COLUMBIA — L'Damian Washington listens when the Missouri football coaches repeat one of their favorite mantras.
Every day, regardless of the circumstances, each player must determine what kind of attitude he is going to have, they say. According to co-offensive line coach Josh Henson, it's a lesson of personal accountability.
Missouri (7-5, 5-4 in Big 12)
vs. North Carolina (7-5, 3-5 ACC)
WHEN: 4 p.m. Dec. 26
WHERE: Independence Stadium, Shreveport, La.
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM; KCMQ/98.7 FM
Henson knows, though, that the lesson is merely a refresher course for the redshirt sophomore wide receiver he helped recruit.
“L’Damian had that beaten in," Henson said. "He obviously has a lot of practice in that already.”
Washington lost both of his parents during his childhood in Shreveport, La., where Missouri will play North Carolina on Dec. 26 in the Independence Bowl. The game is two days before the fifth anniversary of his mother's death.
While Washington and his three brothers struggled financially to stay together, he also managed to thrive at Green Oaks High School, both in the classroom and on the football field.
It was an opportunity rather than another setback that led Washington to leave Shreveport and his brothers. He departed for Missouri with the key to the city.
Leaving home was bittersweet, but as Washington prepares to return and play before his community, he says it was the right thing to do.
“Not too many people make it out of where I come from,” Washington said. “That was huge, especially a guy from my background."
Washington, 20, is the third of Sonya Washington's four sons. LaCourtney Washington is 24, Tobias Washington is 22 and Tomarious is 14. The father of the first three was shot and killed when L'Damian Washington was 5 years old. She raised them in the Martin Luther King, Jr. neighborhood of Shreveport.
Sonya Washington held jobs at the LSU hospital in Shreveport and WalMart but supported her boys beyond paying the bills. If LaCourtney had a game at 4 p.m. and L’Damian played at 6 p.m., she would make it to both. Come kickoff or tipoff the brothers did not need to scan the crowd. She would be there.
“It didn’t matter if she needed to leave work,” Washington said. “She was like the team mom.”
She was there in a Bossier City gym for a Green Oaks basketball game on December 28, 2006. L’Damian Washington was a 15-year-old sophomore. LaCourtney was 19, Tobias was 17 and Tomarious was nine.
As the game was ending, L’Damian Washington learned his mother was feeling sick. He checked on her, and she told him she was feeling better, so he followed his team into the locker room. When he returned, he found out that his mother had been rushed to the hospital.
When the four brothers went to the hospital, a doctor told them their mother had died because of complications involving a blood clot in her leg. She was 38.
According to Green Oaks football coach Stephen Dennis, who arrived at the hospital shortly thereafter, the hospital staff kicked the brothers out for crying too loudly. Ebenezer Baptist Pastor Jimmy Smith, the grandfather of L’Damian Washington’s best friend, Josh Baker, had to come to claim the body.
"That was a disastrous night," Smith said. "Your mother is watching you play a sport, and then all of a sudden you get to the hospital and they tell you she's gone."
“After that, they began the journey of trying to make it,” Dennis said.
Sonya Washington had taught her boys to stick together. Now she was gone, but they did not consider going separate ways. They weren't going to feel sorry for themselves, and they were going to make it.
It was not easy. LaCourtney Washington worked whatever jobs he could get while the younger brothers continued school. When L’Damian Washington turned 16, he began working at the same hospital his mother had, delivering archived medical records doctors requested.
Sometimes, it wasn’t enough. Sometimes, they had no running water. Sometimes, the power went out. Rent went unpaid.
L’Damian Washington had other people looking out for him. He began attending Ebenezer Baptist every Sunday, and he spent many nights at Smith's house with Baker.
"They're just like two peas in a dish," Smith said. "L'Damian's like a grandson to us."
Allowing anyone else to support him, though, was not an option. Everybody has problems of their own, L'Damian Washington said. And besides, he would not leave his brothers.
“It made us tougher, and it brought us closer together,” L'Damian Washington said. “I praise God for that.”
In fact, L'Damian Washington’s loyalty to his brothers led to the only trouble Dennis remembers him getting into. A few months after their mother died, Tobias Washington got into a fight, and his younger brother did not walk away. Consequently, L'Damian Washington spent two months toward the end of his sophomore year in an alternative school.
“What person, especially after what they had gone through, is not going to support his brother?” Dennis asked. “(Green Oaks) accepted him back, and he never made any trouble. He came back and never missed a beat.”
The summer before his junior year, L’Damian Washington started to show his potential on the football field. LaCourtney Washington had been a star running back, “the guy,” at Green Oaks. L'Damian Washington had the same speed, and coaches noticed his focused stare when he was competing. Although he wasn't a running back, people began telling L’Damian Washington, “You’re going to be as good as LaCourtney.”
Still, even with football, he did not get any breaks. By his junior year, L'Damian Washington was not close to his full height. The only college camp he attended was at Grambling State, a Football Championship Subdivision team. A coach there told him he was too short to play there in college. Then, a promising quarterback at Green Oaks flunked out of school. The backup wasn’t very good.
