Missouri senior wide receiver L’Damian Washington doesn’t remember the teacher’s name and isn’t even sure what class he was in, but, as a high school sophomore growing up in Shreveport, La., he never forgot the message.
“I remember this teacher picked up this newspaper and he said, ‘A few of you all are going to be in this paper one day, and it isn’t going to be for anything good,’
” Washington recalled.
He also remembers shooting back, “I’m going to be on the front of that paper one day, and it’s going to be for something great. I’ll show you. I’m going to get out of this school.”
It sounds harsh, but it really wasn’t a rude exchange.
Washington, whose breakout senior season for the Tigers brought with it the possibility of NFL riches and a new life for him and his three brothers, was in an alternative school at the time. He’d been booted from public school shortly after being orphaned at 15 years old.
Months earlier, Washington’s single mother, Sonya, died of complications from a blood clot, which broke loose as she watched L’Damian’s Green Oaks basketball team battle Loyola College Prep on Dec. 28, 2006, at a Christmas tournament in Bossier City.
“I had a hell of a game,” Washington said. “Probably about 20 points off the bench, so that was my coming out game as a sophomore.”
Before he got a chance to celebrate with Sonya, to see the pride in her eyes, she was gone.
Not long after that, Washington— whose father, William Myles, had been shot and killed 10 years earlier in a botched robbery in Cullen, La. — found himself sitting in that particular classroom for that particular lesson.
“When I spoke up, it was a pledge to myself and I meant no disrespect to that teacher, but I had to set myself straight and also set some goals,” Washington said. “No matter what, you’ve got to set some goals for yourself in everything you do in life. You’ve got to have something to reach for and look forward to.”
At the Southeastern Conference Football Media Days in August, more than a few reporters scoffed when Washington predicted Missouri would have 10 or 11 wins this season.
It was an understandable reaction considering that the Tigers were coming off a 5-7 season in their SEC debut and had been picked sixth among seven teams in the preseason coaches’ poll.
Even a handful of Missouri fans ridiculed Washington for his over-the-top optimism.
Washington, who has caught 47 passes for a team-high 853 yards with 10 touchdowns, is the one laughing now after Missouri, 11-2, won the SEC East and reached the conference championship game.
As Washington tells it, he basically had to trick Missouri into offering him a scholarship. He was tall at 6 feet 4, but skinny — “probably 150 pounds soaking wet,” he said — as a high school senior.
He originally committed to Louisiana Tech, thinking he wouldn’t get any other offers. Once Missouri showed interest, though, the Tigers became his top choice thanks to their spread offense.
Slow to extend an official scholarship offer, Washington schemed to force Missouri’s hand and succeeded in late January 2009.
As he prepared to board a plane for his official visit to Nebraska, “I went out on a limb and called Mizzou and told them, ‘I’m going to commit to Nebraska this weekend if you don’t offer me.’ I had to leave a voicemail, but when I got off the plane, I had a message from (former assistant) coach (Barry) Odom saying they were going to go ahead and offer me a scholarship.”
Washington could have traveled any number of roads after his mother’s death. He even tested a few darker paths.
“At first, I ran the streets, and that’s no place for a 15-year-old,” he said. “That’s how I ended up at alternative school my sophomore year. I ended up going back to public school my junior year, but going to alternative school was the best thing that ever happened to me. That wasn’t the person that I wanted to be.”
Eventually, buoyed by his mom’s memory and the love of those three brothers, the path Washington settled on led him to Dallas this week as the Tigers prepare to tangle with Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl on Friday at AT Stadium.
Authorities and some of Washington’s family wanted to split up Sonya’s children after her death, but the four brothers refused to be separated.
Instead, LaCourtney, who is the oldest and was 19 at the time, took over the household, which included L’Damian along with Tobias, who was 17, and Tomarious, who was 9.
“He’s got a family of his own, so for him to worry about me and my brothers was a bigger boulder on his back,” Washington said. “But he embraced the challenge, and he stepped up to the plate. Honestly, it’s a credit to him. You could say he sent his first child to college, because I’m in college.”
