The big day arrived for me to leave from Sky Harbor Airport in Phoenix, Arizona where my wife Samantha and I lived. It was time to fly out to Washington for my dream weekend!
It was the weekend of the 49ers game. I had my Washington Redskins and Vikings full team scouting reports packed and ready to go. We had the reports professionally printed and bound, each personalized and prepared for Bruce Allen on the front covers. I was wearing my new Redskins hat, sweatshirt, new Rock Revival jeans and a new pair of Jordan’s. I was ready to take this one to the proverbial hoop. Samantha pulled up to the curb by the airlines. I got out, got my suitcase out of the trunk, we embraced, shed some tears, said a prayer together, kissed and hugged again, and I walked into the airport with my feet carrying me toward a date with destiny.
You see, like I said in Part I of this story, I’d been dreaming of this moment really since I first became a Redskins fan at the age of eight years old while growing up in Minnesota. It’s even entirely possible I was conceived the day the Redskins played in their first Super Bowl on January 14, 1973 when Bruce’s daddy, the great George Allen, was coaching the team. I was born on October 11, 1973. The math does work.
The numbers to my social security number ironically even add up to “44,” which would turn out to be the jersey number of my favorite Redskins player of all time, John Riggins. People have asked me all throughout my life, “Why the Redskins?” The only way I could ever describe it was, it was love at first sight. Riggins, Gibbs, the Hogs, RFK, those colors, all of it. Like a magnet to a refrigerator, I was drawn to them. I never had a second favorite team growing up. I lived, ate, and breathed Redskins football. My bedroom growing up was a Redskins shrine. I guess you could say the Redskins are in my blood. I bleed burgundy and gold. Every time I even walk into a gift shop anywhere, if there’s anything Redskins in that shop, my eyes will go right to it, even a little key chain. My eyes have always gone right to that logo and those colors.
I’ll never forget in 1987 on Christmas night. The Redskins were in town to play the Minnesota Vikings and I had a thought, as a 13-year old kid, “I wonder which hotel the team is staying at?” I got out the big, bulky yellow pages and started calling all the hotels in Minneapolis and St. Paul. They would answer and I would ask for some star player’s name, to no avail. Then I called the Bloomington Marriott, which is right by the airport, right next to the Mall of America these days. The hotel receptionist answered the phone and said, “Good evening, Bloomington Marriott, how may I direct your call?” I said, “Dexter Manley’s room please.” The phone actually began to ring.
My heart went into my throat. Before I knew it, a man answered the phone. “Hello, Dexter,” I said. The man responded, “Hello.” It was him! It was the star Redskins defensive player, Dexter Manley! Before I knew it, we got into a conversation. I told him how his poster proudly hung on my bedroom wall and he told me what it was like sacking the Cowboys’ quarterback Danny White. Then Dexter said, “How would you like to come out here to the team hotel tomorrow morning and I could sign somethings for you, take a picture with you and then introduce you to all the guys?” “Really,” I exclaimed!
Wow, this was incredible. I ran out into the living room where my parents and grandparents were playing a card game as Christmas dinner was cooking, yelling, “Dexter Manley invited me to the team hotel! Dexter Manley invited me out to the team hotel!” My parents and grandparents could hardly believe it. The next morning before the game, they drove me out to that hotel and sure enough, there he was waiting for me in the hotel lobby wearing leather pants and a trench coat. I was decked out in my Coach Gibbs Starter Jacket and Redskins hat, with some red and yellow paint on my face that was supposed to look like “war paint.” He signed my trading card, “Mr. D” and took a picture with me. He then took me back to the conference room and told me that the guys were in their eating their pre-game breakfast and they’d be out soon to sign my poster and take pictures with me. Sure enough, one by one, they all came out. Jay Schroeder, who was my favorite quarterback of all time, Gary Clark, Ricky Sanders, Art Monk, Joe Jacoby, Dave Butz, Darrell Green, Coach Gibbs, and even GM Bobby Beathard! It was like my own personal field of dreams that day.
Now all these years later, I was looking out my window in the airplane listening to epic NFL Films music on my headphones, reflecting on that time when I was a kid. Now, I was going out to Washington, to once again see all my childhood heroes and to meet with Bruce Allen! I had been told many of the old players were going to be out there for this by one of the guys who helped set up my travel arrangements. The airplane was up in the clouds and so was my head. Ironically, I had to transfer to another plane in Dallas of all places! I proudly strutted through the airport in my Redskins hat and sweatshirt with a Redskins backpack over my shoulder. I didn’t care we didn’t have a good record or that they had a better record than us, just like how Monte Coleman used to hold his Redskins helmet up high: Redskins Pride! I wanted to let them know what was up. I noticed a lot of people staring at me as I made my way through the crowds to the next gate.