L'Damian Washington focused on playing cornerback, and he had seven interceptions and made the All-District team. He also punted and returned kicks. No one outside of Green Oaks, though, noticed him.
That changed during his senior season, by which time the quarterback had improved enough to get L'Damian Washington the ball. He caught 53 passes for 1,064 yards and 12 touchdowns.
In a game against Rayville, LSU coaches were there to recruit an opposing receiver, Kenny Bell (who now plays for Alabama). L'Damian Washington stopped Bell and caught seven passes for 257 yards and three touchdowns of his own.
“At the end of the night they were trying to find out who No. 2 was on our team,” Dennis said. “That was the beginning of it. From that time on, it seemed like people were coming in looking for L’Damian.”
Henson was a coach at LSU and began talking to L'Damian Washington. In the months following Washington’s senior season, Henson took a job at Missouri as the co-offensive line coach. Henson continued talking to L'Damian Washington, and Barry Odom, then the Missouri director of football operations, visited Washington in Shreveport.
Not many players on what Dennis calls major Division I teams come out of Shreveport, and the last one he remembers from Green Oaks was Roovelroe Swan, who went to LSU. That had been 20 years ago — L'Damian Washington graduated with Swan’s son.
Some have gone to Louisiana Tech, an FBS school about an hour away in Ruston, La., and others had the talent to play at major conference universities. Talent wasn’t what stopped them from following through.
“It was a lack of grades, they didn’t stay with their books,” Dennis said. “We had some kids that had the same opportunities to go on scholarship, but they didn’t follow through like L’Damian did.”
Because of L'Damian Washington’s potential, Dennis said the Green Oaks faculty kept “a close eye” on him, but they didn’t need to push him. Merely surviving school was not his goal. L'Damian Washington finished in the top-10 of his class.
It became a question of where, rather than if, L'Damian Washington would go. Louisiana Tech was the first school to offer Washington a scholarship, in December of his senior year, and he said he committed quickly. After all, the school was an hour away and would allow him to go home on the weekends.
Then he visited Minnesota and Nebraska. He liked both, but they were way too far from home. Finally, he visited Missouri. It was still a 10-hour drive or a connecting flight through Memphis. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be that far away from his brothers.
His brothers convinced him otherwise.
“They said, ‘At the end of the day, going to the bigger school will benefit you more, benefit us more.’” L'Damian Washington said. “‘It’s your dream, you are the one that got yourself this far, go to Mizzou to reward yourself for working so hard.’”
Shreveport sent L'Damian Washington off with a ceremony recognizing his accomplishments on and off the field. It was there he was given the key to the city. A couple hundred people attended.
For Dennis and others, it was as bittersweet as it was for L'Damian Washington. But they, too, understood.
“Being able to move away, and being far enough away that he can really find himself — that will end up being a good thing for L’Damian,” Dennis said.
Washington went home for the first weekend of December, thinking he would not get another chance until after the yet-to-be-announced bowl game. LaCourtney and Tobias Washington both have steady work, and Tomarious Washington is a freshman, and backup quarterback, at Green Oaks.
All they wanted to talk about, though, was Missouri. Over games of Madden and NBA 2K, Washington's brothers bombarded him with “a thousand” questions about the season.
He had stories. L'Damian Washington has 17 catches for 317 yards and three touchdowns this season. Two came in the fourth quarter against Arizona State and Baylor, plays that Missouri needed to stay in the games. The other was 45-yard pass he caught in Norman to silence the Sooners and give the Tigers an early 14-3 lead.
Take the touchdowns away, though, and the brothers' opinion of L'Damian Washington would not change. They know he continues to get good grades. His GPA slipped to around a 2.9 recently, but last season he was named to the All-Big 12 academic team.
They have heard him say his degree comes first at Missouri, and they have heard about his plans to use one in psychology to help other Shreveport kids from what he calls a hard background.
“Even if I wouldn’t have been able to play, just to be able to go through school, they would have been proud of me,” L'Damian Washington said. “That’s huge.”
Henson said that L'Damian Washington was a late bloomer in high school, and he wonders how much potential remains untapped even now. Nothing would surprise him, given what Washington has already accomplished.
How was L'Damian Washington able to make it? Henson is not totally sure, but he has an idea.
"I think the biggest factor is not feeling sorry for yourself," Henson said. "Some people get in tough situation and say, 'Well I can’t succeed because of this, I can’t succeed because of that.' He said, 'I’ve been dealt the hand I’ve been dealt, I’m going to make a choice to do something great with it.'"
When L'Damian Washington landed in Memphis on his way back to school, he turned on his phone and got the news. Missouri was headed to the Independence Bowl. He would be spending Christmas at home.
Shreveport is looking forward to having him. Dennis said everybody at Green Oaks is talking about it, and he claimed many people are going to the game just to see L'Damian Washington.
“This is one of our favorite sons,” Dennis said. “He has really made our community here very proud.”