During his 1996 Hall of Fame induction speech, Joe Gibbs mentioned only three players. Three. Of all the greats he coached, all the Pro Bowlers, the Hall-of-Famers, the legends, he picked only three Redskins that he identified by name.
Otis Wonsley was one of them.
The ultimate unsung hero, Wonsley mostly did two things for the Washington Redskins from 1981 to 1985: He blocked, and he played special teams. And he did both very, very well.
Wonsley arrived in D.C. as one of those unknown-but-pivotal free agents that made such a difference for the Beathard / Gibbs Redskins. He had played his college ball at Alcorn State, where he was a successful running back. From there, he was an afterthought draft pick by the Giants in 1980, but he didn’t make the team. The Redskins picked him up in ‘81 after Gibbs and General Manager Bobby Beathard saw potential in him as a situational move man and special-teamer.
Wonsley would go on to play a crucial role in the most iconic moment in franchise history.
Anyone reading this article right now knows of John Riggins’ go-ahead touchdown run on fourth down in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XVII. But while “70 Chip” is etched in Redskins’ lore, one point that might be easy to forget is that it was Wonsley who proved to be a difference-maker on the play.
There were three Dolphins who had a real chance to defeat that play. One was strong safety Glenn Blackwood, who was playing at the line of scrimmage under the circumstances. Clint Didier threw a nice block at the point of attack, and it was just enough to keep Blackwood from catching Riggins before he got to the end zone.
A second was corner Don McNeal. Didier’s motion caused McNeal to follow suit, but McNeal slipped when Didier reversed his motion back to the left side. Riggins took care of the rest, easily shrugging off McNeal’s attempt to tackle him one-on-one.
But the guy who might have had the best shot to make the play was Miami’s right inside linebacker, Earnest Roane. Roane read the play correctly, and got himself in position to make the tackle as soon as Riggins got across the line of scrimmage. The Redskins may have gotten the first down, but the gain would be minimal.
Or, at least, it would have been, if it hadn’t been for Wonsley.
Wonsley lined up as the fullback on the play. At the snap, he charged at the line. Seeing Roane waiting to make a tackle, Wonsley went airborne. He leaped over the line, laying out completely, and striking Roane with the full force of his body, knocking the linebacker onto his butt.
That cleared the path for Riggins to have a one-on-one battle with McNeal, and the rest is history.
Wonsley’s other contributions weren’t as high-profile, but were nearly as important. His final statistical totals are modest—he played 72 games, scoring five touchdowns—but they don’t reflect the impact Wonsley had on the early 80’s Redskins.
Washington won two NFC titles, a Super Bowl, and posted four consecutive seasons of ten or more victories during Wonsley’s last four seasons. Just as Joe Gibbs did, I think it’s fitting that we remember him as one of the quiet heroes of the Redskins’ glory days.
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