A Monk's Existence

Even as he closes in on the alltime reception record, the Redskins' Art Monk remains a distant, mysterious figure
September 06, 1992

Art Monk had endured the 1990 season in silence long enough, as the Washington Redskins' preeminent pass receiver for nearly 11 years and how the team's unquestioned leader, he knew there was no getting around it, that there was only one thing left for him to do. As distasteful as the idea was to him—six consecutive words out Of his mouth is virtually a speech, by his standards—the time had finally come, for him to rise and say his mind. "I had never done anything like that before," says Monk. "Something inside me moved me to do it. I had to do it."

It was Saturday night, Dec. 1, in a large meeting room of a Marriott hotel in northern Virginia. Coach Joe Gibbs arid his staff had gathered the players together for their usual team meeting there on the night before a home game. The next day they were to play the Miami Dolphins at RFK Stadium. Of course anyone who had seen the Skins' most recent effort, on Thanksgiving Day—when struggling Dallas Cowboys had humiliated them in Texas for the better part of 60 minutes and finally whipped them 27-17—figured that the Skins were in for another long afternoon against Miami.

"We couldn't even run a sweep play against Dallas," recalls Washington tight end Ron Middleton. "It's one of the simplest plays we have, and we couldn't get the ball back to the line of scrimmage. They were stuffing us. So there was a sense of urgency...."

The team's 6-5 record had created an ominous feeling among the Redskins, most of whom were members of the 1987 Super Bowl champion team. They felt as if they were thrashing in a tar pit, disappearing as a playoff contender—and Monk knew it. He had approached Gibbs and gotten permission to hold a players-only meeting after Gibbs had finished with them that night. As the coach led his staff out the door, James Arthur Monk—on his way to the Hall of Fame and to catching more passes than any NFL receiver in history—rose to his feet. "I called this meeting," Monk said quietly.

The room grew eerily silent. Players stared at each other in disbelief, wondering what was going on. "Everyone looked around and said, 'Art Monk is going to talk?' " says Middleton. "That had never happened before."

Wideout Ricky Sanders, under his breath, muttered, "Not the Monkster!"

What Monk said on that December evening, in no more than two minutes on the floor, was as simple as it was eloquent. Speaking softly, in what offensive lineman Joe Jacoby called "a little bit of a butt-chewing, in Art's way," he gently but decisively rattled the cage. "I am rededicating myself to this season and this team," Monk said. "It's time for everybody to raise it up a notch. We can play a lot better than we've been playing, me included.... We have to rededicate ourselves. I am.... We have to do whatever it takes. And we have to do it now. We can't wait till next week. It will be too late. If we are going to get to the playoffs, it has to happen right now."

Nearly two years have passed since that night at the Marriott, and even now the Redskins sec it as the moment on which their future turned. "That night Art decided to become a general," says Bobby Mitchell, the Redskins' assistant general manager and a Hall of Fame wide receiver. "That was the greatest thing that ever happened to us. Man, we took off!"

The Redskins beat the Dolphins 42-20 the next day—"We owned 'em, both sides of the ball," recalls Middleton—and lost only one more regular-season game on the way to the playoffs, where they defeated the Philadelphia Eagles before the San Francisco 49ers finally ended it for them. Last year, of course, the Redskins went undefeated through the first 11 regular-season games and wound up losing only twice, by a total of five points. With their run through the playoffs, including a victory over the Buffalo Bills in the Super Bowl, they finished 17-2.

In all, the Skins have won 22 and lost only four since Monk addressed his teammates. And not incidentally, players-only meetings have been a part of the team's routine on the eve of games. Of course, having spoken his mind once, Monk has said not a word at any of the sessions since the one he called, despite the teasing entreaties of players that he do an encore. "Don't need to," he tells them.

But they know he's there, as he has been for them since the day he arrived out of Syracuse in 1980, a taciturn young man standing 6'3", with a long, fluid stride, a pair of sure hands and a talent for making fearless catches in perilous traffic over the middle. Monk was a first-round draft pick, 18th overall, and for the next 12 seasons—sustained by a furious off-season work ethic that he learned from veteran running back Terry Metcalf in his second year as a pro—he gradually emerged, in this golden age of receivers, as one of the toughest, most durable and consistent of all. His 106 catches in 1984 is still the NFL record for a single season, and by the time he reaches the age of 35, on Dec. 5, he very likely will have caught more passes in his career than any player in pro football history. Monk begins the season with 801 receptions, only 18 behind the retired Steve Largent's record of 819, and he is as certain of a place in Canton as Joe Montana or Largent himself.

