For 6'4", 282-pound Mohammed Thomas David Elewonibi—let's call him Mo—the road to Hogdom has been long and full of wallows. His excellent porcine adventure started on the day he was born in Lagos, Nigeria, the son of a Nigerian businessman and his Canadian wife, but the journey had no focus until one night six years ago. Mo, who was 20 at the time, was working as a bouncer at a bar called Go Bananas in the logging town of Kamloops, British Columbia. Inside, a male stripper was dazzling the Ladies' Night crowd. Outside, Mo was soul-searching. This gig is fun, he said to himself, but is it a career? "I felt my life was going nowhere," he says. Good call.
Mo's parents were by then divorced, and he was living with his mother. His father was shuttling between London and Nigeria, but it was his advice—"Go to college, you lazy bum!"—that Mo heeded. He enrolled at Snow College in Ephraim, Utah, choosing that school because a friend there had written to tell him how nice it was. "He lied," says Mo.
Though he had never played organized football, Mo went out for the team at Snow, whereupon coach Walt Criner prodded him further down the path of destiny. "He asked me what position I played," says Mo. "I said I didn't know. He flipped a coin and said, 'You're an offensive lineman.' I said, 'O.K.' "
Let's fast-forward past Mo's transfer to Brigham Young in 1987, his winning the Outland Trophy as the nation's best interior lineman in '89, the five operations on his left shoulder, his selection by the Washington Redskins in the third round of the '90 draft, and his languishing for two years and the first four games of this season on the injured-reserve list with shoulder and knee injuries. Let's pick up his story in the week leading to Sunday's NFC East showdown between the Redskins and the Philadelphia Eagles at RFK Stadium.
The top Hog, All-Pro left tackle Jim Lachey, had gone on injured reserve after tearing a knee ligament in the second quarter of the previous Monday night's romp over the Denver Broncos. Suited up for a game for the first time, Mo had suddenly been thrust onto the field against the Broncos and hadn't embarrassed himself. Now he was slated to start in place of Lachey against the NFL's No. 1 defense, and he would line up across from the Eagles' All-Pro defensive end, Clyde Simmons, whose 7½ sacks tied him for third in the league.
"It will be my first start since Penn State in 1989," Mo said last Thursday, as he checked his message machine in the apartment he shares with a young woman who works as a bartender but who is not his girlfriend. They're just pals. Her name is Felicia Robinson, and she has a boyfriend. Still, Mo took her to London when Washington played there in the preseason. Being the buddies they are, they slept in separate beds in the same room. That's the kind of guy Mo is—friendly, respectful, unflappable. "Simmons," he said with a shrug. "He's a big guy with really long arms. He doesn't have a stop on his motor. I'm a little nervous, but I can't let it bother me. What can I do? Prayer? Old Nigerian voodoo chants?"
The matchup, Mo knew, was an important one, a microcosm of the larger contest between the 4-1 Eagles, with their vicious defense and explosive offense, and the 3-2 Redskins, with their forceful style of play and their rock-solid system that can replace seemingly irreplaceable parts anytime it must. Remember Washington's All-Pro cornerback Darrell Green, out since the second game with a fractured arm? Sub A.J. Johnson's stellar play could make you forget him. And when Johnson missed a start against the Broncos with a dislocated finger, Alvoid Mays—signed off a Bradenton, Fla., juice-packing line in 1990—filled in without missing a beat.
But the Skins' proud offensive line, the Hogs, is in disarray, with center Jeff Bostic out for three months with a torn rotator cuff and only right guard Mark Schlereth playing the position at which he started the season. Further, Mo would be filling in at the spot that, when played poorly, can greatly hasten a quarterback's brain-cell loss. "To be missing Lachey and Bostic, that's tough to swallow," said Washington quarterback Mark Rypien after Friday's practice. "But I'm going in with confidence. The offensive line is an elite club. Mo will surprise some people."
On Saturday at the Eagles' hotel in Crystal City, Md., Simmons pondered his mysterious opponent. He was bothered that the only videotape of Mo was of the three quarters of action against Denver. "It's unusual not to have much to study," said Simmons, shaking his head, the two gold hoops in his left ear flashing. "I hadn't known he won the Outland Trophy, but I figured anybody who could stay on injured reserve that long must be good. He has everything to gain, and I have nothing to gain. If I play poorly, I'm going to get crucified."
In the game, Mo locked up with Simmons from the start, occasionally getting outside blocking help from H-back Terry Orr or tight ends Don Warren and Ron Middleton. Simmons made two tackles on running back Earnest Byner on the Skins' opening drive, but one was after a five-yard gain, the other after a six-yard gain. Rypien threw a 10-yard scoring pass to Gary Clark, and Washington quickly took a 7-0 lead.
