There was one emotion that dominated Mark Schlereth's mind as he sat on the bus ahead of Washington's Week 10 game against the Philadelphia Eagles in 1989: fear.
The panic is understandable. How many 10th-round picks get their first starts as a rookie? No matter what the exact number is, it can't be many. On top of that, Schlereth was about to square off against the Philadelphia Eagles, which boasted one of the best defensive fronts in the league.
So, yeah, Schlereth's anxiety levels were a bit higher than normal.
Of course, it always helps to get some advice from teammates, especially when that teammate is a legend like Doug Williams. The Super Bowl-winning quarterback didn't say much to Schlereth as he waited on the bus, but it was more than enough to give him the encouragement he needed.
"I remember it like it was yesterday," Schlereth said on a recent episode of "Command Center."
Schlereth already knew in the days leading up to the game that he had a shot to make his NFL debut. He was competing with four-year veteran Ray Brown, who went on to play for four teams over the course of two decades, all week. By the end of the week, it was Schlereth who ended up finding a home on the starting lineup.
Winning a role over an experienced player was a challenge; preparing to face the gauntlet that was the Eagle's defensive front was another obstacle entirely. The group featured some of the best defensive players the league had to offer: Reggie White, Mike Pitts, Clyde Simmons and Byron Evans.
As amazing as it must have felt to earn the opportunity to be a starter, the prospect of going against such talented players had Schlereth "literally scared to death," and the only thing he could do was stare forward, completely focused on the game.
That's when Williams walked past Schlereth, but then he could sense the quarterback come back and stand next to him. Williams gave Schlereth a tap on the shoulder before saying:
"Listen, the only difference between you and those guys over there is those guys had an opportunity to make a name for themselves, and today's your opportunity. I have nothing but the utmost faith in you."
Williams knew that it was Schlereth's first start, but he also felt that it was his job as the quarterback to take care of his teammates, particularly the offensive line.
"I had to let you know that...they put their pants on the same way," Williams told Schlereth. "They weren't starting you because you just showed up. They were starting you because you deserved to start. My thing was to make sure you had the confidence to go out there, which you did.
"I understand the nervousness, but we've got a game to play."
It was a low-scoring but busy day for Schlereth and Washington. The team ran the ball 44 times with 38 of those rushing attempts coming from Jamie Morris. Earnest Byner scored the game's only touchdown with a one-yard rush in the second quarter, helping Washington hold on for a 10-3 victory.
As for Schlereth, the rookie held his own against the Eagles' front. He distinctly remembers "putting it on Mike Pitts," who surely thought that he would have an easier day working against a former 10th-round pick.
Schlereth didn't know how long he would be in the league, but he wasn't going to get embarrassed. Once Pitts realized things were going to be a bit more difficult, he got frustrated and took a swing at Schlereth.
Schlereth retaliated, and then Byner "comes flying over the top" and tackles Pitts. After the game, Schlereth received a game ball for his performance.
"I knew I was in the right spot with the team that we had, because we had that 'all for one, one for all' [mentality]," Schlereth said. "We had that kind of connectivity as a football team that we were gonna fight for each other."
Schlereth went on to make two Pro Bowls, win three Super Bowls and start in 140 games with Washington and the Denver Broncos. It was a long, successful NFL career, but Schlereth can credit all of it to that one interaction he had with Williams.
"I really appreciate you," Schlereth said to Williams. "Those two sentences that you gave me launched me into playing in the National Football League and starting for my entire 12-year career."