LaVar Arrington trudged through a thick moat of standing rain water encircling the artificial turf practice field at Redskins Park, navigated a slick and muddy hill and approached a throng of waiting fans. It was early in training camp and the Redskins had finished their second long practice of the day — one completed well past dinnertime because of a thunderstorm — but Arrington was among his people, and instantly flashed his megawatt smile and began hamming it up.
For the next 45 minutes he posed for pictures and signed autographs, all the while standing in bare feet in the muck, having given away his shoes and socks to fans who asked for them. Many of the faces were familiar to the linebacker. "Man, you're back again? I see you here every year," Arrington said to a teenager, who, after a stunned silence replied, "Yeah, I've got eight autographed pictures of you on my wall. I can't believe you remembered me."
Arrington, 26, has become the most prominent athlete in the Washington area since being drafted second overall in 2000, forging a bond with Redskins fans. He is one of them — a rabid football follower who collects memorabilia and idolizes past stars — and says he considers it an honor to play for them on Sundays. His witty personality and the seeming ease with which he carries himself has helped make Arrington the face of the Redskins, taking the mantle handed down from cornerback Darrell Green, who retired in 2002 after playing 20 seasons in Washington.
Arrington's admirers fretted over their hero this offseason, however, as a rift developed between the player and management over a wrinkle in the eight-year, $68 million contract extension he signed in December. Arrington and his agents claim that Redskins owner Daniel Snyder agreed to a $6.5 million bonus that was not reflected in the contract he actually signed. The sides could not resolve the matter and an independent arbitrator will settle the issue in November.
The dispute lingers, leaving Redskins nation to debate the repercussions. Will Arrington still devote himself entirely to the team? Can he separate his problems with ownership from his approach to the game? Who was to blame? How big of a distraction will it be?
Arrington said he intends to provide those answers with his play on the field and through his interactions with the fans who have become such a significant part of his life.
"I don't even think the fans understand how much I care about them," Arrington said during a lengthy interview. "That was ripping my heart out just going through that [contract squabble]. I never thought that would be a part of my career and I think it's an honest-to-goodness thing that the fans really don't understand how much I care about them, because I do. It's unwavering, it doesn't go anywhere. It's like they keep me going through all the BS and all the politics, through everything. They're the ones I draw my strength from. If I'm out on the field and I hear them, then I know I'm all right and it doesn't matter. They [team officials] can bring in the biggest superstars like they want to and the attention can divert away from me all they want. It doesn't matter to me. I still feed off of the fans. I'm one with them, man."
The contract dispute has strained Arrington's relationship with Snyder, who declined requests to comment on the issue for this story. The men spoke once in an attempt to resolve their differences but have not had any real contact since.
"Those things, those [contract] issues, it's not representative of the Redskins," Arrington said. "I mean, you can own a team and not be what Redskins really means. You can be a part of an organization and not really embody what it really means and I realize that. People are saying and writing that there's no way LaVar can play the way he's played and not think about everything that has happened. Yeah, I can, because I know what being a Redskin is about. I feel the sense of pride about it. I represent this team, and that goes far beyond any type of contract dispute or anything like that. . . .
"No matter what is done on that [management] side of the building, it won't change the way I feel about this team, about this community. There's nothing this team or this community has done to LaVar Arrington. I'm a loyal person and a lot of times players say you've got to be ready to play for somebody else and this and that. I'd rather retire. Because of the relationship and how it is between me and Snyder or whatever, if he wants to get rid of me I'll probably just retire, man. And that's the honest to God truth. I can't see myself going to play somewhere else and I thought about it and if you're looking at it from the financial side and things like that -- and you've got to take those things into consideration -- but I'd rather retire, man."
Weeks after the contract discrepancy became public, Arrington was contemplating buying a custom car to add to his fleet of automobiles and, after consulting with some friends in the detailing business, settled on what he calls "The Redskins Mobile." The large GMC SUV is painted burgundy and has yellow arrows down the sides like the team used to wear on its helmet. Arrington's No. 56 and "QB Killa" is scrawled on the hood. In an era in which free agency dominates -- and franchise players are released or traded each March -- Arrington was making a statement.
"I just feel that strongly about this team and the fans," he said. "So we did a 'Redskins Mobile.' It's kind of cool."
