To understand the significance of Leon Washington’s two touchdowns on Sunday you must go back to the beginning.
Go back before he fielded either of the kickoffs he returned for scores against San Diego, and rewind past the grisly leg injury that ended his season with the Jets last year.
Go all the way back to the roots of his football career, back in 2000 in Jacksonville, Fla., to the first time he touched a football at Andrew Jackson High School. Washington was a junior who played everything from running back to defensive back to receiver, but the first time he touched the ball was as a punter against Orange Park. Not the punt returner — the punter. And Washington managed to make even that position exciting.
“The first time he touched the ball, it was snapped it over his head,” said Kevin Sullivan, Washington’s high-school coach. “He scooped it, turned around and took off, 99 yards. That was it.”
Washington remembers it a little differently.
“I was kind of looking to the left,” he said. “They didn’t have anybody over there. I used my instincts, caught the ball and took off.”
Two facts are beyond dispute, however: 1) The play resulted in a touchdown; and 2) Washington has been running away from opponents ever since.
He was named Mr. Football in the state of Florida as a senior, recruited to Florida State and drafted into the NFL, where he became a Pro Bowl returner with the Jets in 2008 before suffering a compound fracture in his leg last year.
So when Washington logged the two longest kickoff returns in Seahawks history Sunday, his high-school coach just shook his head. He’s past being surprised by Washington.
“He’s just going to do what he’s got to do,” said Sullivan, who now coaches at Atlantic Coast High School. “He has such a strong work ethic and is very confident in his ability. There was no doubt in our minds that he would bounce back, just because of the type of person that he is.”
Sullivan first saw that in the two seasons Washington played for him. That resolve only became stronger when Washington was recruited to Florida State, and the Seminoles wanted him to play defensive back.
Washington said that he would be willing to play defense if it was best for the team, asking only that he be allowed a fair chance to compete at running back first. If the two other recruits the Seminoles had at running back were better, he would switch to defense without a complaint. He wanted the chance to compete, though, and when he got it, he never left the offense.
A fourth-round pick by the Jets in 2006, he made the Pro Bowl his third season in the league. And until suffering the injury last season, Washington was an explosive part of what turned out to be the league’s top rushing game.
The Jets weren’t just willing to part with him after the leg injury; they almost gave up on him. They traded him to turn a seventh-round pick in the April draft into a fifth-round pick.
“I couldn’t believe we had a chance to get him,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said.
Three weeks into the season, Washington has already won a game for the Seahawks and answered any question of whether his explosiveness was gone. The next step is finding other ways to involve Washington.
“It would be nice to get the ball in his hands a few more times to see if he can do that again on offense,” Carroll said.
All Washington needs is a chance. He has shown that since he was a kid. He began playing Pop Warner football at age 11 after John Mike, a local youth coach, came looking for the fastest kid in the neighborhood.
That was Washington, no doubt about it.
“He just blew everybody away,” said Mike, an officer at the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office until he retired earlier this year.
Mike had to talk Washington into playing, though, his first steps in a career that is once again gaining speed. When Washington was chosen to the Pro Bowl in 2008, he brought both Sullivan and Mike to Hawaii for the game, all expenses paid.
The way this season started, Washington could be making another trip to Hawaii.