Darrell Green didn’t want his last day in a Redskins uniform to end.
Hours before kickoff of the Dec. 29, 2002 game against the Dallas Cowboys, Green walked out of the tunnel at FedExField and was greeted with cheers from early arriving fans and chants of “Darrell, Darrell.”
At midfield, Green embraced team owner Daniel M. Snyder. He chatted briefly with longtime Dallas Cowboys running back Emmitt Smith and posed for pictures.
Then Green circled the stadium, shaking hands with the fans who had applauded him for so many years.
“I felt like people were really connecting with Darrell Green the man, and not so much Darrell Green the football player,” he said. “Our fans are indeed the best fans in the world. It was an incredible feeling out there. It was hard to keep from crying.”
A half-hour before the 1 p.m. kickoff, just as Green’s retirement ceremony and induction into the Redskins Ring of Fame was about to begin, FedExField was almost full in capacity – a testament to one of the most beloved players in franchise history.
It was not unnoticed by Green, who asked that everyone in the stadium be silent for just a moment so he could return the applause just one time. His claps were picked up by microphones and reverberated around the stadium.
“It has been a great ride,” he told fans. “I know I’m not going to be able to thank everyone. But the obvious thing is, there’s no way I could be who I am without you.”
With his family and several former teammates at his side, Green thanked the fans for giving him a platform to launch the Darrell Green Youth Life Foundation, which provides values-driven education for underprivileged kids in Washington, D.C., and other communities around the country. The Redskins donated $150,000 to the foundation as part of the pre-game ceremony.
“It is my goal to not only end a career but to be launched into a future that produces a light and carries out the purpose of God on this Earth and with this generation,” Green said. “You have given me a great community to do what I believe God created me to do. That is to change the world for all this is good, right and Godly.”
Later, Green received a rousing ovation when he was introduced with the Redskins’ starting defense. It was the first time this season that he ran onto the field as part of pre-game introductions; he has mostly served as a nickel cornerback and special teams player the last three seasons after starting for the first 17 years of his remarkable career.
Overall, Green earned seven Pro Bowl berths, won the “NFL Fastest Man” competition four times, and recorded 54 interceptions, with at least one in 19 consecutive seasons, an NFL record.
Midway through the second quarter of the game against Dallas, Green put a signature on his final game when, on a punt return, he took a lateral from Champ Bailey and raced up the left sideline for 35 yards.
With the roar of the crowd in his ears, Green even hurdled a would-be Cowboys tackler; it was reminiscent of his punt return against the Chicago Bears in the 1987 playoffs, when he similarly leaped a tackler on his way to a touchdown at Soldier Field.
“That was awesome. I really enjoyed that,” Green said. “If [special teams coach Mike Stock] hadn’t called that play, it would have happened anyway. But Coach Stock called it – he has been in my corner all along. I was glad my son Jared saw that daddy can still do that. I jumped over a guy, but I didn’t score this time.”
The game, a 20-14 Redskins victory, would have been secondary to Green’s retirement had it not ended a 10-game losing streak to Dallas. A late score by the Cowboys provided some tense moments in the last few minutes, but a victory over the Redskins’ arch-rival capped off what was an emotional afternoon.
Afterwards, Green addressed the team in the Redskins’ locker room, telling players and coaches how much he appreciated their love and friendship this season. His teammates responded by saying how much they cherished their time playing with the future Hall of Famer.
“When you come into the league, you hear all the time that no one is bigger than the game,” said cornerback Fred Smoot, one of Green’s protégés. “You hear that everybody can be replaced, but nobody can replace Darrell Green. Ten years from now, I’ll still be noted as one of his followers. I love that.”
“For me to have an opportunity to be mentored by him, to play under him for three years, and to get into his mind and see how he views things, it has been phenomenal,” linebacker LaVar Arrington said.
Added right guard Tre Johnson, who played with Green for eight seasons: “I’m happy he was able to do it the way he wanted to do it. Just by how great a player he was, he was able to dictate to the game a little more than it was dictated to him.”
Meanwhile, Emmitt Smith stood in the visitor’s locker room answering questions from the media about his future with the Cowboys.
As he spoke, a television monitor perched to his right showed an image of Green, still in uniform, circling the stadium once again, shaking hands with fans in what was an impromptu post-game celebration.
“You can really see Darrell’s influence in young cornerbacks like Fred Smoot and Champ Bailey, even guys like Mario Edwards on our ball club,” Smith said. “I even heard [former Cowboy and Redskin] Deion Sanders say one time that he wanted to have a career as long-lasting as Darrell Green’s career. [Green] is a true example of how to carry yourself on and off the football field like a champion.”
About 30 minutes later, Green departed the field for the last time as a player, carrying a bouquet of flowers. He was escorted to a press conference, where he answered reporters’ questions with characteristic eloquence.
“This has been the most incredible day of my life,” he said, holding back tears. “I started out just wanting to be a football player like most kids, but I found out that God had more for me. What’s so great about it is that my retirement launches the kickoff to a new life, of taking my life to higher heights.
“This has been easy for me, because I know I have a responsibility, a purpose and a destiny. Through my foundation, I want to make sure that our children are nurtured, raised in the right and proper environment, educated with excellence, and raised with an understanding of what’s wrong and right. I want to make the world a better place.”
With that, Green walked back to the locker room, now empty and silent. His teammates and coaches had long since departed.
Without hesitation, he removed his No. 28 jersey for the last time, stuffed it in a duffel bag, and began the next chapter of his life.