Already the Redskins had shown the magic of their organization. Old Art Monk had caught his 821st pass, looking 21 instead of 34, in the process, and Mo had passed his first test. The Hogs were snorting away like the surly, intelligent beasts for whom they have been named.
"This team is tight," Mays had said before the game, citing a closeness that helps the Skins remain an NFL power, despite being everybody's favorite target and playing in a division that probably has three of the five best teams in the league. "But the most important part is having good people and talent. The Redskin organization can see things in players other people can't see, and no matter who you are, you become part of the plan."
As proof of that, Mays, who used to have troubling dreams about conveyor belts endlessly pelting him with 64-ounce bottles of orange juice, snuffed a Philly drive just before halftime by intercepting a Randall Cunningham pass. Washington's lead was only 10-3 heading into the third quarter, but it was clear the Eagles had run into a stronger and deeper team than they were on Sunday. Washington has so many specialists that it even has a designated cheerleader, reserve center Matt Elliott (the last player taken in the 1992 draft), who climbs onto the bench and exhorts the RFK crowd each time an opponent gets near the end zone.
Indeed, RFK is such a Redskin-friendly home—Washington has won almost 80% of its games there in the last decade—that it's too bad team owner Jack Kent Cooke is in such a frenzy to build a new stadium. What he wants is more seating and sky-boxes (read: cash). His proposal to have a stadium built at Potomac Yard in Alexandria, Va., was recently shot down with great glee by organized opponents. "David beat Goliath," boasted Virginia State Representative James P. Moran in the Washington Times.
Wherever the Skins play, they no doubt will remain Goliaths. And the media will continue to look for signs that the team, which started this season 2-2, is shot, over-the-hill, shrinking. "One week we're the worst team ever, then it's, Here come the Redskins!" says Rypien, who has been up and down himself this year. "Hey, make up your minds."
All right, here come the Redskins. For now.
They extended their lead to 16-3 on Chip Lohmiller's second and third field goals of the day, and then turned the defense loose to keep Philadelphia from working a miracle. The Skins intentionally took a safety when punter Kelly Good-burn backed out of the end zone on fourth down with three minutes to go and Philly out of timeouts. That made the score 16-5. Cunningham marched the Eagles 53 yards, throwing a six-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Calvin Williams to make the score 16-12, and that's how the game ended.
Simmons finished with four tackles and one sack, but it wasn't Mo's job to block him on the sack. In fact, in a workmanlike overall performance, Mo displayed a certain stick-to-itiveness in carrying out his assignments. During the drive that set up Lohmiller's second field goal, Mo did a good job of riding Simmons around Rypien, enabling Rypien to get off a 51-yard pass to Ricky Sanders. For the day the Hogs gave up only two sacks, for a total of six in six games, fewest in the league. After the game, Simmons patted his foe on the helmet. "He's got a future ahead of him," Simmons said later. "A bright one."
Not all the Eagles were so gracious in defeat. "Our special teams were garbage," said linebacker Seth Joyner. "The defense gave up too many big plays. The offense—just mention the words Washington Redskins, and it falls to pieces."
In the Skins' locker room Mo patiently accepted his newfound celebrity, answering questions about the pronunciation of his name (ella-wa-NEE-bee), his ethnic background (father black, mother white; Mo writes "black" for himself on forms but says, "I'm a human") and his Saturday night pregame activities (watched Mad Max, again). Earlier he had said, "It crossed my mind that I might have an NFL career and never play."
There's no worry about that now, not for at least three more weeks, with Lachey on injured reserve. But Mo admitted on Sunday that he's not thrilled being the center of attention either. "I had my 15 minutes of fame when I won the Out-land," he said. "All it did was cause me trouble when I tried to buy beer in Salt Lake City."
All he wanted to do after the Philly game was go home, ice his knee and call his mom, his biggest fan. He was, after all, fairly pleased with recent events. "It's a great tradition," he said proudly of Washington's offensive line heritage, to which he now belongs. "The biggest thing is, you just don't want to let people down."
The birth of a Hog—what a lovely sight.
Late in the game, Elewonibi still had a grip on Simmons, who made only four tackles.
Clark was inbounds when he crossed the goal line, giving Washington an early 7-0 lead.
In an up-and-down day, Cunningham became the top career rusher among quarterbacks.
Line coach Bill Muir and his troops (below) didn't find daylight for Herschel Walker (34).
[See caption above.]