It was a Monday night, Sept. 19, 1988 to be exact, when the landline phone at Mark Rypien’s home in Washington D.C. began to ring.
Rypien, a third-year player from Washington State and Spokane’s Shadle Park before that, wasn’t anticipating a conversation with his head coach that night, nor was the future Hall of Famer, Joe Gibbs, expecting to be on the phone with his backup quarterback at such an obscure hour.
But these were obscure circumstances.
“Hey Mark, Joe Gibbs.”
“Oh. Hey coach.”
“Just wanted to let you know you’ve got the ball this week. Doug (Williams) just had an emergency appendectomy and went to the hospital and he’s out for the most of the season. You’ve got the ball.”
“I’ll see you in the office tomorrow.”
“All right, I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“That was basically it,” Rypien said Wednesday, describing the call that altered the trajectory of his 11-year NFL career.
Rypien’s numbers, and his play, were admirable that Sunday against the Phoenix Cardinals at Sun Devil Stadium. He’d go 26 for 41 with three touchdowns and one interception, but the quarterback’s late fumble was costly in a 30-21 loss for the Washington Redskins.
Nonetheless, Rypien had all but cemented his starting position with the club, and most Spokanites don’t need a reminder of what happened next: a Super Bowl title and Super Bowl MVP honors in 1991, two Pro Bowl appearances (1989, 1991) and 10 more years as an NFL QB – five of which were spent as a starter for Gibbs and the Redskins.
In the 32 years that have passed since Rypien made his debut as Washington’s starter, nobody else who’s played high school football in Spokane has started a game at quarterback in the NFL.
Then, earlier this week, a young backup in Denver got a phone call from his head coach. On a Monday night no less.
It’s unclear how long this will last, but another Rypien will get his shot in the NFL when Mark’s nephew, Brett, makes his first career start on Thursday night against the New York Jets at MetLife Stadium. Brett, who broke most of his uncle’s records during a prolific career at Shadle Park, got a small sample of the NFL’s speed and physicality when he replaced Jeff Driskel in the fourth quarter last Sunday against Tampa Bay, completing 8 of 9 passes for 53 yards and an interception.
That’s more run than Mark got before he was thrown to the wolves in Arizona three decades earlier, but in some ways, Brett faces a taller challenge than his uncle did. With the Broncos on a short week, the 24-year-old will only have three days to prepare for for a nationally televised game on the other side of the country.
Good thing preparation is one of Rypien’s top assets on the gridiron.
“He’s like a sponge anyways, he’s very cerebral when it comes to football, so he loves the accolades of just learning what he has to do and kind of visually seeing it in his head, even though he’s not getting the reps in practice,” Mark said. “You have to mentally get the reps in your own mind and when called upon, you’ve got to go out there and make it happen.
“He’s prepared for this day. Who knows what’s going to happen. I think it’s an exciting, great time for him. He’s going to get a chance to do it, he’s going to do it on a national level, on a Thursday night, against a team that’s in a must-win situation too.”
On a Zoom call with reporters Tuesday, Brett said he’s gleaned things from dozens of conversations with his uncle about Mark’s NFL career. Both have learned the value of patience, albeit for different reasons. Mark had knee and back injuries that kept him off the field in 1986 and 1987, and he was on the sideline when Williams led the Redskins to Super Bowl XXII.
Brett, despite his many accolades at Boise State, was an undrafted free agent who spent time rotating between Denver’s practice squad and active roster as a rookie in 2019. His recent promotion to the active squad was the result of a shoulder injury to Broncos starter Drew Lock, and even then it took an unsuccessful outing from Jeff Driskel for Denver coaches to give Rypien a starting nod.
“(Mark) sat his first two years on IR, so having some conversations with him about that and seeing the way he overcame adversity throughout his first two years, then being able to win a Super Bowl and be a starter for a few years,” Brett said. “I definitely don’t think I ever lost hope or was discouraged, I just tried to get better.”
The younger Rypien said he picked up many of his uncle’s study habits as he learned how to play the position, and described being a film junkie as something that’s “always kind of been my M.O.”
A handful of Rypiens gathered at Mark’s house Tuesday for an early birthday celebration and barbecue.
Brett, whose promotion to starter was announced by the Broncos earlier that same day, called in to wish his uncle well.
“At that time it wasn’t talking about how’d you hear and all that,” Mark said. “It was, ‘Hey, go ahead and get ’er done, buddy.’”
The two aren’t always in constant communication during the season, but Mark’s sent his nephew a few more encouraging text messages recently, as he’s moved a few steps closer to a lifelong goal.
“Just saying, ‘Hey I know you always do, but you can only control what you can control,’” Mark said. “’Be prepared in every aspect you can. You’re a couple plays away from being there, now you’re one play away, now you are in there.’ That’s the nature of this game and I think he’s done that. Everything else is pretty much out of his control.”