Being inconspicuous is not on Arrington's agenda. He is a fixture at area malls -- "I don't try to do the superstar status thing," Arrington said. "You can find me anywhere from P.G. Plaza to Pentagon City to Waldorf Mall to Dulles Town Center" -- and he revels in the crowd response when spotted at Wizards and Mystics games.
When it comes to community activism, however, Arrington is more discreet. His charitable work is considerable, say those who know him well, and ranges from donations to speeches to spending hours with disadvantaged youngsters. Arrington spent two years with a locker next to Green's and closely watched his mentor's outreach in the community. That spirit of activism proved contagious.
"LaVar is doing it by his actions," Green said. "He is most definitely involved in the community. I see him all over the place and I see him getting the job done on the field as well. I would have to totally agree with you that he is carrying on what I tried to carry on as a Redskin, and it is that community service that really makes the man. Most people have no idea about what he is doing, but I know what is going on under cover. He's not going to surpass my impact in the community, because I'm going to keep running with that, but he's chasing it and he might catch up."
While Arrington does not discuss the specifics of his charitable endeavors, he believes there are responsibilities that come with being a professional athlete and realizes that the way he lives his life has an impact on others. He wants to be recognized for his character and values and not just his football prowess.
"So many people accept the fact that they're a football player," Arrington said, "so I can go out and hit my wife. I accept the fact that I'm a football player, so I can drive drunk. I accept the fact that I'm a football player so I can do whatever the hell I want and the repercussions are not going to be that serious.
"You're not even looking at the fact that more importantly than any of that -- anything that may happen to you -- what about that child that wears your jersey? What about the people that put their hopes and dreams on you and you're part of a sport that brings every ethnic group, every racial group together? It doesn't matter if I'm a skinhead or I'm a Black Panther, if I'm a Washington Redskin fan we're all for one deal -- one cause -- on Sunday. And you've taken that and drug it through the mud and abused it for everybody who will now look at us that way. It's selfish; it's selfish because you accepted being a football player."
Football is a religion in Pittsburgh, and Arrington was weaned on it. His father, Michael, loved to play but lost both his legs in the Vietnam War, when a tank ran over him less than a year after his high school graduation. That did not prevent him from instilling a passion for the game in his sons, and LaVar remembers running through the house waving one of the Steelers "Terrible Towels" and dreaming about playing in the NFL.
Arrington's older brother, Mike, was a high school star who received lots of local attention, while as the middle child LaVar says he struggled to find his way. The buoyant, gregarious, funny nature that is so much a part of his charm now was hidden behind a shy and abrasive demeanor.
"I was actually mean growing up," Arrington said. "I was kind of a bully type. I wasn't a cool cat, man."
Things began to change when Arrington was in eighth grade. He was already a terror on the football field and was written about in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Arrington knew the story was primarily a function of his brother's fame, but he enjoyed it nonetheless. "People were like, 'Oh, that was you in the paper?' and I liked that. It was cool. I felt like I could do something with this and I started to change my mentality."
Michael Arrington said his son was more a victim of his own body than a bully. LaVar always hovered over his classmates and loved to rough house, but was not always aware of his own strength. His father said he will never forget a conference with LaVar's second-grade teacher when she asked if LaVar could refrain from picking up his classmates, and it was not uncommon for LaVar to befriend the smaller kids in school.
"He got into a few fights because he would stick up for the smaller kids," Michael Arrington said. "Maybe LaVar got tagged as being a bully, but he was more like a bodyguard. His mom and I tried to tell him to stay out of the fights, and anything he did was more magnified because LaVar was always larger than anyone else in his age group. He has always been very intense. If he likes you, there's nothing in the world he wouldn't do for you, and at the same time if you cross him he'll come at you just as intense."
Arrington could dunk a basketball as an eighth-grader and was playing on the ninth-grade football team while still in middle school. He traveled to Germany, Spain and France with elite traveling basketball teams, played varsity football as a freshman and was so dominant that soon some of the Pittsburgh Steelers were coming out to watch his games.
Arrington starred at fullback and linebacker in high school and moved on to Penn State and his love affair with the sport flourished. He became a national figure there for his adventurous play (the "LaVar Leap" into opposing quarterbacks became a "SportsCenter" staple), candidness and wit. Arrington was awarded trophies in 1999 for being the best collegiate linebacker and defensive player in the country and used the forum to speak out in support of Florida State wide receiver Peter Warrick, who was embroiled in a shoplifting scandal, while NFL teams clamored to draft him.
