No single stroke of fate made the Washington Redskins' Barry Wilburn a starting NFL cornerback; it took a whole constellation of happenings. But in the end Wilburn was out there, by choice, in front of a television audience of 100 million people, scrambling to outrun a perfect pass thrown far overhead by John Elway on the Denver Broncos' first play of the 1988 Super Bowl in San Diego. Wilburn clawed desperately at Ricky Nattiel's ankles as the Bronco Amigo caught the pass and scored the game's first touchdown.
The world seemed to explode in Wilburn's ears as he looked up at the blue California sky above Jack Murphy Stadium. He was thinking, Why me?
All-Pro Darrell Green, the Redskins' other corner, came over to Wilburn as 200 million eyes watched Denver's wild celebration. "Forget it, Barry," said Green. "Don't worry about that. You know the rule."
Wilburn, 24, is sitting in the den of his new townhouse in quiet Sully Station, a subdivision in Centreville, Va. He hasn't had much sleep since the Super Bowl, which the Redskins won in style five days earlier. After his initial humiliation, Wilburn had intercepted two Elway passes, almost picked off a third and helped limit Denver's wide receivers to six catches for 145 yards, 56 of which came on that first pass.
August 7, 1988
"The rule is that anybody can be great when it's easy, when they're up, especially at this level of competition," Wilburn says. "But when you're down, that's when the great corner in you has to step up and say, 'Challenge me. Challenge me again.' "
What a difference a year makes. In July '87, Wilburn didn't even know for sure if he was going to be a Redskin. But in his den is one of the Timmie Awards given each year by the Touchdown Club of Washington, D.C.—Wilburn received his as the outstanding Redskin defensive player of 1987. Newspapers, magazines and the official Super Bowl XXII program are strewn over two couches and a director's chair. Inside a travel bag are two Wilson NFL footballs, the two Wilburn had intercepted from Elway. Wilburn sits in the middle of all this, focusing on the item that dominates the den. It is a color TV with a screen so big the action seems three-dimensional, and the picture so clear it seems deep enough to step into.
"Here it comes now," Wilburn says, with neither relish nor apprehension. He is watching himself play in the Super Bowl, via videotape.
On the screen Wilburn lines up in front of Nattiel, balanced on a wide base in his bump-and-run stance. Wilburn jams Nattiel to the outside as Elway fades into the pocket. The score is 28-10, Washington. The Redskins' quarterback, Doug Williams, has been hot. Less than three minutes remain before half-time. Elway launches another rocket. This time, the 6'4", 186-pound Wilburn has the 5'9" Nattiel covered stride for stride and pinned on the sideline, helpless. Wilburn leaps and extends, takes the ball at the peak of his jump and snatches it away. His technique is perfect, but the play isn't over. He begins to land on the sideline. Instinctively he pulls his right leg back from the boundary, not seeing where he is, yet knowing.
"Major league pick," says Wilburn. It was the kind of pick Wilburn specialized in last season, when his nine interceptions led the league. And although he was beaten early for a touchdown in each of the Redskins' three postseason wins, he came back each time and helped virtually shut down the opposition, intercepting three passes in all.
"You have to take the ball away," says Wilburn. "See, the [Dan] Marinos, Elways and [Jim] Kellys, they don't really care if you knock down a pass on second down. It has no real effect. They come back and hit you for 40 yards on third down. No doubt about it, you have to take it away to survive."
Nobody takes the ball away like Wilburn. He has the height, the technique, the training and the opportunity, thanks to the man-to-man defenses the Redskins play 75% of the time, and to Green, who as far as anybody knows is still the fastest man in the NFL. Quarterbacks know that Green is an All-Pro, so they throw against Wilburn.
Wilburn is taller than most of the new breed of small, quick receivers, players who have the stuff to beat the bump-and-run corners. But Wilburn can catch the football better than many of them. "If I get the jam, I win," he says. "If I don't.... I respect the Marinos and Elways, but I'm confident. If you keep coming my way, I'm going to get you."
