IRVING, Texas – There are guys in our lifetimes we automatically pull for. Good guys, hard-working guys, ones dealt pretty raw deals through no fault of their own, yet don't succumb to taking the easy – and usually the wrong – way out.
Must admit, I didn't know the backstory on this one, just what he has done the past three years at the University of Missouri, becoming a football player the rest of the nation should have known about, but not sure many outside the Mizzou family did.
Normally I wouldn't do this, would recuse myself from a story like this because of my heartfelt affiliation with the University of Missouri, but this is one you need to know about no matter if he played his football at Missouri or, geesh, even Kansas.
And no, this is not about Michael Sam, who has made a national splash by admitting nationally his sexual orientation while embarking on a journey into the National Football League this week. This one, at least to me, is even better, will tug at your heartstrings.
Please meet L'Damian Washington, 6-3 7/8ths, 188, wide receiver, 23 years old, University of Missouri. And if you didn't know where he was from already, the thick black bracelet on his wrist screaming in gold letters Mizzou Pride would undoubtedly let you know. He's from Shreveport, La., born and raised, the soul of the Missouri team winning the East Division of the SEC, playing the pants off Auburn in the conference championship game and beating Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl right here at AT&T Stadium this past January. He would catch 50 passes for 893 yards and 10 touchdowns as a fifth-year senior this past season.
And brother can he run, 4.38 at the combine, one of the most clutch receivers in Missouri football history, and believe me, I know my Missouri football history, going back 40 some years. Now, he's thin, like real thin, and maybe the reason a guy projected to be a third-day draft choice went undrafted, causing him to admit, "I've never felt so hurt in my life. Like a nightmare I'll never wake up from."
He would go on to say, "the worst three days of my life," which you will discover must have been some really bad days.
Well, he is here at The Ranch, having signed a rookie free-agent contract with the Dallas Cowboys, going through his first two NFL practices at this weekend's rookie minicamp on Friday, and wearing No. 13. Can't imagine he is superstitious, not after what he's been through. Bad luck has been his bedfellow. [embedded_ad]
Seems as though every year at this time a guy emerges who you will like, will want to pull for. You know, the Tony Romo, Miles Austin, Patrick Crayton, Cole Beasley, Ronald Leary. You've seen them come through, the mighty underdogs who persevere. This will be L'Damian. And here is what you need to know.
At six years old, his dad was murdered, so his mom Sonya was left to raise L'Damian and his three brothers – he was the third oldest – as a single parent in a rough part of Shreveport. Tough. But the story grows worse.
At age 15, while playing in a high school basketball tournament game his mom came to watch, she suffered a massive blood clot and died of a stroke his sophomore year. The four boys were left parentless, guardian-less and basically homeless.
So they decided to make a go of it themselves. L'Damian's oldest brother, L'Courtney, 19 at the time, assumed leadership of the family. They found an apartment and somehow made ends meet without meeting a life on the streets. With proper guidance in high school, L'Damian qualified for an athletic scholarship to college. And this is where life sometimes comes back at you.
He was headed to Louisiana Tech, just east down I-20 in Ruston. The head coach there was going to give the kid a chance. His name was Derek Dooley. That's right, the same Derek Dooley who is now the Cowboys wide receivers coach. And although he and his brothers grew up huge Cowboys fans in Shreveport, his affiliation with Dooley at the time led him to sign the undrafted free agent deal with the Cowboys.
"He was the first coach that gave me a chance," Washington said of coming out of high school and a week ago receiving another recruiting call from Dooley. "Felt like I kinda owed him."
Dooley scoffed at the payback notion.
"He's given me more than I've given him," Dooley said.
Here is why. Dooley knew the kid's background at the time he arrived for the home visit. Usually that means meeting the parents, family and high school coach. Not this time. It was just Dooley and Washington in a room at the home of a family friend. The two of them.
"I remember my home visit with him, it was incredible," Dooley says. "Just me and him, and was the longest home visit I ever had. Must have spent eight or nine hours with him. It was emotional. How could you not root for him, what he's been through?"
