It was a rare moment two seasons ago at Redskin Park when mercurial wide receiver Michael Westbrook suddenly wanted to talk about playing football.
"I want to go down as one of the greatest receivers of all time," said Westbrook, a few days after catching seven passes for 126 yards in a 19-16 loss to the San Francisco 49ers. "I know I have a long ways to go, but I want to dedicate myself to that goal."
That was one of the last times the mostly silent Westbrook would reveal some of his innermost feelings before he went down last Sunday with a career-threatening herniated disk between the third and fourth vertebrae in his neck.
Westbrook was injured in the first quarter when his head was rammed into the turf at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium by San Diego Chargers cornerback Charles Dimry.
As the gifted but controversial wide receiver lay motionless on the field, one had to wonder if he would ever get a chance again to realize his potential. Had football finally dealt Westbrook, 26, a blow from which he could not recover?
Would the series of incidents that have marred his four years with the Redskins ultimately foreshadow a sad ending to a football career filled with so much promise?
The most serious of those incidents occurred during the 1997 preseason, when Westbrook relentlessly punched teammate Stephen Davis on the sideline at Redskin Park during a practice session.
The Westbrook questions will be answered over the next several months after he undergoes surgery to remove the herniated disk and replace it with a bone most likely taken from his pelvis.
Doctors say the potential problem would be if Westbrook's surgeon finds that he is suffering from a congenital spine problem and that his disk injury was only aggravated -- not caused -- by the hit.
If the problem is congenital, Westbrook may have to retire.
Washington trainer Bubba Tyer said last week that Westbrook ** would see orthopedic spinal surgeon Robert Watkins in Inglewood, Calif., on Tuesday before making a decision on when and where to have the surgery.
Most doctors say it could take six to 10 months for Westbrook to heal sufficiently to resume his NFL career after the surgery.
Westbrook has three seasons remaining on a seven-year, $15.3 million contract. He ends his fourth season with a career-high year of 44 receptions for 736 yards and six touchdowns.
"It's a huge loss for us," said quarterback Trent Green of the team's top draft choice in 1995. "It's going to change the approaches by the defenses and some things we do offensively."
Westbrook was the 13th Washington player to be placed on the injured reserve list this season. He has been replaced by 37-year-old veteran Henry Ellard, who is expected to play for the Redskins (4-9) today against the Carolina Panthers (2-11) at 1 p.m. at Ericsson Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.
"This is my farewell tour," said Ellard of the final three games. "I'll officially announce my retirement at the end of the season."
Ellard was released Dec. 1 by the New England Patriots after playing in five games and catching five passes for 86 yards. He was with the Redskins from 1994-97, catching 214 passes for 3,901 yards and 17 touchdowns.
WASHINGTON AT (4-9) CAROLINA (2-11)
Time: 1: 01 p.m., Ch. 5.
Line: Panthers by 3.
Vs. spread: Redskins 5-8; Panthers 5-6.
Outlook: Redskins QB Trent Green is suddenly hot, though it's about six weeks too late. He has 12 TD passes and only two interceptions in his last six games. He also is the reason the Redskins are in a mini-winning streak, last week beating hapless San Diego for their second victory in a row. Carolina plans on blitzing Green crazy with a Greene of its own, LB Kevin Greene, tied for second in the NFL with 14 sacks. But that won't be nearly enough for the Panthers, who need to add more offensive weapons in the off-season.
Notable: Panthers are 1-8 in games decided by seven points or fewer.
REDSKINS: Out: LB Malcolm Hamilton (shoulder); WR James Thrash (clavicle-IR); WR Michael Westbrook (neck-IR). Doubtful: DT Dana Stubblefield (knee). Probable: WR Albert Connell; DE Jamal Duff; G Rod Milstead (back); P Matt Turk (calf).
PANTHERS: Out: G Corbin Lacina (knee); DT Tim Morabito (knee). Questionable: WR Michael Bates (hamstring); LB Kevin Greene (ankle); NT Les Miller (leg); LB Tarek Saleh (neck). Probable: LB Greg Lloyd (shoulder); CB Steve Lofton (knee); CB Leny McGill (shoulder); S Mike Minter (knee); C Bryan Stoltenberg (knee); TE Wesley Walls (ankle).
Pub Date: 12/13/98