Would-be draftee Tony Washington's NFL future is being derailed by his sad past
This story appeared in ESPN The Magazine's Sept.9, 2010, issue. Subscribe today!
LOCATED IN A WAREHOUSE outside Dallas, the windowless Metroflex Gym is not air-conditioned, an aesthetic choice that edits the clientele to a select group of cops, bikers, bodybuilders and other masochists who thrive on the deprivation that exercising in unfiltered 110-degree heat produces. Inside on this blazing midsummer day, patrons are greeted by a 10-foot wooden cross and the rib-rattling sounds of speed metal or hardcore rap. The walls are plastered with bodybuilding glossies, pictures of champions past and present, including local hero and former Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman. Above the photos, artwork depicts the end times -- which, in the given environment, are easy to imagine.
The story behind the story
Reporting this story about Tony Washington, a promising talent whose past kept him frozen in time (and frozen out of football) was both excruciating and surreal. What he did -- have consensual sex with his sister when both were teenagers -- was, in my mind, a far lesser offense than the myriad crimes that are routinely forgiven by the NFL and the jury of public opinion. I found, and still find, it mind-boggling that we can cheer for a man who tortured animals or shrug off a player convicted of rape, but Washington could not be allowed a shot at redemption for a mistake he made when he was 16. (He has since found steady work in the CFL.) Writing the piece, I wondered what would happen if I were measured exclusively by the decisions I made at that age, if I had to confess my greatest shame to everyone I met because it was the law?
There was so much that couldn't fit into the narrative that was eventually printed: the absurd overreach of a well-intentioned law, the waist-deep corruption of the New Orleans Police Department in his parish, the full testimony from every member of his family absolving all parties of any wrongdoing beyond crappy judgment and absentee parenting. Even so, the portrait that ran garnered an unprecedented number of comments from readers. Sure, a few made jokes about "how hot his sister must have been," but the vast majority felt the same injustice and confusion as I did. And their heartfelt outpouring of empathy did something that time and prayer and therapy had not. It enabled Washington to move on. -- Allison Glock
Below the cross, NFL hopeful Tony Washington is pumping out a set of curls. At 6-foot-7 and 310 pounds, the 24-year-old offensive lineman is easily the biggest man in a room filled with big men. His shoulders are the size of
canned hams; his thighs cement-solid. As he pauses to swig water laced with protein powder, a 4-year-old girl toddles over and stops at his feet.
"My mama is over there," she shouts, pointing a chocolate-covered finger toward the rear of the gym.
Washington smiles, gives her a gentle high-five. "You gonna work out too?" he asks, crouching to meet the girl eye-to-eye. She shakes her head.
"Is that chocolate bar for me?" he teases.
Washington laughs, then nods to the mother, who gives him a thumbs-up. "Looking good, Tony!" she yells over the music.
He returns to his reps, sweat running like water over his cheekbones and neck. A 20-something dude wearing long shorts and flip-flops passes by, reaches up, punches Washington in the chest. "What up, brah?"
Washington nods hello while the dude raps along with the radio and rhymes right in his face -- "Put a cap in yo' muthaf---in' head!" -- bobbing up and down until, finally, he starts laughing, doubling over at his own drollery, then dances away, chin jerking like a chicken's.
"That guy, he was born rich," Washington says impassively. "And his dad lost everything. So now he has to start over." He takes his baseball cap off, turns it backward, puts it back on. "He's trying to build himself a life from nothing." The big man smiles, lips tight. "Kind of like me."
THERE ARE LINES you don't cross. That's what we all believe, what we tell ourselves to make sense of this world and its chaos, a psychological life raft we self-inflate. One thing is okay and another is not, the lines sharp as razor cuts, impossible to ignore. We like it this way. Solid. In or out. Good or bad. Right or wrong. But the circumstances, they interfere. They smudge the lines, or erase bits completely, making everything hard to see. And then we find, all of us wandering in this world and its chaos, how easy it is to get lost.
Tony Wells Washington was a joyful kid, the sort of boy other parents wanted to have over for barbecues and board games. This was before, during those brief idyllic years when his bartender dad, Thomas Wells, was still at home with them all -- Tony and older brother Kim and younger sister Caylen and mom Chrisilda Washington -- in a Dallas suburb. No one had gotten their hands on Tony yet, taken him to places he wasn't able to understand, excised his trust and replaced it with an abiding shame that led, inexorably, to the after.
He was 9 years old. Too young, he says, to see what he saw. Too small to endure what he endured. Exposure to pornography. Unbidden touching. Sexual misconduct that he stops short of calling abuse. "It was nobody that matters now," he says. Then he adds flatly, "Close relatives."[+] EnlargeSarah A. Friedman for ESPN The MagazineWashington's football-ready body is the key to his redemption.
