IRVING, Texas – L'Damian Washington didn't want to be misunderstood, he's grateful for the opportunity to earn a roster spot with the Dallas Cowboys. But it would be a lie to say he was happy about how his NFL draft weekend played out – far from it, in fact.
"I've never been so hurt in my life, honestly," Washington said. "I've never felt so low, honestly. It was not the best birthday present ever."
That's an understandable sentiment from any hopeful draft pick, especially one who spent his May 10 birthday watching the last four rounds of the NFL draft slip past without hearing his name called. But those words take on an entirely different weight when you hear them from Washington – a player whose road to the NFL reads a bit like a Greek tragedy.
From his college career at Missouri, to the NFL draft process and on to the Cowboys, people from all walks have stopped to take stock of the circumstances facing the Shreveport, La., native. His father was murdered when he was five years old, and his mother died after suffering a stroke at one of his high school basketball games.
When Washington's name wasn't called during the draft, it didn't disappoint just him, but a house full of his three brothers – of whom he's the primary caretaker.
"I know this past weekend, last weekend, really hurt us a lot as a family. So it's my job to kind of get that faith back on the road, you know," Washington said. "Because we suffered for so long we thought this past weekend would be a point where we could finally say, you know, 'off to a better life,' but we had to start back over at zero."
In this case zero is the route of an undrafted free agent, and Washington had his pick of offers from around the league. It was an old, but impactful, relationship with Cowboys receivers coach Derek Dooley that landed the speedster in Dallas.
Dooley, then the head coach at Louisiana Tech, was the first college coach to offer Washington a scholarship back in 2009. That glimmer of hope eventually led him to the bright lights of the SEC and even the NFL in the long run.
"He was the first coach to give me a chance. And once he did every other coach came along, and I ended up going to Mizzou," Washington said. "So I felt like I kind of owed him one, so I came here."
It's clear Dooley appreciates the relative anonymity afforded him with the Cowboys after the scrutiny of coaching a college power like Tennessee. Asked about Washington during the team's rookie minicamp, however, his eyes lit up.
"I still remember my home visit with him like it was yesterday – and I say 'with him,' because that's all that was there. He didn't have anybody," he said. "It was the longest home visit I've ever had with a player, I think I was there eight or nine hours, and it was emotional – it really was."
Dooley's reaction to the situation is one that many can identify with. He shared the story with his family, and he said it gave him some perspective on his own life – "I walked out of there thinking 'How can I ever complain about anything?'" he said.
From talking to Washington, though, you're not likely to hear any complaints. Regardless of any disappointments, he and his brothers are getting by. Back in Shreveport, he said his story is fairly common, just without the spotlight of the SEC or the NFL.
"Ups and downs, just like everybody else. Nothing's perfect, but we're making our way," he said. "It's just hard because most college students, when they're done they get to go home to mom and dad. When I go home I stay in a hotel, because we don't have enough room in our house."
Which brings the focal point back to the Cowboys' roster, and the steep odds facing Washington once again. Most NFL teams carry four or five receivers on their active roster, and in some cases occasionally a sixth. Starters like Dez Bryant and Terrance Williams are a given to make the team, and the Cowboys just spent a draft pick on Devin Street. [embedded_ad]
The numbers aren't necessarily in his favor – not that they have been before, and not that it bothers him.
"I think I respond better with adversity, I think that's what keeps me motivated," he said. "I've got three brothers back home whose water and electric is probably off right now, and I'm here and my job is to go make the team – no matter which way it is. So I don't care."
That approach stood out to Cowboys coach Jason Garrett, even in the short amount of time Washington has been at Valley Ranch. Garrett said Washington seemed "serious minded," and was someone who had made a great deal of progress in the days he has been with the team.
"When you have some of those things that come up in your life that you have to deal with – serious, real life things – typically that gives you a pretty good perspective on how to handle things in the world of football," Garrett said. "He certainly has those capabilities and those characteristics as a person."
Only time will tell if the lanky, fast wideout catches on with the Cowboys, or in the NFL in general. The hope from Dooley and the Cowboys' coaches is that his onfield performance continues to match his character as offseason work begins.
As for Washington, he's already moving past the draft day snub. True to his story, he said there isn't any other way to earn it but the hard way.
"I don't look at my story as a curse or anything, because it's made me the man I am today," he said. "I know what's at stake here, I know what I have to go do – I know I have three brothers that's waiting on me to bring the meal home. I'm up for it. I'm up for the task."