Thursday, February 19, 2009
Vic Washington, football player (1946-2008)
By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
February 19, 2009
Of all the spectacles possible in football, few matched the fury and grace of Vic Washington in an open-field dash.
Any time he was handed the ball – whether by his own quarterback, or after snagging an interception, or while receiving an opponent's kick – it seemed possible that he might scamper all the way to the end zone.
He recorded brilliant individual runs in high school and college and on the bright stage of the National Football League.
One of his more memorable romps occurred in the fourth quarter of the 1968 Grey Cup. The play was a turning point in the game.
He amazed football fans with his dazzling runs, but injuries limited his career and he was forced to leave the game too young. “I took every play like it was my last play,” he once said. “That's the only way to play.”
The former player became destitute, relying on food stamps and, for a time, living without a home in the community where he had been a high-school hero. He spent some time as an ordained pastor in Arizona.
For many years, he fought with the NFL over a disability pension. He also spoke in retirement of football's unspoken but widespread drug use, from amphetamines to cocaine to steroids, and admitted that his struggles with chronic pain led to depression.
Mr. Washington died on the last day of 2008, nearly unnoticed by the sporting world. As a departure, it was as inauspicious as his beginning.
Victor Arnold Washington was born to Marion Washington, a 16-year-old single mother in Plainfield, N.J. He said as an adult that he had never met his father, identified as J.T. Smith in a paid obituary notice. The boy was raised by his maternal grandmother until a series of family difficulties led to his placement in an orphanage for three years.
He was a strapping youth at 5-foot-11 and 190 pounds, lean in face as well as physique. In high school, he thrived on the track, the ball diamond and especially the football gridiron.
Plainfield High coach Abe Smith knew how to handle athletes on the cusp of greatness.
In his quarter-century guiding the Plainfield Cardinals, the disciplined coach handled several future professionals, including Milt Campbell, who won Olympic decathlon gold in 1956 before playing football in Montreal. Several other Plainfield high schoolers became professionals.
The University of Wyoming recruited Mr. Washington on a scholarship in 1965. Always a threat as a running back and a devilishly quick cornerback on defence, Mr. Washington excelled as a punt returner. He led all collegians in punt returns in his junior year, setting school records for single-game returns (145 yards) and single-season returns (565 yards).
Mr. Washington seemed to have his greatest success on the road. He ran a punt 55 yards into the end zone against the University of Texas at El Paso, and he stunned a partisan crowd at Provo, Utah, by returning a kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown.
The Cowboys were ranked fifth in the United States when they faced the unranked Louisiana State Tigers in the 1968 Sugar Bowl. They went into the locker-room with a 13-0 halftime lead, but lost 20-13.
It turned out to be Mr. Washington's last college game. That March, an intramural basketball game on the Laramie campus ended in a physical altercation between him and a 19-year-old student referee, who charged that he was knocked unconscious and suffered a seven-stitch cut over an eye. After pleading guilty to an assault charge, Mr. Washington was fined $25 and received a suspended five-day jail sentence. The university permanently expelled him.
He was lured north to the Ottawa Rough Riders by Kelley Mote, a former NFL player working as an assistant to Frank Clair. In November, 1968, the team advanced to the Grey Cup final against the Calgary Stampeders at Toronto's Exhibition Stadium.
Mr. Washington was part of two key plays in the second half.
First, the Rough Riders tackled Calgary's punter at midfield before he could get off a kick. The good field position became all the better following the rookie's spectacular 14-yard run from scrimmage, which set up an Ottawa touchdown. The play seemed to give Mr. Washington a boost of confidence.
The second play, a game-changer, was called by Ottawa quarterback Russ Jackson, who employed a variety of innovative manoeuvres to keep the Stampeders' defence guessing. With Calgary leading 14-11 early in the third quarter, Mr. Jackson selected a play described as a “quick pitch sweep left.” The Rough Riders lined up on their own 30-yard line with three flankers on the left and Mr. Washington as the lone running back.
On the snap, Mr. Washington broke to his left to receive an underhanded toss from the quarterback. Just as the ball arrived, he looked up. That was a mistake.
“I took the pitchout,” he told The Globe and Mail's Dick Beddoes in the locker room after the game. “I was looking to get behind my blockers when the ball bobbled right through my hands.”
A lucky bounce salvaged the play. “The ball hit the ground twice, but bounced back in my arms. I got a block from [Whit Tucker] and was gone.”
Two Stampeders gave chase, but Mr. Washington was gone, untouched on an 80-yard romp to the end zone. It established a new record for the longest run in Grey Cup history, and still stands after 40 seasons. “All I could think as I ran was ‘I hope I don't get a cramp! I hope I don't get a cramp!' ” he said.
The Rough Riders never relinquished their lead on the way to a 24-21 victory, and Mr. Washington got the keys to a new car after being named the game's most valuable player.
He spent another season in Ottawa before joining the B.C. Lions. But Vancouver was not to his liking. He became so disgruntled that his teammates assigned two players to address his attitude, according to sports columnist Jim Taylor.
Running back A.D. Whitfield appealed to his athletic pride and his Christian beliefs, but veteran receiver Ernie Pitts had a different approach. “I told him that if he got out of line one more time, I was going to kick the living crap out of him,” Mr. Pitts told the columnist.
Whichever part of the message got through, Mr. Washington behaved for the remainder of the season.
The next season, he signed with the NFL's San Francisco 49ers, cementing his roster spot with two touchdowns during an exhibition game against San Diego. He earned a spot in the Pro Bowl after rushing for 811 yards with a 4.2-yard average in his debut season.
His greatest single feat in the NFL was a 97-yard kickoff return in San Francisco's 1972 playoff loss to the Dallas Cowboys. He also played one season with the Houston Oilers and two with the Buffalo Bills.
Mr. Washington played the entire 1973 season with a cracked kneecap, the result of a hard tackle on artificial turf in a preseason game. He was prescribed painkillers by team doctors, who also administered cortisone injections so he could take to the field despite his pain.
The sudden end to his professional career began a spiral in his personal life. His marriage collapsed, and in interviews with the Chicago Sun-Times in 1993 and The Wall Street Journal in 2005, he spoke about being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, leaving him unable to watch football on television without “reliving the experience of being in a war zone.”
“We were in a war out there,” he said. “And using cocaine was seen as a way of getting psyched up to have an edge. I understood it at the time because we were out of reality. Pro football is not reality.”
His struggles included bankruptcy, a stint on welfare and a brief period of homelessness.
According to the Journal, he filed a disability claim in 1983 and was diagnosed with arthritis, degenerative joint disease and other ailments.
A psychiatrist found he suffered from depression and an inability to concentrate. Still, trustees of the NFL's disability plan split 3-3 about whether his disability was football-related or related to his troubles as a youth. They approved a benefit of just $750 per month, instead of the $4,000 to which he felt he was entitled.
Mr. Washington was named to the University of Wyoming Athletics Hall of Fame in 2005. In the years after he left the football field, he had become one of those figures whose reputation grew in the retelling. To Canadian football fans of a certain generation, his name still elicits memories of the spectacular.
Victor Arnold Washington was born March 23, 1946, in Plainfield, N.J. He died Dec. 31, 2008, at Lehigh Valley Hospice in Allentown, Penn. A resident of Greenwich Township, N.J., he was 62. He leaves a son, three daughters, three sisters and three grandchildren.
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