Art Monk: Impossible to ignore record-breaking wide receiver

Chris Beaven

Being on center stage never interested Art Monk.

Individual honors didn’t motivate him. Records didn’t define him. Interviews didn’t intrigue him. Monk just wanted to play football the right way. Nothing more.

Maybe that’s why annual snubs by the selection committee for the Pro Football Hall of Fame never seemed to bother him. Seven times they passed over the leading wide receiver of the 1980s.

“Whether I deserved to have played in the NFL or whether I deserved to even be in the Hall of Fame, the truth is I just loved the game,” Monk said. “I loved being out there. I loved being around the guys.”

“The guys” knew Monk deserved to be in the Hall. From teammates such as Darrell Green and Joe Theismann to former rivals such as Jerry Rice and Michael Irvin, they couldn’t imagine Monk not in the Hall. Not after a 16-season career highlighted by 14 record-breaking seasons with the Washington Redskins.

Quiet and consistent, smooth and tireless, Monk epitomized a Hall of Famer. He produced. His teams won.

At one point, Monk held the league’s three most prestigious records for receptions — in a season (106), career (940) and consecutive games (183). Those numbers helped the Redskins win three Super Bowls in a 10-season run from 1982-91.

Finally — after eight years on the ballot — that résumé earned Monk his spot in the Hall. He will be enshrined Saturday at Fawcett Stadium.

“He was a super, super integral part to the success we had,” said Green, a close friend of Monk’s who also enters the Hall this weekend.

The beginning

As much as he shied away from the spotlight, it was impossible to ignore the native of White Plains, N.Y.

At 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, Monk ran a 4.5 40 when he entered the league in 1980. That put him ahead of the curve for players of that size in the early ’80s.

“He was Jerry Rice before there was Jerry Rice,” said Theismann, Washington’s quarterback during Monk’s first six seasons. “Every attribute we talk about Jerry Rice having that led to him being the greatest receiver in the game ... Art was doing those things for us before Rice came along.”

Monk was big, fast and tough — with “the craft of a small guy and the strength of a big guy,” according to former Redskins assistant coach Emmitt Thomas, another member of the Hall’s Class of 2008.

“He had everything,” said Hall of Fame coach Joe Gibbs, who coached Monk for 12 seasons.

Monk helped pave the way for the big receivers who dominate the game today. But he bears no resemblance to the image of today’s receiver who dances, preens, talks, grabs a cell phone out of a goalpost, shakes some popcorn, demands the ball, talks and talks some more.

“He was the quietest guy,” Theismann said.

All catches, few quotes

While the current “Look at Me” receivers waste no time bringing attention, Monk produced plenty and said little. He rarely did interviews. Not because he was rude, but because he didn’t feel comfortable talking about himself.

Thomas Boswell of the Washington Post wrote in 1990:

“(Former Pro Bowl defensive tackle) Dexter Manley talked more about himself on any day of his Redskin career than Monk has in some entire seasons. It’s said that in 1984, Monk set two NFL records that may never be broke: 106 catches and zero quotes. Monk may be the best player never to explain himself.”

His record for catches in a season has been broken. So has his mark for career catches. The 2008 season begins with Monk ranked seventh all-time in catches (940), 12th in receiving yards (12,721).

But Monk’s modesty remains intact.

“Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have imagined myself, as a little boy, getting to this point,” the 50-year-old Monk said the day he was voted into the Hall.

His work ethic became legendary.

“He was a self-made man and a self-made receiver,” Theismann said.

Monk played with “The Hogs,” “The Smurfs,” and “The Fun Bunch” — a colorful cast of characters fueling Washington’s success from the 1980s into the early ’90s. But Monk didn’t bother giving himself a nickname. Others, though, had no problem giving him one.

Theismann called him “Big Money” for his ability to make the clutch catch. The Washington Post Magazine in 1990 headlined a feature on Monk by calling him “The King of Third and Nine.” The team’s trainer, Bubba Tyer, called Monk “Mr. Redskin” for the classy way Monk conducted himself.

Fans agreed.

When the team celebrated its 50th anniversary, fans voted him as the franchise’s greatest player.

All the skills

The first-ever receiver drafted in the first round by the Redskins, they selected him with the 18th pick in 1980. He arrived in Washington as a record-setting receiver from Syracuse despite also playing running back in college.

“He has speed, great character and work ethic,” former Redskins GM Bobby Beathard said. “It wasn’t hard to envision Art Monk developing the way he did.”

Soon, Monk was writing his name into the Redskins record book, where he remains the franchise leader in career catches (888) and receiving yards (12,026). He is second in TD catches (65) behind Hall of Famer Charley Taylor (79).

Taylor coached Monk from 1981-93 and loved his attitude.

