You could forgive fans who have been attending team events like last weekend's Jets House for years if they did some double takes on the autograph line. There signing and posing alongside quarterback Sam Darnold was a refreshing blast from the recent past.
Leon Washington was in "the House."
"It's great being here," Washington told me during a break in his Saturday schedule. "The Jets reached out to me to see if I wanted to do a bunch of events like this. I said I'd love to come up. I think I played up here after I left but I haven't been up here just on my leisure time ever since then."
Washington was traded to Seattle following an injury-marred 2009 season. He made stops with the Seahawks, Patriots and Titans before retiring as a player with his family in Charlotte, NC.
But before he left, for 3½ seasons, he was, with apologies to Deion Sanders, "Neon Leon."
"My best years were here with the Jets," he said. "And being here now means so many fans tell me the old stories about making plays on Christmas night to help the Jets get to the playoffs, stuff like that. It brings back memories and makes me feel good as well."
Among his Green & White highlights:
- Washington gave a taste of his special-teams dimension with a kickoff-return touchdown in his second preseason game as a rookie in 2006 at, of all places, Washington. He made it official with three KOR touchdowns in 2007 and one more in '08. The three in a season and four in a career are both Jets franchise records.
- The holiday play was his darting 64-yard reception after a Chad Pennington shovel pass that set up Mike Nugent's game-winning field goal in the rainy 13-10 win at Miami late in his rookie year.
- Some other moments: He had a 33-yard OT punt return to set up another Nugent game-winner in the 19-16 victory over Pittsburgh in 2007. And among his long runs in '08 was a 61-yard TD dash that helped cement the Jets' 34-13 road rout of previously undefeated Tennessee.
- His 2,332 all-purpose yards in his Pro Bowl 2008 season led the NFL and surpassed Bruce Harper's 30-year-old single-season franchise mark.
Even though Washington still looks as if he could carry it, catch it, return it and even throw it (one career completion for 36 yards in the '07 finale) with the pros, he said at 36 years of age his running is confined to keeping up with his 13-, 9- and 7-year-olds. But he's had coaching internships the past couple of years and said he "would love to come up and do an internship with the Jets."
That's because Leon, like the fans he reconnected with at Jets House and despite his travels around the NFL, bleeds a little Jets green. He even gave an upbeat summary of the QB he was signing with that day and team's new head coach, complete with a first-person-plural pronoun or two.
"Sam is a guy that's going to give us a chance. He's a smart quarterback, and in this league that's what you need. You need guys who know how to get their playmakers the ball," he said. "And Adam Gase, he's a guy who knows how to put the quarterback in the best position to win the game."
That plus some great special teams play this past year led by coordinator Brant Boyer, who's "in that Mike Westhoff mold," and returner Andre Roberts, whom he trained with a few offseasons ago, gets Washington's juices flowing.
"I'm a Jets fan all the way," he said. "It's good to see them going in the right direction."
And it's good to see Leon Washington back on board for the ride ahead.