Tak­ing the Long Way to An­other Cham­pi­onship Chance

The Washington Post - - District -

Kelley Wash­ing­ton, the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots’ sec­ond-lead­ing tack­ler on spe­cial teams this sea­son, has been in this po­si­tion be­fore: on the cusp of a cham­pi­onship, know­ing what it feels like to lose one.

In 1995 and ’96, Wash­ing­ton’s ju­nior and se­nior years at Sherando High School near Winch­ester, his War­riors reached the Vir­ginia AA Di­vi­sion 4 fi­nals, only to fall short both times.

Okay, so maybe Su­per Bowl XLII on Sun­day against the New York Gi­ants in Glen­dale, Ariz., is a big­ger deal than Sherando vs. Amherst County in Lynch­burg or Sherando vs. Salem in Roanoke. But to a high school player, the state cham­pi­onship might as well be the Su­per Bowl.

That’s an easy par­al­lel for Wash­ing­ton to draw, with his Pa­tri­ots one win away from achiev­ing the first 19-0 sea­son in NFL his­tory and the first un­beaten sea­son since the Mi­ami Dol­phins went 17-0 in 1972.

“The feel­ing of walk­ing off the field in a state cham­pi­onship game and not com­ing out on top, that feel­ing never goes away,” Wash­ing­ton said by phone one day last week be­fore prac­tice. “It’s stuck with me in the back of my head. I never thought I’d make it to an­other cham­pi­onship game.

“You’re al­ways say­ing: ‘What if I could have done this bet­ter? Maybe this could have hap­pened.’ I’ve been liv­ing that ev­ery year since 1997, so it’d be nice to walk off this field know­ing we fin­ished our task.”

Wash­ing­ton, a three-sport star who grad­u­ated in 1997, is re­mem­bered not only for the state cham­pi­onship ap­pear­ances but also for help­ing to end Loudoun County’s un­beaten sea­son in the 1996 Re­gion II fi­nal with a fourth down touch­down pass and for pick­ing off four passes against Lib­erty that year.

He has Wash­ing­ton area brethren on the Pa­tri­ots. Coach Bill Belichick is a grad­u­ate of An­napo­lis High School. Vet­eran cor­ner­back Chad Scott, who played on Suit­land teams that to­taled four wins dur­ing his var­sity ca­reer, started nine games for New Eng­land last sea­son but has been on in­jured re­serve all of this sea­son. Gi­ants long snap­per Ryan Kuehl (Walt Whit­man High) also has missed this sea­son be­cause of in­jury.

Still a fre­quent vis­i­tor to Stephens City, Va., Wash­ing­ton has taken a me­an­der­ing route to be­ing part of per­haps the great­est team in NFL his­tory. His is a story that might hearten many lightly re­cruited but ca­pa­ble ath­letes from this area.

A 6-foot-2, 170-pound quar­ter­back at Sherando, Wash­ing­ton had planned to play at Hof­s­tra. But when the Florida Mar­lins chose him in the 10th round of the 1997 ama­teur draft, the short­stop-third base­man opted for pro base­ball. He spent the next four years in the mi­nor leagues, where he com­piled a chilly .213 ca­reer bat­ting av­er­age. He roomed for a while with an­other guy who has made a pretty nice liv­ing for him­self in Bos­ton: Red Sox pitcher Josh Beck­ett.

On Aug. 21, 2000, Wash­ing­ton’s 21st birth­day, he still was stuck in Class A ball, play­ing for the Kane County (Ill.) Cougars, and still flum­moxed by off-speed pitches. With two weeks re­main­ing in the sea­son, he left the team abruptly and drove the 700 miles back home, oc­ca­sion­ally pulling off the road to cry.

“I was try­ing to fig­ure out what I was go­ing to do,” Wash­ing­ton said. “I was em­bar­rassed and scared and still a kid at 21, but I felt that I was ma­tur­ing into a man. So that’s why I made a man’s de­ci­sion to quit base­ball” and pur­sue other op­tions.

