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Flashback: Coleman Defied the Odds

Posted Jan 18, 2012

Linebacker Monte Coleman played 16 years for the Redskins, thanks to a rigorous work ethic and year-round conditioning program that was ahead of its time.


For Monte Coleman, football was all about responding to fear.

The Redskins’ great outside linebacker from the franchise’s glorious era of the 1980s and early ’90s subscribed to a rigorous year-round conditioning program to keep himself in peak physical shape.

He spent countless hours in the weight room strengthening his body and did sprints and middle-distance running to improve his endurance.

He knew the more sweat that poured out, the crisper his performance would be by the fourth quarter of a game. The 6-3, 240-pounder carried an amazing body fat of only six percent.

Such an unwavering commitment was instrumental in Coleman playing 16 seasons in the NFL -- all with the Redskins.

"I was afraid of losing my job," he said. "I never got to the point of being complacent. I always wanted to stay one step ahead of anybody and everybody. It was something where, if I didn’t do what I need to do, my career could have been cut short."

The Redskins brought in players to challenge Coleman for his position, but it would have been foolish to part ways.

Equipped with 4.4 speed in the 40, Coleman tallied 56.5 sacks, the team’s fourth-highest all-time total, and intercepted 17 passes, while becoming regarded as one of the top coverage linebackers of his day.

Coleman also posted 15 fumble recoveries, 1,009 tackles (653 solo) and three touchdowns.

He played in 216 games, a team record until legendary cornerback Darrell Green broke it in 1997, and is one of only three Redskins to play at least 16 seasons with the franchise, along with quarterback Sammy Baugh (16) and Green (20).

Coleman was named to the Redskins 70 Greatest team that coincided with the franchise’s 70th anniversary in 2002.

"That was one of the greatest accolades I’ve ever received," he said. "To be listed among those players, I will always cherish that. That means a whole lot to me."

Coleman said he never dreamed he would play 16 seasons in the NFL. Most scouts thought he wouldn’t play one day.

He came from a NAIA school, the University of Central Arkansas, where the 210-pounder played safety his first three years before being converted to a linebacker as a senior.

He set a school record with 22 interceptions and became the first player from Central Arkansas drafted in the NFL when the Redskins chose him in the 11th of 12 rounds in 1979 with the 289th overall selection. (The draft now consists of seven rounds.)

Although Coleman was picked so late, then-Redskins General Manager Bobby Beathard knew the rookie was beaming with potential.

"The first time I saw him, I was with eight other scouts," Beathard once said. "I couldn’t stop watching him, but I just had to hope no one saw my interest in him. He just looked like a linebacker to me. He had big legs, he could run, he was smart and he was from a great system."

The Redskins positioned Coleman as an outside linebacker and teamed him with middle linebacker Neal Olkewicz and fellow outside linebacker Rich Milot, two other unheralded rookies who arrived in 1979.

The trio became known as "The Three Musketeers." Olkewicz would also be named to the 70 Greatest team.

Meanwhile, Coleman latched on to a strenuous workout plan in order to increase his size, speed and strength. Players and coaches were in awe of his vast physical ability.

"Monte Coleman may have been the most gifted athlete that I played with," former safety Mark Murphy. "He bulked up quickly. He didn’t look like a safety when he got to us. He was so fast--I would not have wanted to race him."

Added former Redskins defensive tackle Dave Butz: "Monte was extremely strong. Our weight coach would ride on his back up and down as he did push-ups."

Coleman played under head coach Jack Pardee in his first two seasons before Gibbs arrived in 1981.

Over the next 12 seasons, the Redskins played in four Super Bowls, won three NFL championships and made the playoffs eight times in a period of dominance unparalleled in team history.

Coleman, an icon on those Redskins squads, said he felt "nothing but joy" to be able to play during that memorable era.

"We probably did something that we hope can be repeated by the modern-era Redskins, but right now people still identify with us as Super Bowl champs," he said. "It gives you a sense of credibility to say that I was a part of the good old days when the Redskins were winning Super Bowls.

"It gives you that credibility to be able to put on one of your rings and just go back and marvel at the years that you had with the Redskins and the things you were able to accomplish. It’s a good feeling."

The last of the Super Bowl seasons was 1991, when Coleman was in the twilight of his career. Never considering age a deterrent to playing pro football, he competed for three more seasons before retiring at age 37 at the end of the 1994 campaign.

By then, he was one of only four 1979 rookies who had lasted 16 years in the league, along with quarterback Joe Montana, kicker Matt Bahr and guard Max Montoya.


Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. He also hosts “Burgundy & Gold Flashback,” which airs on Sundays from 9:30-10 a.m. on Sports Talk 570: Powered by ESPN. His web site is www.redskinshistorian.com and his email is mikerichman@redskinshistorian.com.