Wilburn watches Elway throw another interception, this one to Brian Davis.
"You went to the well once too often," he recalls telling Elway.
"We've got another half to go," said Elway. "I'll come back."
"I know you will, John," said Wilburn. "I want you to come back."
Mark Jackson, another Amigo, told Wilburn, "I wish it had been me on that first pass."
Wilburn laughed. "You've got a whole half to beat me. Do it."
The Broncos would not score again, and they would eventually lose 42-10. Elway later pointed out that the Redskins had taken away his passing game by jamming the Amigos and killing the offensive timing. Washington also mounted a fierce pass rush, but even when Elway had time to look downfield, he saw chaos.
"The first rule: It's how you come back from being beaten that matters," says Wilburn. He clicks off the VCR and the big screen goes blank. Wilburn enjoys this silence after the sustained roar.
"Now," he says, "I go home proud."
Barry Wilburn arrives in Memphis during an icy snowstorm, the like of which his hometown doesn't quite know how to handle. A press conference at the airport has been canceled; no one can get anyplace on time, and no one is encouraged to try. A friend has picked up Wilburn in a limo, and he rides slowly over streets that the storm has turned into skating rinks. In front of well-kept houses in a quiet neighborhood are WELCOME HOME, BARRY signs decorated with little red hearts and burgundy and gold balloons.
Wilburn seems moved as he enters his parents' home on Pinecrest Drive. The football he intercepted from the Bears' Jim McMahon in the playoffs has a conspicuous place in the den. Barry notices it right away.
He is met by his father, Jesse, whom just about everybody in this part of Memphis calls Coach Wilburn. Jesse coached the running backs, defensive backs and wide receivers at Melrose High from 1959 to "68. Coach Wilburn turned few away. "If you can cry and you like girls, we can use you," he liked to say. He also coached the track team and taught math and phys ed. But he left Melrose and got into sales with Jostens—a firm that makes class rings, among other products—because the money was better. "I had to think of my family," he says now.
Barry went to Melrose High from 1978 to '81 and was a wide receiver/free safety. "I didn't really coach Barry," says his father. "No, not much," says Barry, smiling.
Margaret Wilburn, Barry's mother, clears her throat and smiles happily. She says she is thinking of calling Barry's godmother, Skeeter. "She's very proud of you, Barry," says Margaret.
Barry still hasn't gotten over his father's remark about not really coaching him. Jesse Wilburn was Barry's official coach only when his son played in a local YMCA league from the fourth to seventh grades; unofficially, however, Jesse has never stopped coaching him. Back in his den in Virginia, Wilburn had said, "My father could flat out coach. He knew his stuff. And I guess he knew my ability, because he could just tell me certain things, and I could do them."
"It wasn't just football with Barry," says the Coach. "Barry chose that for a living. He had to study to live here." Barry was 6'2" but only 170 pounds when he graduated from Melrose in '81, in the top 20 in a class of some 350. "The National Honor Society came first," says his father.
On the Melrose track team Wilburn ran everything from high and intermediate hurdles to the 880 and mile relays to open 440's. He set no records for speed, but his endurance was something else. Even now, the longer a game lasts, the closer he can cover.
Mike Pope first spotted Wilburn at a high school track meet when Pope was a recruiter and assistant coach under Steve Sloan at the University of Mississippi. "He always seemed to have the knack of knowing how to pace himself, how to come from behind," says Pope, now the tight ends coach of the New York Giants. "He's always known what he wanted to do. I first saw that in him when he was running track in high school. And now here he is, beating us."
The local ABC affiliate sends a crew out to Pinecrest Drive to tape a feature spot. Later in the day the CBS and NBC affiliates send for Barry. Coach Wilburn goes along. At the CBS station, sportscaster Johnny Dark preps Wilburn for the interview. "We'll be talking just general stuff, Barry," says Dark, who admits he picked the Broncos. "I'll ask you if you think the Redskins are the best team, since the 49ers, Bears and Denver were great but somehow you guys managed to win it."