For all the years he has played and the hits he has taken, Monk has not shown signs of yielding to the simple mandates of passing time. "I look at him in his good games last year, and I'm amazed," says San Diego Charger general manager Bobby Beathard, the former Washington G.M. who drafted Monk. "It looks like the same Art Monk. It's the way he takes care of himself. He continues to push himself."

Indeed, if there is a driving force within him, a demon that has pushed him to excel, it is the self-doubt that has pursued him through most of his playing life.

Art Monk, for all that he has done, is a hero in a city that hardly knows him. Private and introspective by nature, religious and family-oriented by choice, Monk has forever preferred the shadows thrown by home fires to fame's swimming lights. He rarely gives interviews, and he has never been one to schmooze with reporters after games. He is the one slipping quietly out the locker-room door, climbing into the Ford Bronco and heading for the suburban Virginia home, with the two-acre fishing pond out back, to be with his wife, Desiree, and their three kids—James Arthur Jr., 9, Danielle, 8, and Monica, 5. "I do two important things in my life," says Monk. "I play football, and I spend time with my family. Most everything else is a distraction."

Modesty clearly suits the needs of the man. Not only has he helped lead the Redskins to four Super Bowls (three of which they won) in the years he has been in Washington, but more than anyone except Joe Gibbs himself, he has represented football excellence in a town that follows the team and the game with an almost fanatical zeal. Monk is the most regal figure on the team, and he could make whatever he might choose to make of his celebrity. "If most of us had Art Monk's ability and looks, we'd turn out to be jerks," says Beathard. "He has really handled it well. He could be an anchor on the news. He could do anything he wants. This guy could own Washington."

But that, of course, is not to be. "I don't want to own Washington," he says. "I just want to be Art Monk."

He has been that, with remarkable consistency and few deviations in life and style, since he came of age in the 1960s in White Plains, N.Y., 27 miles north of Manhattan. Monk was born and raised in a racially integrated area called Battle Hill, the second of two children born to Arthur Monk, a welder by trade, and his wife, Lela, a domestic who worked in the tonier New York City suburb of Scarsdale. The family lived in an apartment above the Shiloh Gospel Chapel, where they all attended Sunday services. They were a close-knit, soft-spoken family, and the virtues of perseverance, patience and hard work were exalted daily.

Something of the patience rubbed off early on young Art. His older sister, Barbara, recalls the Christmas that she gave her brother, then five, a toy fishing rod. Lela always kept goldfish in a bowl in the apartment, and one afternoon Barbara came home to find the boy fishing for them with his toy pole. "There he was," she says, "standing in the middle of the living room, holding the rod with the plastic hook in the bowl. Anything he would put his mind to, he would go at it."

What he also learned early, of course, were the ways and rewards of work. "My parents always told us, 'Nothing in life is free. Whatever it is you want, you have to knuckle down and work for it,' " says Monk. "This wasn't just talk. They actually lived it. I saw that in them. My mother was always out working. For a period of time I never even saw my father. By the time I'd get up, he was already gone. That was their way of life."

Raised with affection, the boy had a blissful childhood filled with hours playing summer games in the sandlots and streets: basketball, tackle football, stickball and street hockey by day, and hide-and-seek by night. "I really enjoyed my childhood," he says. "We didn't have a lot of money, but enough to be happy with—to be clothed and with a roof over our heads. I can never remember want or a struggle. I mean, we never had a color TV but we had a car, and there was always food on the table."

Not all was sports and play in the boy's life. His father was a first cousin of Thelonious Monk, the great jazz musician, and young Art was drawn to music naturally, to the electric guitar and even the tuba. In fact he learned to play the tuba so well in the junior high school band that one of his teachers suggested to the family that if he stayed with it, he might one day be proficient enough to get a college scholarship. By the time he entered the 10th grade at White Plains High, though, his athletic ambitions had overtaken the musical ones. Football had become his game, catching passes his unfulfilled passion. "I grew up watching Otis Taylor, Charley Taylor and Paul Warfield," he says. "I would have liked to be a wide receiver, but I didn't think I was quick enough or good enough for that. So I always wanted to be a tight end. I loved catching the ball."

