Leon Washington isn’t all the way back, not quite yet, but it was clear watching him Monday evening that he has come a long way since his 2009 season ended with a potentially career-threatening injury.
And it wasn’t the ease with which he ran during his limited work in the Seahawks’ afternoon practice session that told the story. It was the carefree smile on his face as he goofed around with his two sons, Leon Jr. and Noel after the practice had concluded.
This wasn’t a player concerned about a comeback. When four-year-old Leon Jr. chased after his dad wearing way-too-big gloves, half-blinded by his father’s giant helmet, Washington wasn’t a man wondering how his surgically repaired right will hold up when he eventually takes his first hit. No, Washington looked content with his new team, with the way his leg is recovering from a compound fracture of his tibia and fibula, and with where his NFL career is headed after five seasons with the New York Jets.
“Man, just the smell of football, I missed that so much,” he said. “This is truly a blessing. I had a lot of support along the way. My wife, so much love along the way. Ever since I got injured she’s been wonderful. My kids have been so much motivation for me.”
Washington still has a little ways to go. It’s been a long road back since he suffered the injury in the seventh game of last season. He isn’t quite 100 percent, and he will always have a metal rod in his right leg: “At least I know I can’t break that leg again,” he jokes.
So far in training camp, he has only done individual drills and returned a few kickoffs, but has been held out of team activities to avoid contact. But after the Jets decided that the running back was expendable — the Seahawks gave up only a fifth-round pick for Washington, a Pro Bowler as a kick returner, and the Jets’ seventh round pick — he is brimming with excitement about his second chance in the NFL.
“The Seahawks brought me in and trusted me,” Washington said. “This show isn’t over, the best is yet to come. I’m still working, I still have faith that I’m a really good football player, so I just can’t wait to get out there and get that first tackle in.”
The Seahawks’ interests in Washington came about in an unusual way. While still the coach at USC, Pete Carroll began following the Jets last season because former Trojan Mark Sanchez was their starting quarterback. And it was during those games that Carroll became infatuated with Washington, though obviously without having any idea he could end up coaching him.
“I was watching every game, hanging on every aspect of it, and Leon was tearing it up,” Carroll said. “I wasn’t of course thinking anything at the time, but I just thought he was a really big factor. In fact when he got hurt, I thought that was really going to be a big blow for their team … To get him on our team felt like really something special. Hopefully he’ll be able to add quite a bit for us.”
Washington, who began his career with the Jets as a fourth-round pick in 2006, was an explosive play maker before the injury — he returned three kickoffs for touchdowns in 2007 and averaged over five yards-per-carry in each of his past two full seasons — and he firmly believes he will return to that form this year. In fact, as a player who has mostly been known as a third-down back during his career, Washington thinks he’s ready to handle an even bigger role. Seahawks running backs coach Sherman Smith agrees that Washington is capable of carrying a bigger load.
“Sure he can,” Smith said. “People label him as that … But no, he’s not just a change-of-pace back. He can be a first-down back and get in there and get it done, so I’m not labeling him.”
Even though Washington grew up in Florida and went to Florida State before moving to New York, he has fully embraced life in the Northwest. A big outdoors enthusiast, Washington was on his way to go fishing with Seahawks tight end, Chris Baker, his former teammate in New York, when he found out he had been traded to the Seahawks.
“I love it,” he said of his new home. “I’m a huge nature guy. The mountains, freakin’ bald eagles, fishing, my boys are going to love it. I can’t wait to get a chance to go hiking and all of that. I love it.”
And it is abundantly clear after watching Washington and his family for even a few minutes that his sons and wife, Charity, are a big reason for his positive outlook. Of course, a player who nonchalantly told his team doctor, “Hey, I think I broke my leg,” while on all fours, moments after a season-ending hit, wasn’t about to let on to his wife that he might have been worried about his future.
“Leon is a very strong man,” Charity said. “I took it a lot harder than he did. When he came out of surgery, I was the one crying. He had to comfort me.”
With a second chance and a new team, Washington is just looking for a chance to prove to himself that he can be even better than he was before. Charity, however, says she has a bit more of a vindictive streak than her husband.
“He just wants to show he can play again,” she said with a grin. “I’m the one who wants him to show the Jets that they made a big mistake.”