Coach Wilburn, sitting nearby, rubs his chin. He knows the Skins beat Denver by 32 points, that they defeated the Bears, and that they beat the Vikings twice in less than a month. He sighs and asks Dark, "Johnny, tell me, when did the winner of the Super Bowl stop being the best team?"
Dark asks the question on the air anyway. "I think we were [the best team]," says Wilburn. "Usually the most physically dominant team wins, and that's what we were."
Dark then asks Wilburn if he is surprised that he has done so well.
"No. It was expected."
Oh? And by whom? Only Pope at Ole Miss and somebody at the University of Richmond had seen enough in Wilburn to offer him an athletic scholarship, even though Barry had played both ways on a Melrose team that lost only three games during his three years on the varsity.
Wilburn accepted the scholarship from Ole Miss and was drafted in the eighth round in 1985 because he happened to come to a workout at which some of his Ole Miss teammates were being looked over by Redskins coaches. Yes, Wilburn has done well, but surely hardly anyone expected it.
"My parents did." Wilburn says. "They had faith in me. They always knew what I could do. They put pressure...well, it wasn't pressure because it was in me to begin with. They just didn't let me shortchange myself."
Coach Wilburn and Barry take a cab home after the interviews. Barry sits in the front seat, looking into the darkness. In the backseat, his father is quiet too. Then he says, "Barry, the next level is for you to vary your bump technique. Force the receiver either outside or in, according to the down and distance and tendency and field condition. You're ready to move on to the next level now, Barry."
Barry nods distantly.
Jesse Wilburn was a star running back at Melrose High in the early '50s, competing in what was called the Negro Prep League. Twice during his career Melrose beat a Langston High team from Hot Springs, Ark., that featured a star running back named Bobby Mitchell, now the team's assistant general manager. In 1953, Wilburn's senior season, Melrose went undefeated and won one of the two segregated state titles awarded back when segregation was a way of life.
Wilburn went on to Tennessee State along with Melrose's quarterback, Bob Crawford. At TSU their teams were undefeated in the seasons of '54, '56 and '57. Jesse Wilburn led in rushing three straight years ('55-57) and set records for the longest scoring run from scrimmage (89 yards) and the longest kickoff return (100 yards). "When I got in the end zone, I wouldn't celebrate. I would get mad," he says. "I'd ask myself why I hadn't gotten in earlier. I figured getting in the end zone was my job. The cheerleaders were there to celebrate. I was there to score."
"Jesse was always a stickler for detail, the proper way," says Crawford, now an art teacher at Melrose. "To Jesse, the right way was the only way."
In December 1956, TSU played a feared and undefeated Florida A & M team that featured a star running back named Willie Galimore, now deceased, in the Orange Blossom Classic at the Orange Bowl. Before the game, Grambling coach Eddie Robinson had made a prediction: "The Tennessee backfield will surprise Florida. We should know. They beat us." TSU won the Classic 41-39. Wilburn played both ways, the entire game. The trainers had to cut his jersey off him after the game. He couldn't lift his arms.
"Jesse was a perfect athlete," says Willye B. White, a member of TSU's Tigerbelle Track Club and a five-time Olympic long jumper who is now an official with the Chicago Department of Health. "When I look out there and see Barry, I see his father. Same moves. But I see another part in Barry. I see the fire. That comes from Margaret Matthews. Margaret was a die-hard, awesome competitor. I mean to tell you, she was deadly. And she was a truly beautiful human being."
Margaret Matthews grew up on Butler Street in Atlanta and went to David T. Howard High. Actually, she didn't merely attend Howard, she went with a passion. Besides being a track star, she was captain of the basketball team, the head majorette, an A student and the homecoming queen in her senior year. No one in the Matthews family had gone to college. Margaret left no doubt she would be the first.