He was in for a wait. Monk was the biggest kid on the junior varsity, and the coaches put him on the line, playing him both ways. Determined to be a receiver, Monk went out for track the following spring, launching a career as a runner that would be filled with more promise than anything he ever showed on a high school football field. "A once-in-a-lifetime athlete to coach," says Nick Panaro, the White Plains track coach in Monk's senior year. For Monk, as focused as ever, running was only a means to a more coveted end. "I not only wanted to lose weight, but I wanted to enhance my agility, my speed and quickness," he says. "Track allowed me to do that. Once I saw some of the benefits I was getting from it, I really got excited and went full steam."

Monk started at tight end his junior year, but he might as well have been a knot in the fence. For that was also the senior year of Sam Bowers, one of the school's most celebrated players, an All-America receiver in various publications and a magnet for college recruiters. White Plains even had a Hail Mary play called Save the Game Sam, which it used to beat archrival Mount Vernon with eight seconds left. "A perfect spiral from the 50-yard line," recalls Bowers. "I was the guy they came to in clutch situations."

Of course, Monk hardly saw the ball at tight end—"He caught only 12 or 13 passes his whole high school career," says Brant Wintersteen, who was then the football coach—but all was not lost playing in Bowers's considerable shadow. When the Syracuse recruiter showed up to see Sam, assistant principal Harry Jefferson pointed him toward Monk, the budding track star. "You're not going to hear much about him," Jefferson told him, "but he's a diamond in the rough as a football player."

Monk, who started out as a sprinter, became a 330-yard intermediate hurdler his junior year, winning races at dual meets that spring. He also showed enormous potential as a decathlete. Without much practice he high-jumped 5'10", triple-jumped 47 feet and put the shot 53 feet. "Art never practiced the shot put," says Panaro. "But if we needed some points in the event, we'd put in Art and he'd win. Art shot up that year, thinned out and really blossomed as one of our top sprinters."

None of this was lost on Wintersteen, who switched him from tight end to running back his senior year. Monk struggled early in the season. "He'd get hit in the legs and go down," says Wintersteen. "He wouldn't keep driving." But by the end of the year he was taking the hits and churning. In the penultimate game of the season, against Newburgh, he carried 24 times for 105 yards and four touchdowns. "I looked at the Newburgh film recently," says Wintersteen. "Good hard running inside, bouncing off tacklers.... We all knew he could play in college."

So did the recruiters, who came sniffing around White Plains again. What sold Syracuse on Monk, as much as anything he showed in football, was the speed and athleticism he had honed in track. In his senior year, in the state championships at White Plains, Monk won the intermediate hurdles in 37.1 seconds, breaking the state record by a full second. In the 120-yard high hurdles, an event he had begun running two months before, he won in 13.5 seconds, .2 faster than the state mark. He ended his track career with a victory in the intermediate hurdles at a national meet for high school champions in California. "He just looked like a great, raw, physical talent," says Frank Maloney, then Syracuse's head football coach.

Monk wanted to attend Maryland, but since his mother liked Syracuse, he signed with the Orangemen. Undecided at first about how to best use Art's skills, Maloney made him a wing-back, a runner-receiver out of the backfield. When Monk looks back on that freshman year, a turning point in his life, it is a nightmare revisited. He had two receptions all year. "I couldn't catch a cold," he recalls. "I don't know why. It was just a disaster. I remember practices where they'd throw the ball to me and it would hit my hands and I couldn't catch it. I knew I was better than that. I got really depressed and down on myself. And I just made up my mind that this wasn't going to happen again."

What he did, of course, was what he had always done and would always do when the fear of failure had him by the neck. He worked. With a friend, he spent the off-season catching footballs, zillions of them. "I trained like crazy," he says. "I just did every ball drill I could possibly imagine—five days a week. The next year I ran every route as hard as I could. I really focused on the ball. I didn't care what was going on around me. I just really wanted to show them that I was worthy of their scholarship." He had 41 catches for 590 yards, as well as 566 yards rushing. "I think the whole year I may have dropped one ball," he says.

After all those years Monk at last was doing what he loved the most. By the end of his senior year, as one of the leading pass receivers in college (102 catches for 1,644 yards in his Syracuse career), he was displaying hints of the style that would make him a success in the pros. "One of our most effective patterns was across the middle," says Maloney. "Most of the receivers we had heard footsteps, always looking to see who was around. Not Arthur. He'd go for the football. He was a fearless guy with terrific hands, and a tremendous punt returner. Catching punts is totally different from catching kickoffs end over end. On punts, the defense is sniffing your jock when the ball's coming down. We wanted a guy that we knew could catch the ball, so I put him back there. God, he was good at that."

