RENTON, Wash. – It was a simple thing, really. Leon Washington lined up in the backfield with the first-team offense, caught a short pass from Tarvaris Jackson and sprinted down the sideline.
But that simple act late in Friday’s practice, something you’d see dozens of times every day during training camp, is a blessing in the mind of Washington as he begins his second season in Seattle. This time last year, the running back didn’t know what his future held. This time last year, Washington was in the final year of his rookie contract, playing in a new city, recovering from a horrific injury that could have been a career ender.
Washington wasn’t catching passes, taking handoffs or fielding kickoffs in early August last year, he instead was going through grueling rehabilitation sessions while trying to get back from the broken tibia and fibula that ended his 2009 season with the New York Jets.
Now, a year later, Washington is playing at full speed, confident knowing that his surgically repaired leg can handle the rigors of a season. He also knows he has a future in Seattle having signed a four-year contract extension after last season.
“Just thinking about, a year ago, I was wondering, ‘How is this year is going to be for me being a Seahawk?’ ” he said. “Not knowing how it was going to turn out, not knowing how my leg would hold up. It ended up turning out great for me. First it was Coach (Pete) Carroll and (general manager) John Schneider and those guys having the faith in me to bring me in off of a devastating injury, to have the faith in me to give me a great opportunity. Secondly, was taking advantage of it, not looking back, not having any regrets, and taking advantage of my opportunity.”
Washington certainly did take advantage once he was healthy enough to do so. Despite getting a late start in training camp, Washington began the season as the team’s top kick returner, and three weeks into the season, he nearly single-handedly beat the Chargers with a pair of second-half kick return touchdowns.
The scary part? Washington admits he wasn’t close to 100 percent at that point. By his estimation, he didn’t feel completely right until December when he took a kick back for a 92-yard touchdown in San Francisco. On the surface it looked like a meaningless touchdown – the Seahawks were down 40-7 late in the third quarter – but for Washington, it was an important moment in his season.
“The turning point for me was the San Francisco game,” he said. “When I took that return back, I made a few cuts and then really turned on the speed, and that’s when I felt like I was back 100 percent and I was ready to roll.”
Plays like that one in San Francisco are why Carroll and Schneider took a chance by trading for Washington during the 2010 draft. At that point there it wasn’t clear that Washington would make it back for the start of the season, let alone go back to being a home run threat, but the move paid off. And as good as Washington was last year, Carroll is expecting even bigger things in 2011.
“Last year at this time, he was limping around and cringing as he was running with the football,” Carroll said. “He is in full flow, full-speed and he really is excited about it as we are. He loves every day out here because he knows he really is competing now. Last year, he was just out here surviving and just making it through it. So he should be a real upgrade and his play should be a real asset to us so we’re real excited about him coming back.”
By giving Washington a four-year extension reportedly worth $12.5 million, the Seahawks made it clear they see him as more than a kick returner this season. Washington had just 27 carries and nine catches last year, both career lows by far, but with a full training camp under his belt, he and the team expects more this season.
“My goal is to be on the football field and play,” he said. “My goal is to help this team win football games in any way I can. If that’s catching screens, running the ball, whatever it is, I want to do that. I don’t dictate the play calling but I’m prepared and ready to go when my name is called.”
And as bad as Washington’s injury was, some good did come out of it. In that same game in San Francisco where Washington finally felt 100 percent, receiver Deon Butler went down with a very similar leg injury. As soon as the game ended, Washington was by Butler’s side, telling the young receiver that he would be OK. And throughout Butler’s rehab, he has had a teammate to lean on in tough times.
“You can’t put that into words, the confidence he gives me,” said Butler, who is not yet able to practice. “Even when he doesn’t say anything, I can watch him, see how he’s running, see how he’s moving and just think of how he played last year. He went from an injury slightly worse than mine to a guy on kickoff returns, which is one of the most dangerous things in football. If his leg is holding up with that, that gives me a lot of confidence.”
Butler, in turn, is paying it forward to Sounders FC midfielder Steve Zakuani, who in April joined the unfortunate fraternity of Seattle athletes who have suffered gruesome leg breaks. After suffering his injury, Butler leaned on Washington, and knowing how much that helped, he made a point of reaching out to Zakuani to offer encouragement.
And while Butler and Zakuani are both in various stages of their comebacks, Washington can smile through training camp practices knowing how far he has come since this time a year ago.
“There was a little uncertainty,” he said. “I’ve never been injured like that before, so I didn’t know what to expect. … Now it’s just fun to come out here and have a job that I enjoy doing. I just love football.”