Taking the Long Way to Another Championship Chance
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....