“He’ll never say, ‘Call on me,’ ” Taylor said in the Washington Post magazine in 1990. “But he’s always there when you do call.”

So why did it take him so long for the Hall to call on Monk? That baffled teammates and supporters year after frustrating year as Monk got passed over and other receivers entered.

“What is the criteria for going into the Hall of Fame?” Theismann asked. “If it’s Super Bowls, he’s got that. If it’s catches, he’s got that. If it’s longevity, he’s got that. What’s missing?”

Some voters regarded Monk as nothing more than a good possession receiver, a role player in Gibbs’ efficient offense. In their opinion, he caught a lot of short routes over the middle, nothing too special. His career average of 13.5 yards per catch didn’t excite them.

They pointed out he played in just three Pro Bowls and didn’t have a pile of individual awards, so he couldn’t have been that dominant.

Never mind that he made the NFL’s All-Decade team for the 1980s, led that decade with 662 catches and averaged 81 catches during the seven non-strike-shortened seasons from 1984-91.

He made others better

His career totals were almost used against him since he didn’t have the sizzle of some of the game’s deep threats. Some argued Monk wasn’t as feared by opposing defenses as the men he played alongside — Charlie Brown in the early ’80s, Gary Clark and Ricky Sanders in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Clark, though, knew otherwise.

“We all want to be the best on the team, but we know that Monk is the best,” Clark told the Chicago Tribune before the Super Bowl in 1992.

Theismann said detractors didn’t understand what Monk did for the Redskins. Their deep threats often found favorable matchups because Monk attracted so much attention over the middle. And when Theismann or the quarterbacks who followed him needed to make the key throw to keep a drive alive, they counted on Monk. Nearly two-thirds of his 888 catches as a Redskin went for a first down.

“I try to explain this to people,” Theismann said. “Everything John Riggins was in the running game, Art was for our passing game. John’s ability as a runner qualified him for selection to the Hall of Fame. I couldn’t for the life of me understand why those voting couldn’t understand Art’s value not only to the Washington Redskins’ success but to the history of the NFL.”

Each year Monk did not make the cut, he handled the disappointment with his usual grace. Others grew tired of seeing Monk rejected as one of the game’s all-time greats.

Longtime league executive and scout Bill Polian once said, “It’s hard for me to believe (voters) ever saw him play.”

Redskins fans became vocal and industrious in support of their hero. Web sites supported his cause. Internet petitions circulated.

“Players like you are why the HOF was built,” wrote a fan in an open letter to Hall voters on

More than a pass catcher

Monk’s supporters took in the whole picture of his contributions to Washington’s success. Beyond being a premier pass catcher, Monk developed a reputation for his blocking.

“Art just relished the opportunity to flatten somebody,” Theismann said. “When we asked him to crack back on a linebacker or come down on a safety, you could see him salivate and his eyes get bigger. And he’d get a smile, that evil grin.”

Monk often led by example. But when the need arose for someone to be vocal, Monk did not back away.

“When Art Monk talked, everybody listened,” Gibbs told in 2005. “He was a great leader and a meticulous student.”

That leadership helped the Redskins go 16-5 in the postseason during Monk’s career. And he was there through an ever-revolving door of teammates, as his 14 seasons in Washington saw a variety of quarterbacks, featured backs and fellow receivers come and go.

“But they had to be thrilled to have had him there as the constant in a changing world,” Theismann said.

Winner on and off the field

With Monk as the offense’s anchor, the inside receiver who could do it all, Washington continued to win — eight trips to the playoffs, five division titles, four conference titles and the three Super Bowls. The only other Redskins to be primary starters all three championships seasons were tight end Don Warren and offensive linemen Russ Grimm, Jeff Bostic and Joe Jacoby.

Monk left the Redskins after the 1993 season. He spent the next year with the Jets and retired after playing with the Eagles in 1995. Monk then moved smoothly into the business world. Along with former teammate Charles Mann, he co-founded Alliant Merchant Services, an electronic payment services company in Northern Virginia. Monk, Mann and two other former Redskins, Earnest Byner and Tim Johnson, also started the Good Samaritan Foundation in 1992. The foundation helps prepare kids to be successful as they become adults.

Those who played with Monk can’t envision a better role model.

“If you can spend a day with Art Monk, the quality of your life will improve, because that’s the kind of man that he is,” Theismann said.

When Monk passed Steve Largent to become the NFL’s career receiving leader with catch No. 820 during a Monday night game in 1992, Gibbs called him one of the “classier guys in pro sports.”

“Family. Community. Dedication,” Gibbs said. “You name it, and Art Monk is tops.”

Art Monk also is finally a Hall of Famer.

“It would have been nice to have gotten in first-year, second-year, third-year, but it’s just nice to be in,” Monk said. “Whether I got in early or later, just the fact that I’m in is really all that matters.”

The Repository