Dooley said he went home and shared L'Damian's inspirational story with his wife and kids. For the Dooley family, he became of life's lesson. A good one.
Unfortunately for Dooley, Missouri came in at the last minute, and the senior at Oaks High decided to go to Missouri at the urging of his oldest brother. They were thinking ahead: Playing at La Tech and close to home or a major university like Missouri, a member of the Big 12 Conference then with much more exposure? What would give him the best chance at a pro career, something that would provide for him and his brothers?
So away he went to Columbia, Mo., and found a new family, one he would discover is "really tight, and all over." He red-shirted his first year in 2009 and then became Missouri's deep threat the next three years. Size and speed, can't beat it, especially the last two years playing in the SEC. And he made good use of his time, already having earned his degree in psychology.
On top of that, he earned the respect of his Missouri teammates, coaching staff and anyone who watched him play, especially over the past two seasons. In Week 6 of the 2013 season, he was nominated for the Orange Bowl Courage Award. In Missouri's only SEC loss during the regular season he caught a 96-yard touchdown pass against South Carolina. In what was then thought an improbable win at Georgia, he hauled in a 40-yard, end-around TD pass to seal the victory over the Bulldogs after starting quarterback James Franklin had been knocked out of the game.
Unfortunately for Washington, he would suffer a badly sprained left big toe the latter part of the season. He could still run, but had problems planting, cutting. He became a straight-line receiver the final five games of the campaign, likely hurting his draft status. In the final regular-season game, he still caught six passes for 97 yards and a touchdown in the division-clinching victory over Texas A&M – despite the toe.
In fact, the toe still hurts, and likely will until he rests for a lengthy period of time. Problem is, he doesn't have time to rest. Even when the Cowboys trainers suggested holding him out this weekend, allowing that toe some further rest, he said, "No, please don't. I can't afford to do that."
Remember, those brothers, "I got three brothers waiting on me."
That has been on his mind the past five months, ever since the Cotton Bowl victory. His motivation while training for the combine, training for his Pro Day workout, working hard so he would be drafted and have a good chance of making an NFL roster were those brothers, wanting to one day provide for them.
"When most go home they've got a place to stay," Washington pointed out of his peculiar circumstances. "I go stay in a hotel."
That's what happens when your brothers, your one brother's girlfriend, a niece and nephew are sharing a house in Shreveport. It's that, or sleeping on the couch.
So now you might better understand why going undrafted over those three days last week just had to be excruciatingly painful for Washington, and as he pointed out, not just for him, but that "we was all hurt."
In fact, even though he was here on Friday practicing with the Dallas Cowboys, you could still see that hurt in his eyes, the pain of feeling deep inside he let someone down. He knows no matter what, drafted third round, seventh round or signing as a rookie free agent, he still has that chance, but he sure didn't feel like celebrating his signing with the Cowboys. The feeling were that raw, that that bad, and really to this day.
"I just left Shreveport the next day and came here," he says. "Just wanted to get out. I never felt so low. Wasn't the best of birthdays (May 10th), but I guess that's perfect for the life I've been given. I think I respond better with adversity."
Well, here he goes again, and there does not appear to be any give-up in L'Damian Washington. If there was, he would have given up a long time ago, just as many others in similar circumstances have before him.
But not him, mom or no mom. Dad or no dad. Good toe or bad toe.
"My mom instilled in me at a young age to be a man, to be a standup guy," Washington said.
So now there is this: He doesn't get drafted. The toe aches. The percentages are against him, the Cowboys having four veteran receivers, Dez Bryant, Terrance Williams, Dwayne Harris and Cole Beasley, and just having used a fifth-round draft choice on Pitt wide receiver Devin Street.
That's five, the normal number an NFL team keeps on a 53-man roster, unless a sixth forces them to go long. So you see, the odds are long for L'Damian and his three brothers. Nothing new, though, right?
But at least this time we all know his story now, and my guess is for sure there will be more than just those three brothers rooting hard for LaDamian Washington.