Indeed, his punt returning had caught the eyes of Redskin scouts. "We knew he had great hands," says Charley Taylor, who scouted Monk for the Skins. And hands, says Beathard, were what they needed. Monk was watching the draft on television when commissioner Pete Rozelle announced Washington's top pick. "I was shocked," says Monk, who was completing work toward a degree in speech and communications. "I just couldn't believe it, especially the first round. I never grew up saying I wanted to be a professional football player. I thought it was too farfetched. I just loved the game and figured that college was about as far as I was going to go." Monk's expressions of disbelief that he was drafted so high were not false modesty. After four years of coaching him, Maloney came to know that it was neither bravura nor self-assurance that powered Monk from day to day.

"I always viewed him as being insecure about his ability," Maloney says. "That's why he always listened to everything you said. He fears failure. That's why he works out like a madman. He fears the end of his career. He fears slowing down. That's a wonderful thing to have, that fear."

It pushed him from college to the pros, chased him into the training room, haunted him in the endless, lonely off-seasons on the running tracks. "Once I got to the pros, I thought, Maybe I can compete," Monk says. "I got some confidence. But it seemed like, no matter how well I did, I always felt like it wasn't good enough. I don't know where this came from, but I always felt I've got to do better—it's good, but I've got to do better! I worked hard because I never felt I had the talent."

It is no wonder, given the underlying currents at work, that Terry Metcalf should leave such a lasting imprint on his life. Gibbs had coached Metcalf during the player's glory days as a running back with the St. Louis Cardinals, and in 1981, Gibbs's first year in Washington, he brought the fading Metcalf, a renowned workaholic and student of the game, to the Redskins as a kind of player-coach and exemplar-in-residence. Metcalf bought a home across the street from Monk, in Arlington, Va., and the two men became inseparable.

"Terry had a motor in him," Monk says. "We'd go to a high school track at nine o'clock and run. We did a lot of agility work, running up and down stairs. Midafternoon we'd go and play eight games of racquetball. Then we'd play basketball at night. Or we'd go jogging. Or riding our bikes. One time we rode from Arlington to Redskin Park, 20 miles one way, and back."

Monk had never submitted himself to such torture. "If I said to Terry, 'I don't feel like working today,' he'd drag me out of the house," Monk says. "He reinforced what I had learned from my parents. I actually think I got a little quicker working with Terry. And I just felt better about myself, my abilities."

Metcalf retired after a season with the Skins, and over the years Monk added a stitch here and a wrinkle there to the regimen. The largest wrinkle of all was a 45-degree, 15-yard hill at George Mason University, not far from Monk's home, that he has been running for years. Redskin wideout Gary Clark trained with Monk in the summer of 1987 and recalls the horrors of trying to keep up with him. "It was 25 times uphill, straight leg-pumps," says Clark. "Then 25 times backward. Then 25 times in a stutter step. Then six 220s on the track and six 110s. I finally told him, 'You're crazy! I'll do my own program.' He's totally focused—God, family, football—and he knows what he has to do in each facet of his life. If I had a kid, I'd say, 'Art, you raise him for 10 years and then send him back to me.' "

Not surprisingly, Monk's game is just as grounded as his life. He has been no Jerry Rice or Lynn Swann out there, soaring after footballs in midair balletic spins. Rather, the abiding image of him is as the man in motion at the snap. Five yards across the line he slants toward the sideline or breaks for the middle. "He is not your typical receiver, who goes out there and runs patterns in air and space and catches balls," says Gibbs. "Art's the strongest outside receiver I have ever coached, and he has caught a lot of balls inside and taken the hit."

Monk has taken a fearful beating over the years, but he has never been one to take the easy, tiptoeing way out of perilous straits. Last Nov. 10, late in a game the Skins were winning easily against the Atlanta Falcons, Monk caught a pass for a first down. "He got pinned by a defender on the sideline," says Wayne Sevier, the Washington special teams coach. "There was nowhere to go. A lot of guys would have stepped out. Instead, he drilled the guy in the face and got an extra couple yards."

