When Leon Washington wanted to get into Jacksonville's Alltel Stadium as a child, it meant scaling walls, crawling under fences and eluding ushers. The kid who dreamed of playing in the NFL no longer has to sneak into games because he is now part the show.
Washington's mother raised him and his five siblings in an apartment complex that sprung from the shadows of Alltel's lights and scoreboard. The Jets' rookie runner will complete a cycle Sunday when the Green & White visit the Jaguars.
"I'll be able to hold in my emotions, but at the same time it will be emotional," said the 5'8" Florida State product. "It will be fun for me, but at the same time you have to realize this is a NFL game and we want to win."
Curiosity and passion for the game would often lead Leon and his friends into a bit of hot water. Washington admits to sneaking into the stadium and going down on the field to frolic on the big stage.
"I was young - I was 13 and 14 years old - and I didn't really have any sense of direction as to where my life was going. I would sneak in there, run on the field a little bit - all those things you did as a child," said Washington. "But I knew my dream was playing football. It's kind of crazy to think back to it now. It's amazing; I'm definitely, definitely blessed."
When he got older, Washington stopped sneaking in to Alltel and took a job hawking peanuts and soda in the stadium stands. He would do all he could to be a part of the action that took place outside his backyard. In fact, it was virtually impossible for Washington to ignore it all.
"You walk out of my apartment complex where I grew up and you could see the stadium lights, you could see the jumbotron," he said. "That gives you a pretty good picture of how close I was."
Washington was actually a lot closer to that stage than he realized. He always was an explosive weapon, possessing a wonderful combination of speed and strength pack into a small frame. His childhood days of escaping the wrath of 20 or so of his friends in a customary game called "hotball" definitely paid off. It was there where Leon was first able to exploit his joystick-like moves, eluding his would-be tackling friends in the dusty lots surrounding his complex. Washington took his one man show to Andrew Jackson High School. After a dominant senior campaign, he earned Florida's "Mr. Football" award, as well as *Florida Times Union *Player of the Year honors.
The next task for Washington was to work his way into Bobby Bowden's FSU backfield, which he quickly did, appearing in all 14 games as a freshman. As the years passed, Washington emerged as one of the premier tailbacks and specialists in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The native son made a triumphant return to Alltel as a junior in the 2004 Gator Bowl. Needless to say, Washington didn't disappoint his neighbors. He ran for a career-high 195 yards on just 12 carries and was honored as the Most Valuable Player in the Seminoles' victory over West Virginia.
"It's just exciting to go home and to play in front of the hometown crowd," he said. "I had one of my best games at that stadium."
Roughly a year later, Washington was selected by the New York Jets in the fourth round of the '06 draft. The Jets thoroughly researched Washington and the results were more than positive.
"In researching Leon, they talked about how much everybody liked him in school across the board: players, coaches and teachers. He was well-liked and well-respected, and
and then we put on the tape," said first-year head coach Eric Mangini. "I can't remember what he averaged, but it was pretty significant in both the running game and the passing game. It didn't take long to see some of the really positive traits that we're seeing now."
Washington actually averaged 5.5 yards per carry at FSU and nine yards per reception. He became the first player in the Bobby Bowden era to score a touchdown in five different ways (run, reception, punt return, kickoff return and a fumble return). But when he first arrived in Hempstead, Washington experienced a few growing pains.
"When Leon first got here, he struggled with fielding some of those punt returns and he ran lap after lap after lap," said Mangini. "It didn't faze him. He just worked at it and got better at it, and I like that about him."
There is plenty to like about Washington, who has carried 17 times this season for 58 yards. Happiness and success has followed Washington everywhere he has stopped throughout this momentous journey - a journey that stemmed from a vision and a stadium.
"My dream as a child was to get a chance to play in the NFL, and to get a chance to play at home, right in the area that I grew up." He said. "Everybody in the neighborhood, everybody in the community knows me so they'll be watching. And hopefully they won't be rooting for the Jaguars."
Wednesday Injury ReportJets
Doubtful:RB Cedric Houston (knee)*Questionable: CB David Barrett (hip), WR Laveranues Coles (calf), RW Tim Dwight (thigh), OL Pete Kendall (thigh) & OL Trey Teague (ankle) *Probable: *DL Dave Ball (hand), *RB Kevan Barlow (calf), *LB Matt Chatham (foot), *OL Anthony Clement (shin), *DL Bobby Hamilton (knee), *FB James Hodgins (knee), *OL Adrian Jones (thigh), *CB Justin Miller (hip), *QB Chad Pennington (calf), *S Kerry Rhodes (thigh), WR Brad Smith (thigh), *S Eric Smith (knee), & *DL Kimo von Oelhoffen (knee)
Doubtful:WR Matt Jones (hamstring), DT Marcus Stroud (ankle), DE Marcellus Wiley (groin) & RB Derrick Wimbush (knee)
Probable:S Donovin Darius (knee), LB Nick Greisen (ankle), CB Rashean Mathis (knee), G Chris Naeole (knee)
* Denotes players who participated in practice