I landed at Reagan National Airport and caught a ride to the Gaylord Convention Center, where all the alumni were staying. I had no idea what to expect next. I called Samantha on the ride and shared my heart with her. I was so excited and nervous all at the same time. She reminded me God had opened this door for me and she said, “You’ve got this, you’re going to do great.” The van I was riding in pulled into the drive of the Gaylord Convention Center. The place looked huge as I stepped out of the van. I walked into the sliding glass doors and heard a piano playing. Wow, the place was absolutely huge. Then I got a chance to say what I’ve wanted to say my entire life. I walked up to the front desk and said, “Hi there, Daniel Kelly checking in with the Washington Redskins.”
To be honest with you, I don’t think my feet touched the ground from that moment forward. They gave me the key to my room and I turned the corner, and there was a “Redskins Alumni Check-In Table.” I told them my name and they handed me this really awesome looking black Alumni pullover jacket with an NFL 100th Anniversary patch on the arm. The throwback logo was on the front of the jacket and under the logo it read, “ALUMNI.” Holy buckets! This was my jacket?
Then they handed me a whole packet of information in a plastic see-through folder and my name was on the front. I made my way up to my hotel room, which was amazing as it was overlooking the inner courtyard, and the Potomac River was just outside the big pane windows. I was on cloud nine. I tried on the Alumni jacket and just started laughing to myself. I just looked at myself in the mirror. Holy smokes man, this was surreal. I called Samantha and told her all about it. I didn’t have much time however, because the Alumni dinner was just in about two hours from then. I was invited to go and I couldn’t wait! I quickly got ready and put on another Redskins shirt Samantha had bought for me and a matching hat and made my way to Brother Jimmy’s BBQ just down the street.
I walked in and started recognizing some of the faces immediately. I would recognize these guys anywhere. Nobody knew me, but I sure knew them! I saw an older man in a wheel chair and I went to introduce myself; turns out, it was Jim Snowden, who played offensive tackle way back in the day. He told me he had played for Vince Lombardi and that how “you just knew you had been to practice and actually practiced when Coach Lombardi was running the team!” Just having a chance to talk with someone who played for Lombardi was amazing by itself.
It wasn’t too long before I saw one of my friends, Charlie Brown. Charlie and I had become friends my last year in the league back in 2002 at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, when he was a Pro Scout for the Redskins. Charlie started taking me around and introducing me to all the guys in the restaurant. He went way out of his way to make sure everyone there knew I was one of them. It was so incredible. I posed for pictures with a lot of guys: Brian Mitchell, Joe Jacoby, Doug Williams, Monte Coleman, Timmy Smith, Ed Simmons, Jay Schroeder, Terry Allen, Doc Walker, Larry Brown, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders.
Another time, when I was a kid growing up in Minnesota in 1989, the Redskins had come to town to play the Vikings in a preseason game and I had gone down to the Minneapolis City Center where the team was staying to try to get autographs with one of my closest friends, John Miller. We were 16 at the time. We did indeed get a bunch of pictures that day with the players and just about everyone on the team autographed a Redskins pennant for me. I looked down where I had been carrying my autographed team pennant underneath my arm and it was gone!
We needed to catch the last city bus of the afternoon back to the suburbs where we lived. I was frantic. Where was my pennant? Where had I dropped it? We boarded the bus and I was looking out the window and suddenly I saw a man who was carrying my pennant! I yelled, “Stop the bus, stop the bus,” I pushed the door of the bus open and ran out after the man and my friend followed. I was yelling, “Stop, please stop,” to the man and he eventually stopped and turned around. It was Ricky Sanders, one of the best wide receivers in the game back then. A famed member of the receiving trio nicknamed, “The Posse.” I couldn’t believe it. Ricky said to me, “I knew you would be coming back for this so I kept it for you.” It was truly like that Mean Joe Greene commercial with the kid when he gives the kid his jersey. It was just a different time. It was a different era. People tell me all the time none of the players would do something like this these days.
Now all these years later at Jimmy’s BBQ, there I was, face-to-face once again with Ricky Sanders. I told him that story and how I put that story about my pennant and him in my book I wrote and pulled up the picture of me and him in my book on my phone. He loved the story. He got a kick out of seeing the picture of us together all those years earlier.
It was really wild seeing all the guys again I loved so much when I was growing up. I got a chance to talk extensively to former linebacker Chris Draft, along with Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders. It was funny — I said to Timmy Smith, “I’ll never forget that day against Denver in the Super Bowl.” Timmy looked at me smiling and said, “Neither will I, I was there.” Then he posed for a picture with me and shook hands with me. It was just unreal.