"Margaret started running in eighth grade," says Marian Perkins Morgan, her track coach at Howard. "Very early, she showed leadership, a sense of purpose. Margaret came from very difficult circumstances. I saw them as deprived, but I don't think she ever felt that way. She was always neat, and carried and presented herself so well. Not many people on her block had even graduated from high school. Yet Margaret was outstanding. And watching her perform was, well, a thrill a minute."
Barry Wilburn's godmother, Skeeter, also goes by the name of Wilma Rudolph. In 1955, the same year that Rudolph, a 10th-grader at Burt High in Clarksville, Tenn., joined the Tigerbelle Track Club during the summer, Margaret Matthews enrolled at Tennessee State. "I was just a small southern girl awed by it all," Rudolph says. "Margaret was from the big city. She taught me how to speak, how to dress, how to carry myself." Rudolph, of course, became the Tigerbelle supreme and won the Sullivan Award in 1961 as the nation's outstanding amateur athlete.
"Margaret was highly motivated," says Rudolph. "She could beat anybody on a given day, and she let you know the day might be today. Margaret would openly challenge anybody on the track. Every day. You'd think 'My God, I have to feel this every day?' Margaret was a good sprinter, but she preferred the long jump. And what a long jumper she was!"
In 1956, Matthews set an American record of 19'4" at the AAU meet and then broke it by 5¼" at the Olympic trials a week later. Her long jump prowess was not in evidence at the '56 Olympics in Melbourne, however, though her sprint talents were. "I remember it like it was yesterday," says Margaret. "I just couldn't jump that day. I scratched six times." However, as the second leg in the 400-meter relay, handing the baton to Rudolph (Mae Faggs and Isabelle Daniels ran the first and last legs), she won a bronze medal. "We had tryouts for the relay. In the end all four were Tigerbelles. I made sure I was one of them," she says. In the summer of 1959, after graduating from TSU, Matthews won a silver medal—Anna Lois Smith, another Tigerbelle, took the gold—in the long jump at the Pan Am Games in Chicago. It was one of the few times Margaret ever lost in the event.
"Margaret could have been greater," says Coach Wilburn protectively. "[Tigerbelles coach Eddie] Temple was a sprinters' coach, not a long jump coach."
Jesse and Margaret were married in 1957. "I fell in love with Jesse at a very early age," says Margaret. "I just decided I didn't ever want to be with anybody else."
By the time of the 1960 Rome Olympics, they had graduated and moved to Memphis, where Margaret would spend the next 28 years as a teacher and administrator in the city schools. Some five months after she gave birth to her first son, Kelvin, the Tigerbelles took Rome without her. Rudolph stormed through the Games, winning three gold medals.
"If Margaret had still been competing, there is no question she would have been one of the leaders on that 1960 team," says Willye White.
"I couldn't go back out there half-trained," says Margaret. "I had my days. I saw the world, gained lifelong friends. I was part of tradition. I saw no need to do more. I was in love with Jesse. I still am, after 31 years of marriage. I had my family to think of."
"I always thought Kelvin would be the great athlete," says White. Kelvin, now 28, once thought so too. At Melrose High he played outside linebacker and was captain of the team. He also played on a state champion basketball team and ran track, specializing in the 440-yard dash and mile relay. He went on to TSU to play football at cornerback.
But his parents, who are in the TSU Sports Hall of Fame, were among the former TSU athletes who still cast long shadows over the school's Nashville campus. Kelvin couldn't escape them, and he left the school after one year.
"I dressed out for the first game, as a freshman, which was unusual at TSU," says Kelvin, now a courier for Federal Express and living in Sepulveda, Calif. "I did O.K. my first year. But in the end I think my name hurt me more than helped me.... There were 120 guys out for the football team, competing for scholarships. Then I was told I'd have to pay to play. No scholarship.
"I think I could've developed, but it was expected that I would be head and shoulders above everyone right away. I resented it, but I lived through it. I hoped my experience could help Barry."
After returning home from TSU, Kelvin worked with Barry on cornerback technique. "I think that was when Barry decided to become a corner," says Kelvin. "I told him corner wasn't for everybody. Not many have the grace for it. You have to come back so many times. Now, when I see him play, I see myself out there. That way I'm still involved."
