For 'Skins' Brunell, past will be present when Jaguars visit

Washington QB squares off against team he led for 9 years, former protege Leftwich

Pro football

September 28, 2006|By Don Markus | Don Markus,Sun Reporter

ASHBURN, Va. -- Their career paths have collided before.

Byron Leftwich's arrival as the first-round draft choice of the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003 came as Mark Brunell's nine-year run as the team's starting quarterback was beginning to unravel because of mounting injuries and haggling over Brunell's contract.

Brunell's elbow injury in the third game that year gave the former Marshall University star an opportunity to start, and Leftwich's development over the last 13 games of his rookie season ultimately led to Brunell's trade to the Washington Redskins.

On Sunday at FedEx Field, the careers of the two quarterbacks will connect again, when Leftwich comes home to play in the Washington area for the first time since high school and Brunell plays against his former team, also for the first time.

"I think for me personally it's a little more special because I did grow up there and it gives an opportunity for a lot of people who haven't seen me play since high school," Leftwich said yesterday during a teleconference with reporters at Redskins Park.

Said Brunell: "I have some fond memories of Jacksonville. It's kind of where I got started playing. I played on some very good teams, had some big moments. But this is a new part, a new era for me and I couldn't be more happy to be a Redskin."

Leftwich is grateful for what he learned from Brunell.

"He just kind of taught me the things that as a rookie you look to other people to try to learn," said Leftwich, 26. "We didn't really talk about a lot of X's and O's. It was more of the do's and the don'ts of the NFL and how to be a pro. Things that made me a better person and a better football player."

Leftwich, who is 23-19 as a starter for the Jaguars, said that he is still trying to replace Brunell in the eyes of the Jacksonville fans.

"Mark was the only quarterback this franchise had known since it got started," Leftwich said. "When you know of only one quarterback, he deserves the fans to love him, the city to love him. That doesn't mean they don't love me, too. It takes some time for them to get used to me because they were so used to Mark being the quarterback."

Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio said yesterday that the team's inability to extend Brunell's contract after the 2002 season led to Leftwich being drafted. Still, Del Rio called Brunell's trade to the Redskins for a third-round pick "one of the more difficult things I had to deal with."

Brunell, 36, is one to mask his emotions, but he said that leaving Jacksonville was difficult.

"It was more than just playing for the Jaguars, it was about connecting with the community," said Brunell, who still maintains a home there. "So to leave when you thought you would finish there was very difficult. That's the business."

The three years of separation will take much of the emotion out of Sunday's game for Brunell, who was a three-time Pro Bowl player as a Jaguar, led the team to the AFC championship game after the 1996 season and holds more than two dozen franchise records.

"It's a different team, different coaches, the fact that we're out there at FedEx Field is a little different," said Brunell, who is coming off a game in which he completed an NFL record 22 straight passes in Sunday's 31-15 win at Houston. "If we were going to Jacksonville, it might be a little different."

There are a couple of interesting twists to Sunday's game.

Just as he was during Leftwich's rookie year, Brunell is nursing an elbow injury. It occurred Sunday against the Texans, when Brunell gashed his left elbow after Rock Cartwright fumbled. Brunell was held out of practice yesterday as a precautionary measure but is expected to be ready for the Jaguars.

Playing against the Redskins for the first time will be an interesting experience for Leftwich, who talked yesterday of being a huge Redskins fan growing up in Southwest Washington. Leftwich even slipped one time by using the word "we" in referring to his former favorite team.

Did he ever boo the quarterback?

"I booed everybody, man," said Leftwich, who sneaked into a few games with his older brother, Kevin. "I was a true fan. I don't know if I should tell this, but me and my brother used to cry when the Redskins lost."

Coming off one of his worst games as a starter - completing 16 of 28 passes for only 107 yards, with a touchdown and two interceptions, in a 21-14 loss at Indianapolis - Leftwich hopes to play well Sunday in front of more than 90 family members and friends for whom he bought tickets.

"Once the game starts, I can't worry about them," Leftwich said. "That's the way I always am. Once the game starts, it's football. It can affect you if you allow it to. I told all my family, `Don't call me after Wednesday about tickets' so I can worry about the football part of it."

Leftwich learned something else this week about the team he grew up watching.

"Redskin tickets," he said, "are not cheap."

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