IRVING (AP) — With his father in a coma and doctors offering little hope for recovery, Washington Redskins cornerback Shawn Springs has needed football more than ever the last month.
Practices and games have been the only ways of escape from his sorrow. Until now.
On Sunday, Springs will play at Texas Stadium against his dad’s old team, the Dallas Cowboys. Memories of his dad, Ron Springs, will be everywhere, probably dredging up some long-forgotten stories.
“I grew up being at Texas Stadium, being at the locker room,” said Shawn Springs, who was 4 when his dad was a rookie in 1979, and 9 when Ron left to finish his career in Tampa Bay. “Tony Dorsett, Everson Walls, all those old Cowboys are our family. I used to wear Cowboys pajamas and stuff like that. So going down to Texas Stadium might be a little tough.”
The Springs saga puts a new twist on this old, bitter rivalry. Under these circumstances, Cowboys fans have to be rooting for Shawn and Redskins fans hoping the best for Ron. Of course, that won’t have anything to with the scoreboard Sunday.
Dallas comes in 8-1, tied with Green Bay for the best record in the NFC. The Cowboys want to keep piling up wins before their showdown with the Packers a week from Thursday. The Redskins (5-4) are coming off a loss to Philadelphia and need a big win to buoy playoff hopes.
The feud between Dallas and Washington was as intense as ever when Ron Springs broke into the NFL and found himself sharing the backfield with Dorsett and Roger Staubach. A good blocker, runner and receiver, his most important role might have been his leadership in the locker room; ringleader is probably a better term.
A few years into retirement, Ron was diagnosed with diabetes. The disease took it’s toll, eventually gnarling his hands and costing him his right foot and several of his left toes.
His outlook soared in February when he received a kidney donated from Walls, his former teammate and close friend. It was the first known transplant between teammates in the United States, and they happily became advocates for awareness of diabetes and organ donation.
They testified on Capitol Hill and served as honorary captains for the Cowboys opener, which also served as the launch date for their Gift for Life Foundation. Walls helped Ron Springs get out of his wheelchair and salute the crowd, a moment Shawn regrets having missed; after all, he was playing his own season opener that day.
“When he stood up in the middle of the field and waved, it was one of the most exciting parts of his life that I can remember over the last 10 or 20 years,” Shawn said.
In early October, Ron had a cyst removed from his arm. During a follow-up operation Oct. 11, he lost oxygen and lapsed into the coma. More than a month later, the prognosis is bleak.
“They’re telling us, pretty much, that at best my dad would probably be a vegetable,” Shawn said.
Ron’s wife, Shawn’s stepmother, may soon face a decision of whether to remove life support. Shawn’s stance was pretty clear during a 20-minute conference call with Dallas reporters Wednesday; throughout the interview, he referred to his dad in past tense and said he was “at peace about the situation.”
“I feel whatever happens, whether God comes and he wakes right up or it’s his time, I’ve accepted that my father is in a better place and it was meant to be,” Shawn said. “I just have faith. I’m also very real about the situation. Not many people have ever awakened from this type of coma and the lack of oxygen. … Whatever decision she makes, I’m quite sure it’ll be the right decision.”
Shawn played two days after his father became comatose, then flew to Dallas. He’s made two more trips, usually arriving Monday and leaving late Tuesday. His plan for this weekend was to focus on football until after the game, then go straight from the stadium to Medical City Hospital.
“I’ll get Dorsett or somebody to give me a ride,” said Shawn, who plans to again remain in town through Tuesday night. “I know it’s going to be a very emotional week, a tough week, because the holidays make it more difficult.”
Dorsett and Walls have been among the many regular visitors to Ron Springs’ bedside. Tony Hill, Eugene Lockhart, Robert Newhouse and Calvin Hill have visited, too.
“That first week, it was like a Cowboys reunion,” Shawn said. “It’s a loss for the Cowboys’ family. When one of those guys goes down, all those guys are hurting.”
Among the things Shawn picked up from his dad was that a man’s word is his bond. Ron also liked to say, “Whatever you do, work really hard at it and try to be the best.”
And, as anyone who ever knew or saw Ron can attest, he believed in a strong backbone and an even stronger sense of humor.
“He was always joking about something. Even in the most serious times, he would be joking about it. He was like, ‘If this happens to me, do this, do this and do this. OK? Now, who y’all got this week?’” Shawn said, laughing.
Shawn does his best to keep the banter up during his visits. Although his dad “looks like he’s asleep,” Shawn updates him on the Redskins and the Cowboys and his beloved alma mater, Ohio State. He’s already broken to him the news about the Buckeyes’ loss to Illinois. He’s also asked his stepmom to turn Redskins games on the television in Ron’s room. He expects it will be tuned into the Cowboys game Sunday.
“I can hear him now saying, ‘You let T.O. catch a pass on you?’ I can hear him now talking smack if (that happens),” Shawn said, laughing again.
The Redskins’ secondary is missing two starters and a top reserve is playing in pain, so they need Shawn Springs as much as ever these days. Teammates appreciate and admire how he’s juggled everything.
“He'’s handled himself so well, he actually makes us forget about what’s going on,” Washington defensive end Phillip Daniels said. “He’s laughing, joking around with the guys. We keep his dad in our prayers all the time. I think it will be tough for him, but if anybody can handle it, he can.”