I saw Jay Schroeder, one of my biggest heroes growing up, “Yellow 30,” and I said to him, “I’ll never forget your cadence… nobody threw the ball harder than you. Jay” He looked at me smiling and said, “Maybe that was part of the problem.”
The guys were great and super approachable. The camaraderie was so noticeable as I looked around. Everyone was getting along. My grandma, who also loved the Redskins, always used to say, “They’re just like a family,” and to this day I could still see that bond; it was still so apparent. The chemistry on those teams back then was incredible, and all these years later, it was still so noticeable to me as I stood there and looked all around the restaurant. I watched Joe Jacoby and Jay Schroeder standing at the bar having a conversation. I looked over and saw Monte Coleman talking to someone. It was surreal. I caught Monte for a moment as he was walking across the restaurant and said, “I’ll never forget how you used to hold your helmet up high in every pregame introduction, Redskins Pride!” He posed for a picture with me and we shook hands.
It was then I saw him. Bruce Allen.
I said, “Mr. Allen,” he turned, and at first I don’t think he recognized me with my Redskins hat pulled down so low. I said, “Daniel Kelly,” he then lit up like a Christmas tree, smiling from ear to ear, “Daniel! So nice to see you!” He embraced me in the middle of the restaurant like my long lost brother. Such a super cool guy, I thought! He was down to earth and cheerful. He seemed like such a fun-loving guy. He immediately made me feel so comfortable. He said, “I need to go into the office tomorrow morning to cut a player, what charity event are you doing tomorrow?” I responded, “I’m doing the playground build.”
He told me about the charity event he was planning on doing and told me to email him in the morning and we’d set something up to get together. “Awesome, sounds like a plan” I exclaimed! He said, “I’m looking forward to it.” I said, “Me too.” I continued to watch him make his way around Jimmy’s BBQ hugging the guys and shaking hands. Clearly, he was in his element. We both were. We both seemed to be in Hog Heaven. He looked as happy as I was to be there. I just kept thinking to myself, “What a cool guy!”
The next morning I woke up and emailed Mr. Allen as he had asked me to. He emailed back and said that he wanted me to come see him in his hotel suite right after I got back from the charity playground build. I had been mentally preparing for this for the past couple weeks and doing everything I could to prepare for this moment. This was going to be my shot. I kept thinking over and over again, what I would say and how I would say it.
I rode over on a bus to the charity playground build, next to former All-Pro kick returner Mike Nelms. I struck up a conversation with him, told him how much I loved the Redskins and how I remember him playing when I was growing up. I told him how I was the Jets special teams scout during my third season in the league. Nelms said, “I didn’t know they had special teams scouts?” I said, “I think I was the first.”
We got to talking all about special teams on the ride. I told him about my idea that I was going to present to Mr. Allen, “The Great Wall of Washington.” I was super curious to see what he thought of the idea given who he was and what a great return man he was. He said, “I really like the idea, I think it would work.” That made me feel super confident, because no other team in the NFL currently does anything like that, putting all the reserve offensive and defensive linemen across the front line, building a wall at the line of scrimmage, making it next to impossible for all the backup tight ends, linebackers and full backs to release on the opposing punt teams.
He said, “I really think that will work.” I said, “Yeah, the whole idea is to give the punt returner more time and more space to work in, so he can really get going.” I continued on, “Then, replace two of the VICE guys who line up against the gunners with linebackers and line them up tight, right next to the return man, flanking him on both sides. They would be called, ‘body guards,’ so when those little backup receivers or DBs who play gunner try to come down into the punt returner’s face, those body guard linebackers will be there to bounce them out like pinballs!”
Nelms said, “Yeah, I can see how that would work.” I said, “Yeah, then it’s off to the races for the punt returner and he’ll have even more space to run in, and it will make it even harder for the rest of the opposing punt team, who’s mostly pretty stiff in the hips to change direction quickly in the open field to attempt any kind of tackle!” Nelms said, “Yeah, I definitely can see that working.” He really seemed to like the idea, which made me feel really good about it. I felt even more confident presenting it to Mr. Allen later that day.
We got to the playground build, where I helped former DB Sydney Johnson, former S Tony Peters, and a couple other former players put together a sign for the playground. We had pizza for lunch and then it was back to the Gaylord Convention Center, and it was time to meet with Bruce Allen.
The moment I had been waiting for my entire life had arrived…
Click the link above to re-read Part I of this series, and stay tuned next Sunday for the next installment!