Unhappy with the members of his kickoff team for letting up late in the same game—they had blown three coverages in a row—Sevier a few days later showed them a film clip of that Monk play. "I told them," he says, " 'Here's a guy who's going to the Hall of Fame, and watch what he does here.' Before he's through, he's going to do something that has never been done in football before. He's going to catch a thousand balls."

Of course, Monk plays the game in the only style that suits him, with focus and surpassing self-control. In contrast to Clark, who is given to outbursts, Monk is mute in the face of corner-backs who try to bait him verbally. Over the years Monk has taken Clark aside to give him what Clark calls "Art's usual calm-down speech: Don't show so much emotion on the field. You need to tone it down a little bit. Let your actions speak for you."

If Monk is a largely silent, austere presence on that ball club, he is given to occasional moments of levity. "The man's 34 years old, and he's still shooting spitballs across the room during meetings," says Clark. "He plays practical jokes now and then. Once we were in the middle of practice, and Art hid [running back] Gerald Riggs's helmet in the weeds."

The momentary playfulness aside, Monk has always conveyed an aura of strength in calm. But there was a time, five years ago, when the quiet exterior belied the turmoil within. In 1987 it appeared he had everything a man could want: He was young, handsome and rich. He had a family he loved and a future without limits in a town that revered him. He had a Super Bowl ring, though winning it was not what he had expected it to be. "You're happy you won, but the feeling just isn't what you'd imagine it to be," he says. "It's not as good.

"I just wasn't happy with the way my life was going," he says. "I had an empty feeling inside, like something was missing. I was always reaching for something to make me happy or feel good—cars and money and houses: But whatever it was out there, it wasn't doing it. I really struggled for a while."

As a child he had gone to church and Sunday school, but not willingly. "I had a lot of friends, and I was having a good time," he says. "I didn't feel the need." Until he came to this troubled point in his life. Then he became aware of the serenity that enveloped some teammates who held regular Bible studies together. "I just watched the life they were living and the joy they felt," he says, and he asked if he could join them—and he was born again. "All those things I'd learned in those early years came flooding back," he says. "I said, 'My parents were right. This is what I need.' It made a big difference in my life."

Sixteen years have passed since he left White Plains, and today he is perceived in that town as a kind of folk hero. "Back then, when I was in high school, you'd never have thought Artie would do what he did," says Sam Bowers, a security guard on the 8-to-4 shift at White Plains Hospital Center. "They would have thought I would, first." Alas, poor grades did Bowers in. "I had over 250 letters from schools trying to recruit me," he says. "But the first thing they'd want to see was my GPA. Once they saw that, they'd kind of back off. It hurt."

It still does. Bowers grabbed at a football career here and there—at three small colleges, through five tryouts with NFL teams and finally three years as a tight end with the New Jersey Generals in the USFL. "I haven't played in years," he says. "I screw around in softball now. I feel proud of Artie. He's keeping our school up there, in the limelight."

On the campus of Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa., it is Monday, July 20, the first day of Redskin training camp. Monk is sitting in a foyer of one of the players' dorms, stiff-arming a mention of his heading for the Hall of Fame—"What determines a Hall of Famer?" he asks—and stutter-stepping around a question about his inevitably breaking the Largent record. "I don't take anything for granted," he says. "If I need one catch to be the alltime anything, I still need one catch. I don't like to assume anything or start feeling good about myself."

It is growing late, and Monk is getting edgy, looking at his watch. Afternoon practice is about to begin, and there are the new guys out there who want his job and, he knows, come September, the old cornerbacks and linebackers who want his head. The fear is back. And the doubts are gnawing at him again, all but one—the one about who he is.

"Coming out of college," says James Arthur Monk, "one thing I always said was that I would never want circumstances to change who I am, regardless of how good things might get, regardless of how bad things might get. I always want to stay who I am as a person. I think I've done a pretty good job at that."

PHOTOPETER READ MILLER PHOTOSCOTT CUNNINGHAMWith 18 more receptions Monk will reach Largent's career record of 819 catches. PHOTOBILL BALLENBERGAs a boy Monk (42, above) wanted to catch the ball; at Syracuse he latched on to a total of 102 passes. PHOTOJOHN D. HANLON[See caption above.] PHOTOMITCHELL LAYTONAt his football camp, Monk is more expansive. PHOTOBILL BALLENBERGHigh school star Bowers didn't make the grades. PHOTOJOHN BIEVEREven Monk (center) can get caught up in a victory.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)