Jesse and Margaret hardly missed a game, home or away, during Barry's four years at Ole Miss. "I could always count on them being there," Barry says.
"The first thing I remember about Barry is his mother," says Sloan, now athletic director at Alabama. "She is a very attractive woman. She still looks like she could sprint, and Barry is built like her. He absorbed the traits of his parents; it's a tribute to them. He has wonderful talent, but he has a greater pride. And humility. That family has a lot of character."
Wilburn, who played both safety and cornerback at Ole Miss, left in 1985, 18 hours short of a bachelor's degree. "I'll get it one day. I was going to stay and get it then, but something inside me wouldn't let football go," Wilburn says. "I knew I had the ability. It became that simple. I would give all I had to being an NFL player. If I failed, I failed."
Wilburn had asked a couple of receivers from his Ole Miss team to call him if any pro scouts came to town. Sure enough, one spring day in Wilburn's senior year, Washington coaches Charley Taylor and Jerry Rhome came along, beating the bushes. Wilburn was told to come out and do his stuff. "I covered one receiver, then the other, with no breaks," says Wilburn. "The coverage got tighter and tighter."
As it happened, the Skins chanced an eighth-round draft pick on Wilburn with the idea of trying him at safety. "One day I asked Coach [Richie] Petitbon to let me cover with the corners," says Wilburn. He never went back to safety.
At first the talk was that Wilburn could hit and cover but that he didn't make the play on the ball. The talk grew louder after a Monday night game during the 1986 season, when the Skins played the 49ers at RFK Stadium. Green left the game with an injury and the Skins left Wilburn alone, one-on-one, with Jerry Rice.
"He never gave up," says Rice, who caught 12 passes for 204 yards that night. "He got beat. But he didn't act beat. He'd hit me fair and square, then say, 'I guess it's gonna be like this all night.' He's impressive with his skill, but mostly with his attitude. Relax, and it's over. He never did. He always came back. He's a championship corner."
Margaret remembers that game too, but with a twist. "What must not have occurred to people was that Jerry Rice, great as he was going, didn't score a touchdown that night," she says. "And the Redskins won [14-6]. I'd call that a dead heat."
Upon leaving for minicamp in 1987, Wilburn knew that Tim Morrison and rookie Brian Davis would be there waiting for him to slip up. "It's funny," says Margaret. "Barry came to me before he left, and said, 'Ma, I'm going to make first team and star, and we're going to win the Super Bowl.' "
"Barry," Coach Wilburn told his departing son, "when the quarterback throws the ball, he's throwing it to you."
Looking back over the '87 season, it's clear that Wilburn learned the lesson well. But Jesse and Margaret also made sure that Barry's perspective on the game went beyond stats. After Washington came from 0-14 to beat the Bears 21-17 in the playoffs—Wilburn had a key second-half interception in the end zone—Margaret congratulated her son as much for being the last man to tackle the soon-to-retire Walter Payton as for winning.
"When you have parents like mine, they make sure you have a sense of history," says Wilburn.
The Wilburns were out in force in San Diego for the Super Bowl, when Coach Wilburn spotted Grambling's Robinson in a hotel lobby. Wilburn offered his hand and said, "Hello, Coach. Jesse Wilburn. Barry Wilburn of the Washington Redskins? I'm his father." Robinson peered beneath the snap-brim felt hat and said, "No. That's not where I know you from. You...who was in that backfield?" Jesse Wilburn rattled off the names of his former Tennessee teammates. Robinson turned and said to a guest, "Now this was a ballplayer!"
A few hours later, Barry Wilburn came back and made a major league pick off Elway. When the final gun sounded, Wilburn reacted with an upraised arm and an open hand, offering a salute to a certain section of Jack Murphy Stadium. Kelvin Wilburn stood tall, arms upraised. Coach Wilburn applauded calmly, with deep satisfaction. Margaret Matthews Wilburn cheered and then almost cried. Almost.