Of course, things didn’t always go smoothly, including L’Damian’s semester in an alternative school, but the Washington brothers held tight to one another.
“There were times we didn’t have something to eat or we’d all have to share, there were times the lights were off or we had to sacrifice the water for the light bill,” LaCourtney said. “There were a lot of times it was real hard.”
On occasion, the brothers received a helping hand from a relative or the local church, but that kindness extended only so far.
“When all the weeping and all the grieving was done, people would say, ‘Call me if you need me.’ But that only lasts so long,” said LaCourtney, who has two children of his own — J’Meyiah, 7, and LaCourtney Jr., 1. “Everybody has to go back to their family and their life, so it was hard.”
The Washington brothers were evicted from several apartments, unable to pay the rent, but through all the upheaval — and several moves — they stuck it out until the summer of 2009, a few months before L’Damian left for Missouri.
Tomarious is a junior a Green Oaks and on track to graduate next spring. All three of his older brothers have already graduated high school.
“That’s small to some people, but that’s big where I come from,” said L’Damian, who was given the key to the city and his own day after graduating high school for all he overcame. “That’s not the norm back home, so I think (LaCourtney) did a great job with me and my brothers.”
His first few weeks at Missouri, Washington wasn’t convinced that he belonged. The rail-thin kid in an oversized shirt given to him by Kip Edwards was mistaken by teammates for a walk-on at times.
It bothered him, but “honestly, I came to college not expecting to play,” Washington said. “I didn’t think I was good enough. I wasn’t highly recruited, you know, a two-star. I was like, ‘If I can go to a big-time college and learn the tricks of the trade and become a coach, I’m good.’ That’s what I wanted to do — that and graduate and get away from home a little bit.”
He also set some goals and used those early snubs — from recruiters or teammates unimpressed with his physical stature — as fuel.
“I made it my mission to show them I belonged here,” Washington said. “In one-on-ones, from that first day, I tried to kill whoever I was going against — and I usually won. That’s when I realized I could play here.”
Washington has emerged as one of the brightest stars for No. 9 Missouri, a highly productive and beloved figure whose unflappable and resilient nature is a perfect fit this season’s Tigers.
“(He’s) just a talented guy and such a leader on our team,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “He leads by example, and our players have so much respect for him with his background and all he’s been through.”
Washington’s competitive drive continues to rage, but once again he has an eye toward bigger and better things.
With his size, hands and speed, he has rocketed up NFL Draft boards.
ESPN analyst Todd McShay, who hadn’t even evaluated Washington before the season, now has a midround grade on him. It could become a second-round grade with a blazing 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.
“I’m going to blow that 40 up,” Washington said. “I’m going to kill it. If I don’t run low 4.3s, I’m going to be disappointed. I want to get about 4.33 or 4.32.”
But he’s not going to do it strictly for himself.
“I want to be successful to the point where my brothers never really have to worry about anything,” Washington said. “I’m playing in these big-time venues, like the SEC Championship game, but my brothers don’t even have the money to make it to the games or they’re at home with their lights off sometimes.”
That provides motivation and the fact Washington didn’t receive any all-conference honors and wasn’t invited to the Senior Bowl only adds more fuel.
“I’m not mad,” he said. “I like that. I like it a lot, because at the next level that’s my motivation. OK, these guys were better? I’ll show them, because I’m never satisfied.
“I need that second contract. Whatever happens to me, I’ll be all right, but I know my brothers are looking to me to make something happen. Until they’re all right, I’m not going to be all right. When they are good, then I’ll be good. Until then, I’m hungry.”
There have been a lot of welfare Christmases for the Washington brothers, but L’Damian sees a light at the end of the tunnel, and he’s determined to run to it.
“I’m in a position to where we could be good for life and don’t have to worry about the water not being on when we get home or the lights, where Christmas could be lovely again,” he said. “I’m looking forward to that moment.”