When Leon Washington was named the Most Valuable Jet by the New Jersey Sports Writers Association, he humbly accepted his award and spoke of his former special teams coordinator.
"It was only fitting that I dedicated that award to Coach [Mike] Westhoff because he hung up his coaching shoes," said Washington in reference to Westhoff not coaching the '08 season because he needs a ninth operation on his ailing left leg.
If Westhoff does permanently retire after a quarter century in the NFL, Washington helped send him off on a high note. The 5'8", 202-pounder established a team record with three kickoff return touchdowns and finished fourth in the league with a 27.5-yard average.
"What a good way to go out for him when the last game of the season was decided by a field goal, and he also had one of the best return seasons in his coaching career," Washington said.
While Washington's special teams feats were noteworthy, he also averaged 5.0 yards per carry and scored three times on the ground. The explosive threat, who added 36 receptions, thanked both Westhoff and head coach Eric Mangini for standing behind him despite a rough start to his pro career in 2006.
"Most of my plays came on special teams and I'd just like to thank Coach Mangini and Coach Westhoff for sticking with me. I dropped a lot of kicks my first couple of years in the National Football League — especially my first year — and I ran a lot of laps," he said.
The NJSWA also honored a Jet who just completed his rookie season. Cornerback Darrelle Revis, recently named to the NFL All-Rookie team by the Professional Football Writers of America and Pro Football Weekly, was tabbed Jet Rookie of the Year.
A number of other sports figures were recognized as Washington carried a youthful exuberance at the event held at the Pines Manor in Edison, N.J., on Sunday. Although unsuccessful in his attempt to secure autographs from former Houston Astros second baseman Craig Biggio, a Seton Hall product, and Rutgers women's basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer, Washington stayed past lunch to sign autographs and talk with children.
"Darrelle and I hung around a little bit and that's what it's about more than anything else. Our team will be moving to New Jersey and there were a bunch of Jersey kids over there," Washington said. "We wanted to hang around and show them our support. We realized they're fans of ours, too, and we were in that same position before."
After spending a couple of weeks in his native Florida, Washington is back up in New York with his 2-year-old son, Junior. He'll fly out to Arizona this week and make a few guest appearances for companies prior to the Super Bowl.
"I'm also going to spend some time with my friends around the league, too, guys from Florida State — Chargers cornerback Antonio Cromartie, Lions linebacker Ernie Sims, Eagles defensive tackle Brodrick Bunkley — who I don't get the chance to see throughout the year because we're all working at the same time. We'll catch up and share some stories."
Washington hasn't decided if he'll attend Sunday's game and he contends that he has no rooting interest.
"It will be a great story any way it goes. If the Patriots win, they'll complete one of the best seasons ever that we've seen in the National Football League," he said. "If the Giants win, it will be one of the biggest upsets in Super Bowl history. It's a story either way it goes."
While the undefeated Patriots are heavy favorites, Washington doesn't expect a runaway.
"It will be interesting to see how the game is played out. In my opinion, I think the game might be closer than the experts think," he said. "But who knows? I do know that teams that don't turn the ball over give themselves the best chance to win the game."
Washington, the humble playmaker, sounds just like a coach. And even though his first NFL special teams coordinator won't be on the sideline next season, his relationship with Westhoff will endure.
"I saw him in the parking lot before I left and he just told me to keep working hard and to stay encouraged," he said. "I have his phone number and he told me if I ever needed anything or if I wanted to talk to him about any special teams plays or anything like that, I should just give him a call. That was real cool to have that assurance from him."