Despite all of that, Arrington maintained that success would not change him.
"I always told my parents that if I ever made it, if I was ever a football star or basketball star, I would always treat a fan the way I wanted to be treated," he said.
Arrington struck up a friendship with Hall of Fame linebacker Sam Huff, a Redskins broadcaster, shortly after coming to Washington. He wanted to hear stories about the greats from Huff's era. "LaVar likes the old-time guys," said Huff, who named a racehorse after Arrington. "I just think the world of him and we have a special friendship. All I can say about him is he's a wonderful guy."
(Arrington is a collector of NFL memorabilia. He cherishes a picture he has of Coach Joe Gibbs with former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. He has a shrine to the team's Steel Curtain defense of the 1970s at his home, and collects jerseys from Pittsburgh natives who have shined in the NFL, such as Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana. He also treasures a personally signed jersey from linebacker great Lawrence Taylor.)
Huff believes Arrington's positive persona may actually be a hindrance on the field. Arrington, who is 6 feet 3 and 247 pounds, came from Penn State as one of the best linebacker prospects ever, and despite three straight Pro Bowl appearances is often overshadowed by his contemporaries.
"He's got so much talent that I think he really worries about hurting people. He knocked Troy Aikman out of football and into broadcasting," Huff said, recalling the blow Arrington delivered to the Dallas quarterback in 2000 that ended his career. "With me I would build off that but with LaVar, I don't know if that helped him or hurt him. I think it may have hurt him. . . . He would be one of the all-time great ones if he had that killer instinct and that bothers me. I'd like for him to really bust heads."
When told of Huff's sentiment, Arrington paused for a moment, then said: "That's just not me."
While he wants to be considered one of the best to ever play the position, Arrington maintains that it does not consume him. "You know what, don't say I'm the greatest linebacker, say I'm the greatest person you ever met," Arrington said. "That's my goal. . . . That's just how I was raised and that's the kind of person I am."
The coaching carousel in Washington during Arrington's career -- he is already on his fifth coach -- may have deterred his growth as well, Huff said. Arrington said he is thrilled to have Gibbs back in Washington, and feels more excited than ever about the Redskins' future. "I think we might finally live up to the hype," he said.
Gibbs agreed the coaching turnover may have affected Arrington's development. "Obviously it's upsetting from the standpoint you don't get in a groove," Gibbs said. "In business or anything else, if you're constantly moving around the management group it's hard. You can't get a feel for it and what do you expect from the next group? So hopefully we're going to end that. . . . We're building for the future; not a short-term deal but a long term."
As important as football is to Arrington, it is hardly his only pursuit. He earned rave reviews for his stint as a judge on ESPN's reality show "Dream Job" and did a cameo for a television pilot starring Jennifer Love-Hewitt in the offseason. He has caught the acting bug. Hollywood screenwriter and producer Benny Medina met with Arrington a few times and sees potential in him.
"We talked about maybe trying to become America's next action hero or something like that," Arrington said. "But all the Hollywood stuff is tentative. The bottom line is my main goal is to try to bring the Lombardi Trophy back here and be a part of the Washington Redskins' reemergence."
As confident and at ease as Arrington appears in front of the camera, he has a nervous core. That shy kid is still inside of him, and even speaking to a group of youngsters can give Arrington fits. His hands get clammy and his stomach churns. The anxiety is similar to the feeling that can overwhelm him before games.
Michael Arrington has seen his son become "a bundle of nerves" and said he listens to music ranging from "The Eye of the Tiger" to the theme from "The Lion King" to focus before a game or appearance, trying to relax. "He wouldn't want me telling you about 'The Lion King,' " his father said, "but he uses music from various movies or situations that are inspirational to kind of get that little oomph you need to go out and meet the challenge before you."
No matter where his talents takes him -- to Hollywood or the Pro Football Hall of Fame -- Arrington said he always wants to call Washington home. "If they get rid of me I'll be okay," Arrington said. "I'll live at my house in Annapolis and go crabbing and I'll still go to Redskins games and get real, real active in the community; when I have the opportunity and time permits me I want to make changes in the community.
"This is my home. I love Pittsburgh and I'll probably eventually go back and do some things there, but this is my home, man. I have never been embraced like this in my whole entire life."