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Mike Nelms: Key Redskin in Gibbs-I Glory Period

It’s an established fact that Joe Gibbs was an extraordinary coach in his first era in Washington. All you have to say is that he won three Super Bowls with three different quarterbacks, a feat that may never be duplicated in the NFL. By the way, none of those quarterbacks will ever make the Hall of Fame, although one, Joe Theismann, has been a preliminary nominee. But the fact that Gibbs inherited a slew of great players upon his arrival in D.C. sometimes gets lost in the conversation about what helped springboard the Redskins to elite status in his first Redskins coaching era.  When owner Jack Kent Cooke hired Gibbs in January 1981, names such as Theismann, running back John Riggins, wide receiver Art Monk, defensive tackle Dave Butz, kicker Mark Moseley, tight end Don Warren and linebacker Neal Olkewicz were already sporting the burgundy and gold.


So was Mike Nelms, the NFL's premier kick return man of the early-1980s. A threat whenever he touched the ball, No. 21 amassed 6,067 combined yards on kickoff and punt returns, one of many team records he set in his five seasons in Washington (1980-84). Brian Mitchell broke Nelms' all-time team marks in the 1990s.

Nelms, who has a ring from Super Bowl XVII, went to three Pro Bowls and was selected for the NFL 1980s all-decade team. He wasn't flashy, just a no-frills north-south runner with average speed but the ability to outmaneuver and outsmart defenders and break tackles. The 6-1, 190-pound man was fearless, for he rarely signaled fair catch in his five seasons in D.C.

I caught up with Nelms when he recently appeared as a guest on my television show, "Burgundy & Gold Magazine." He explained what life was like in the Canadian Football League before he came to D.C. in 1980, what made him a record-setting Redskins kick returner and why he disdained fair catches.

Redskins historian Mike Richman is the author of the Washington Redskins Football Vault and The Redskins Encyclopedia.  His email is and his Web site is