Ea­ger to ex­plore the col­lege foot­ball ca­reer that he had by­passed, the guy who hardly drew a Di­vi­sion I nib­ble at Sherando was now an inch or two taller and about 50 pounds heav­ier. Wash­ing­ton sent let­ters to a few ma­jor col­lege foot­ball pro­grams, an­gling for the op­por­tu­nity to play. Sherando Coach Wal­ter Barr had a con­tact on the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee staff, so the Vol­un­teers gave Wash­ing­ton a look, as a quar­ter­back and as a re­ceiver.

The fol­low­ing sea­son, as a 22-year-old walk-on fresh­man, the washed-up in­fielder caught 64 passes for 1,010 yards and five touch­downs and was named the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence fresh­man of the year. His 256 yards re­ceiv­ing against Louisiana State in 2001 re­mains a Ten­nessee record.

“That took a lot of courage,” Barr said. “To go to a ma­jor col­lege of that cal­iber and at­tempt to do it. . . . But I knew he could do it. I’ve never seen a per­son with any more con­fi­dence than he had. He knew if he got a chance, he could play.”

Af­ter an in­jury-rid­dled sopho­more sea­son, Wash­ing­ton ap­plied for the 2003 NFL draft and was taken in the third round by Cincin­nati, where in four years he caught 72 passes for 893 yards and nine touch­downs.

He signed in March with the Pa­tri­ots, a con­tract that re­port­edly could be worth $22 mil­lion over five years. Talk about mak­ing the right choice: He was close to sign­ing with the Dol­phins, who went 1-15 this sea­son.

With New Eng­land also sign­ing Randy Moss, Wes Welker and for­mer Ten­nessee team­mate Donte Stall­worth, Wash­ing­ton has been pushed down the depth chart at re­ceiver. In fact, he has no catches. But on spe­cial teams, he blocked a punt against the New York Jets, the Pa­tri­ots’ first since 1999. And in the AFC cham­pi­onship win over San Diego, he, in ac­ro­batic fash­ion, saved a punt from bound­ing into the end zone, which re­sulted in the ball be­ing downed at the 4-yard line. That helped lead to a New Eng­land touch­down.

Tough adjustment, go­ing from three-sport high school star — he is the lead­ing boys’ bas­ket­ball scorer in school his­tory — to pro ballplayer, to col­lege star to . . . niche role player?

Not on Team Belichick, which de­mands in­di­vid­ual sac­ri­fices from stars and subs alike.

“There’s no adjustment at all,” Wash­ing­ton said. “When I step out on the field, I know my tal­ents, and I still feel like I’m that key player that’s go­ing to make a key play for the team, just like I was as a leader of the Sherando War­riors.

“I think at this level, we all un­der­stand where we all started . . . so we still get the same en­joy­ment as when we ran around the back yard. We al­ways talk about how the same it is. Foot­ball is foot­ball.”

When Wash­ing­ton speaks to youth groups in the Winch­ester area, he tells them about the al­ter­nate route he took to a pro­fes­sional sports ca­reer and ad­vises them to not al­low the grav­i­ta­tional pull of their small town to pre­vent them from strik­ing out on their own.

Af­ter Sun­day, Wash­ing­ton might have a lot more to tell the lo­cals. Maybe a Su­per Bowl ring, and be­ing part of a fa­bled 19-0 sea­son, will dull the lin­ger­ing pangs from those high school cham­pi­onship losses. At least a lit­tle.

“Ev­ery­body here is so proud of him,” Barr said. “For us to turn the television on for the Su­per Bowl and to see the Pa­tri­ots come on the field and see Num­ber 15 . . . be a part of that, there’s a great sense of pride for all the ath­letes who played here, the com­mu­nity, ev­ery­body.

“It’s just a good feel­ing, just like he’s one of your chil­dren go­ing out and do­ing well in life. He’s one of our chil­dren.”


Be­fore Kelley Wash­ing­ton of the New Eng­land Pa­tri­ots made it to the Su­per Bowl, he was a three-sport star at Sherando High School. When a mi­nor-league base­ball ca­reer didn’t work out, he en­rolled at the Univer­sity of Ten­nessee and re­turned to foot­ball....


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