Chad Brown. I battle with Jamie Sharper in Baltimore, I battle with Peter Boulware."

"Ray, too?"

"No, not Ray. Ray generally gets it."

That was the last time they spoke -- until the Redskins pursued Marvin to be their defensive coordinator last winter. Marvin almost turned them down, but the money was outrageous, and he remembered the kid from North Hills. "LaVar is one of the reasons why you come," he says. But Marvin got to DC and started watching game film, and he couldn't believe the brainless way No. 56 played. "He ran around like a chicken with his head cut off," Marvin says.

So Marvin and LaVar were going to battle too. Marvin was going to ask LaVar to be a stay-in-your-gap linebacker on first and second downs and a pass-rushing defensive end on third. Marvin was going to try what Ray Rhodes tried during LaVar's rookie year: rein him in. Rhodes failed, of course, because LaVar was doubled over half the time. "I had a little belly on me," LaVar says. "The coaches didn't like me. I was new money. I was eating out every day, eating the wrong things. Too lax."

The team went 88, Rhodes was replaced by Kurt Schottenheimer, Marty's little brother. LaVar loved that Kurt and Marty asked him to just chase the football, and he turned an 05 season around with an interception return against Carolina. But the team went 88 again, and Dan Snyder made his annual coaching change. In came the Steve Spurrier-Marvin Lewis regime. Imagine LaVar's surprise when Marvin told him he'd been doing everything wrong.

"He killed them last year, killed his own team," Marvin says. "Against Chicago, critical third down, he doesn't cover the back. Back catches the ball for a first down. A guy I could cover. And they lose."

Then how did Arrington make the Pro Bowl?

"It's like I told him: You'll be on SportsCenter for your big hits, and you might go to the Pro Bowl, but we'll win six games," Marvin says. "Or you can do it right, and we can win 12 games."

So is LaVar just a role player now?

"That's what everybody is," Marvin says. "If you want to win, you need 11 role players."

Marvin's options were to change the scheme or change LaVar, and the scheme stayed. He assigned LaVar a personal coach, Jimmy Collins, because LaVar now had play calls to make. When word of a Marvin-LaVar philosophical rift went public after Week 3, Marvin demanded they talk it out. "And if he won't talk to me, I'll follow him to the locker room," Marvin says. "We're not going to do that fraction crap that breaks teams apart."

But too late. During games, LaVar would break the huddle and raise his palms up. "When he raises his hands it means, 'I don't know this call, I'm just going to be LaVar,' " says teammate Jessie Armstead. Lewis benched him a play in Frisco for doing that. And on the plane home from that game, LaVar told friends, "I didn't come here to be a defensive end." That's when his mama stopped watching.

"Listen, I don't have a problem with Marvin," LaVar says. "A lot of players bash their coaches and get away with it. And I'm not a fool -- I'm in a perfect position to bash him, if I wanted to. I'm coming off a Pro Bowl season. I could sit here and say, yeah, I turned last season around. But I don't buy into that. He's my coach. I'm not going to do no Terrell Owens-Steve Mariucci, because I'm no asshole. I'm just uptight.

"Two seasons, and all I am is 88. I've just got to start ballin' again. Like I balled back in the day."


LaVar Arrington knew what to do: recreate Pittsburgh. When he was a young buck in the Steel City, nobody called him LaVar -- he was just Shaddy. He was the stud who painted a skull-and-crossbones on his face, who punched holes in his bedroom wall before games, who wept during the pregame prayer. He had to get back to that, for his sake, for Marvin's sake.

LaVar Arrington
Arrington didn't mesh well with the Redskins coaching staff.
So earlier this season, he started stopping by high school games. "It purifies my soul," he says. "It's when football is football. No salary caps." Next, he hit the Florida State-Maryland game, visiting the Terp locker room before kickoff. "Dude, they were in there saying, 'Not in our house! Eff 'em!'" he says. "Just nasty. And I started leaking. Leeeeeeeaking. Their coach called 'em up to do a prayer, and I got on my knee with them. I was leaking cold sweat. Dripping. I'm not talking about perspiration, where you get warm.

I told their coach, 'If you got an extra suit, I'll play for you today.'"

It made him sad he wasn't leaking like that before Redskins games. So during the Skins' bye week (Sept.28-29) he went straight to Pittsburgh. He'd go to a Friday night game at his old high school, and Saturday's Iowa-Penn State game up the road. If that didn't revive him, nothing would.


At North Hills, he had flashbacks. He recalled his 108-yard run, but also the time a white teammate wore a T-shirt saying, "Malcolm X is Dead." He asked him, "Do you hate me?" And the teammate said "eff you." Shaddy kicked his butt for that, then got death threats from skinheads. But that's not why he remembered the fight. He remembered it because it was a teammate in that T-shirt. Teammates were his world back then, his warriors. That's how precious football was back in Pittsburgh.

So that Friday night at North Hills, Shaddy gave a halftime pep talk to the boys, told them to never say "eff you" to a teammate. And he started leaking again, in a good way. Then he went up to Penn State. And what a sight that place was.

He always loved sprinting out of the Beaver Stadium tunnel to see "my 107,000 Romans." He started calling fans Romans because his favorite movie is Gladiator, and because he's always considered football stadiums his own little colosseums. Last season, before Redskins games, he used to listen to the Gladiator soundtrack CD to get riled up. But not this season. Didn't know why.

At Penn State that weekend, he came out of the tunnel with Joe Pa and the team. One thing about Shaddy -- when he's fired up he'll skip when he's running, and he'll pace when he's not. That day at Beaver Stadium, Shaddy did all of that. He skipped onto the field, and on the sideline he paced and spit and yapped at a referee.

LaVar: "Get in the game. You missed the call."

Ref: "Just shut up. And move back."

LaVar: "You don't have to talk to me like that. You just missed a call, that's all."

Ref: "Move back. And if you're still here after halftime, I'll forfeit the game."

It was like the ref was saying "eff you." Shaddy watched the second half from a private box upstairs. But it dawned on him that he still had all that Pittsburgh in him. He'd leaked coming out of the tunnel with Joe Pa, and leaked again when he saw his 107,000 Romans. "It was cold out, but I had to take my coat off," he says. He realized it's a hell of a weekend when you leak that much, and when he got back to DC he felt like a new man.

He told his father, Michael, and his mother that no matter where Marvin Lewis put him now, he was going 110 mph every play. ("Well, I'm still not watching," Carolyn said.) He also told them he wasn't going 88 again. And that he'd be listening to his Gladiator CD again.

"I even bought me a new CD player," he says.

He went out and got six sacks in his next five games -- leading all LBs with eight -- since he started leaking in Pittsburgh. He's staying in his gap, like Marvin asks, but he's getting into that gap with velocity. In Green Bay, he skipped out of the tunnel, wept during the anthem and assassinated (his word) Brett Favre's left knee. You either love to send a quarterback to an MRI or you don't. And, as the 65,000 Romans at Lambeau Field peed in their pants that day, Shaddy remembered that he did love it. Hard.

You can't teach that. Marvin can't teach that.

This article will appear in the November 25 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

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