His career pass: Can Gibbs make it?


ASHBURN, Va. -- His announcement was shocking, but his rationale was not. This was precisely the scenario for Joe Gibbs to retire. A physical warning sign, leading to a period of reflection, leading to a renewed commitment to his family.

Gibbs, 52, has always been an anomaly, an 18-hour-a-day workaholic, yet devoted to his wife, Pat, and sons, J. D. and Coy. He wants to spend more time with them. He wants to regain his health. He wants to turn down the volume on his life.

If this sounds like a man with everything in perspective, well, that's Gibbs, a rare coach, and an even rarer human being. The question is whether he can truly extinguish his competitive fire, or whether it will be rekindled before he discovers inner peace.

So often these retired NFL coaches can't stay away. Will Gibbs be different than New England's Bill Parcells, who returned to coaching after overcoming heart trouble, or Stanford's Bill Walsh, who could live without the NFL, but not without the challenge of his profession?

The suspicion here is yes, but frankly, Gibbs isn't sure himself. Unwittingly or not, he planted the seeds of a comeback yesterday. He insisted he wasn't burned out and downplayed the migraine equivalent that forced him to lose sleep the last six weeks of the season.

"No big deal" is how Gibbs described his condition, which gave him the run-down feeling of a migraine without the headache. The problem is easily overcome with proper diet and exercise -- and sleeping at home during the season instead of three nights a week at Redskin Park.

A year from now, Gibbs probably will be in better shape than at any time during his 12-year tenure with the Redskins. Two years from now, when his youngest son, Coy, leaves Stanford, he might get downright antsy about resuming his career.

Coy, 20, is a linebacker on the Stanford football team, and Gibbs laments that he has seen him play only two games in two years. "I want to be there for him," he said. "I want to go see him play. I want to sit in the stands and just be a dad."

It was different with J. D., who played at William & Mary, within helicopter distance of Redskin Park. "I always felt like I could get my hands on him," Gibbs said. "He was right there." J. D., 24, also will see more of his father now -- he works in the Joe Gibbs Racing Team pit crew.

Stock car racing is one way for Gibbs to channel his energy, but will it be enough? Heck, he already has won the Daytona 500. What's more, he refers to the endeavor as a "kid's fantasy." That's considerably different from a life's work.

Gibbs was a football coach for 27 years, and he doesn't pretend that he can just walk away. Indeed, there he was yesterday, announcing his retirement in one breath, offering to help the Redskins recruit free agents in the next.

Remember when he was asked about Oliver North in the middle of the Iran-contra scandal, and the name didn't register? He often joked that by the third day of his annual vacation, he'd start fighting with his wife. By the fourth day, he'd be so stir-crazy, they'd have to go home.

Yesterday, he said, "I'll be hanging around the house -- Pat's going to kill me." But, kidding aside, it was obvious that his family was the primary consideration in his decision. Gibbs wasn't going to retire because of a migraine equivalent.

"That was the thing digging deep inside," quarterback Mark Rypien said. "His family means as much, and being away hurts as much, as anything else. He understood his role here. It was something he felt very strongly about. He gave it his all.

"Now that he's out, he'll also give it his all -- not necessarily to repay his family, but because of his love for them. That's something you can't put in words. But you can see it in his eyes and his face when you're around him. They mean so much."

Gibbs took the Redskins to four Super Bowls and won three. Now, he can become even more active in church and youth programs. He can even revive the athlete who was the 35-and-over national racquetball champion in 1976. "I'm 52 years old, and I look like I'm 72," he said, forcing a smile.

A series of poor investments left him $1 million in debt in the early 1980s, and though he recovered sufficiently, he's not a wealthy man. He called his retirement an "act of faith" and joked about needing a job. It's possible he might be forced to return to coaching, if only for the money.

Let's hope not. As Redskins defensive end Eric Williams put it, "He's leaving on top. He's leaving for his health. He's leaving for love. That blows away football." And, as Joe Gibbs himself put it, "That was my best shot. I gave it everything I had."

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