It's all in the family for Mizzou's Washington
COLUMBIA, Mo. • In the annals of Mizzou football history, junior L'Damian Washington's 69-yard touchdown reception Saturday will be faintly recalled for giving the Tigers a 17-9 lead over Georgia in the third quarter of MU's debut in Southeastern Conference play.
MU went on to lose 41-20.
But the moment will forever have more poignant meaning in the lives of Washington and his three brothers.
"I've still got tears in my eyes," said La Courtney Washington, the eldest, by telephone Tuesday from their home in Shreveport, La.
The brothers were orphaned at ages 19, 17, 15 and 9 when their mother died after complications from a blood clot, which surfaced at one of Washington's basketball games six years ago.
In a season Washington is dedicating to his mother, Sonya, the Georgia game marked the first time his brothers ever have seen him play in Columbia.
Forgive Washington if he was unable to block that all out until he ducked his head on the sideline "just to gather myself," he said. In the peak of emotion, he was teary-eyed himself.
He thought of the mother who worked at a hospital and raised the boys for 10 years on her own after the father of the oldest three had been shot and killed.
Washington, the third-oldest, thought of the bond among the four, who vowed at the hospital the night she died never to be separated — and had to fight countless battles to honor that.
"Everything that I do is for them," Washington said. "That touchdown, that's their touchdown."
That touchdown also might be a harbinger of plenty more to come, perhaps starting with MU's game Saturday against Arizona State.
Washington had 20 catches for 364 yards and three touchdowns last season.
But he has been under the radar, given the profile of senior T.J. Moe and his 146 catches in 2010-2011, the rise of junior Marcus Lucas, who is tied with Moe for the team lead with nine receptions this season, and, of course, the breathless expectations for freshman Dorial Green-Beckham, the nation's top recruit.
The radar may soon find Washington, though: He said he's been timed at 4.33 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He sheepishly said he considers himself the fastest on the team, and not many dispute that.
But playing the position is about a lot more than just speed, and upon his arrival at MU Washington had plenty he needed to learn and add to his game — starting with his weight.
At 6 feet 2 when he arrived in 2009 for what became a redshirt season, Washington was generously listed as 185 pounds.
Co-offensive line coach Josh Henson, who recruited Washington, remembers well greeting him and taking him to a campus cafeteria.
"'Coach, I can eat any of this? As much as I want?' " Henson recalled Washington asking. "It was like a kid going to play in an amusement park."
Washington was diligent about everything from putting on weight — he's now 195 — to improving his blocking to learning the playbook. But he also initially was distracted and tempted to go back home to help care for his youngest brother, Tomarious. It took time to convince him that the best way to help them all was to stay with school and football.
"It always takes guys a certain amount of time (to adjust to college), but he just had way more things outside of the University of Missouri football team than the average guy has," receivers coach Andy Hill said. "He does not have what the normal guy has."
When their mother died, La Courtney Washington said he cried for perhaps "three months straight" and lost 25 pounds.
He had to forgo his own plans to play football at Louisiana Tech, he said, and pour himself into basic survival issues, such as learning to cook, opening a bank account and buying school supplies.
The brothers Washington also had to fend off movements to put them in foster homes or split them up among other relatives, he said.
"We raised each other up," said La Courtney, who works in a factory.
Not surprisingly, it didn't all go smoothly.
At one point, lights and other utilities were turned off and they were forced to move out of their house, even living apart with friends briefly.
"They were almost on the streets," Stephen Dennis, Washington's coach at Green Oaks High, told the Post-Dispatch in 2010. "Close to it."
But with help from people like Dennis, a supportive community and Ebenezer Baptist Church, the four found a way.
And L'Damian became such an accomplished example that Shreveport declared a day in his honor when he graduated and bestowed upon him a key to the city.
Washington still cites his Christian faith as a major reason for his ability to stay clear-headed and persevere to where he is now.
"I don't care if he's going to eat a piece of candy, he's praying to God," La Courtney said. "He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he doesn't do dumb stuff."
And for the family, it all was embodied in one snapshot Saturday night.
"He's just an unbelievable story, really, of courage," Henson said. "And of just a person making up his mind that no matter what his circumstances, they're going to believe in themselves, they're going to do things right and they're going to overcome."