One of my all-time favorite football players was elected to the Hall of Fame yesterday. Number 81, James Arthur "Art" Monk, wide receiver for the Washington Redskins during that team's glory years. I pretty much followed his every catch in 1984, when he was the best receiver in the National Football League. In the late '80s he was one-third of the "Posse," Washington's peerless corps of receivers, with Ricky Sanders (remembered for his breakout performance in Super Bowl XXII) and scrappy, tough Gary Clark. But Monk, second cousin to Thelonious, was the artist. He had the soft hands. I swear I could watch that guy just run routes—he was incredibly graceful, his routes impossibly precise, and you could never tell by the way he went out whether he thought the play was coming to him or not. I would venture to say that James Arthur Monk ran every last route of his life like he was the quarterback's first look.
Monk was one of those players who was better than his numbers, even though his numbers were stellar. He owned a number of NFL records at one time or another, many now eclipsed, and still holds many Redskins team marks. Off the field he radiated dignity—he seldom spoke, almost never gave interviews, yet he could quiet a room with his presence. In Washington, to this day, there is almost no football player who is as deeply admired.
Today, of course, is a bittersweet day for football fans. The culmination of the season, but also the end of the season. (In a cartoon in this week's New Yorker, a couple are sitting in front of a TV watching football. The woman says, "Have you given any thought to what you're going to do with your life after the Super Bowl?") One thing I remember about Monk's career was a bittersweet ending—Jerry Rice surpassed Monk's NFL record for career receptions on the very last weekend Monk wore a uniform.
Art Monk is a natural for the Hall of Fame, in my opinion. It took him a while to reach it, though, which might even be fitting, in a way, because "fame," with its connotations of flashy brilliance, striving, self-promotion and ego, was never what he was all about. He was the consummate athlete, doing his job surpassingly well week in and week out, season after season, with integrity and discipline. Strength and grace, and an intense mental focus that seldom wavered. He was the first player in the League to catch a touchdown pass in 15 consecutive seasons, and went 183 consecutive games with at least one catch, another onetime record. His play was never about records and numbers, though. It was about doing a job well for the sake of doing it well. It was about consistent excellence.
It's nice that he's in the Hall, but of course he's already been in my personal Hall of Fame for years now. He brought an undeniable element of joy to watching the game for me. It was an honor to watch the guy play.