When Washington was 12, his father left the family. "We moved to New Orleans, and he went someplace else," Tony says. No one ever said why. So he didn't ask. He was good at keeping quiet.
The boy left behind his beloved go-kart, and the woods and the parks, as he and his siblings and their mother settled a block from the projects in Marrero, La., on the west bank of the Mississippi, across the river from New Orleans. Any aspirations he harbored before moving were quickly knocked down, shattered by the bone-deep apathy that seeped into the community like tea into porcelain, dark and permanent.
Washington noticed how nobody ever talked about getting out. How nobody believed they could. Soon enough, neither did he. Months passed. Memories of Texas faded. His focus shifted from the future to the present. More specifically, to how he "could survive another day." This was not a metaphorical question. "Every day I left home, I realized I might have to fight," he says. "I spent most of my time making sure I didn't get killed."
With his gentle nature, Washington was a frequent target. Gangs of boys would circle, pound him senseless, steal his shoes. He never started fights, nor was he very good at finishing them. His strength was in taking it, picking himself up off the sidewalk, hobbling home, saying nothing. "There was no one to tell," he says.
His mother worked two restaurant jobs. He says his brother, older by three years, was a "street body," coming home late and only to sleep, before eventually enlisting in the Marines and leaving New Orleans behind. Washington spent many hours on the street himself, wandering, trying to avoid the wrong block, to avoid inadvertently pissing off the wrong guy. He saw things. Things he wished he hadn't seen. Like that girl down the road. She was 12 years old, maybe. They said she did everything. He never went to find out. But he saw her, all cutoffs and crazy hair. He looked into her eyes, knew that what they said was true.
When he wasn't walking, he rode the bus. It had AC, and he could sit. He rode for hours to places he didn't care about. Rode in circles, watching folks get on and off. He took in everything, but felt nothing. This was something he taught himself. He called it "the swallowing."
His family moved to a rougher neighborhood, then moved again. "We couldn't make rent," Washington says. Four more times they moved, putting him in three different schools. His only constant was Caylen, younger by a year. He looked after her, helped her with homework, made sure she ate dinner. She gave him purpose, reminded him of the person he used to be, before.
Still, the images piled up. The broken faces, the men stooped by life, the young boys glimpsing their futures, their last stubborn desires, draining like a cut snake. He was no different. "I tried not to think so much," he says, "because when I would think, I would get depressed."
So he shut it down, made himself "dead to the world." Happy, sad, it was all the same big nothing to him. He became concrete. He became the moon. And it worked. He was 16 years old now. Nobody could touch him.
"I WAS never taught how to be good."
After his workout, Washington is placing his order at a Chipotle in Plano, Texas. He requests a chicken burrito and a large bottled water.
"You play football?" the cashier asks him, looking at his massive forearm as he reaches for his change. Washington sucks his teeth, doesn't answer. He sits down, gingerly eats half his lunch, wraps the rest for dinner. Four of his fingers are recently tattooed, the skin still flaking from the scabs. Perseverance. Dedication. Resilience. Faith. The words trail knuckle to nail. "My life in a nutshell," he says.
Washington got the ink two weeks prior, in early July, when he heard that a Canadian Football League team was interested in signing him. "I was days from moving," he says. Then Canadian immigration officials intervened, forcing him and the CFL into a holding pattern because of his legal circumstances. "With my specific charge, it's harder to be let in. I get that. All I know is I am here, trying to make it right."
He puffs his chest, then exhales hard enough to blow a napkin off the table. He watches it float to the floor. Like 716,750 other Americans, Tony Washington is a registered sex offender. You can find his picture online, a simple head shot; he is dressed in a black jacket, eyes low, resigned. He takes a new photo every year. It's a requirement, one of the easier ones to endure. The registry lists his address and provides a map to it. His height, weight, skin color, shoe size, employer and photos from previous years are all there too. The charge is at the bottom: prohibited sexual conduct.
On May 9, 2003, Washington pleaded guilty to having consensual sex with his biological sister, Caylen. He was 16, she was 15.
"Incest," he says, looking straight ahead.
He says he didn't plan to do it. He was a teenager. Unstrung. Unsupervised. His world was at war. He was scared. Isolated. Except she was there, the two of them best friends, close as book pages. They loved each other, trusted each other. And one day that tipped into something more. Something neither one felt was wrong in the moment. "We were just sitting there, and it was like, 'Do you want to?'" he says. There was no discussion. "We did it. And it was like, 'OK, what's next?' We never talked about it after that."
Both say it happened only once more. The two never kissed. Never shared true intimacy. Just spontaneous, ill-conceived connections. Needs met when few others were.
A few months after they first had sex, Washington's sister went out one night to meet somebody. Her boyfriend, she says. Johns, the police suspected. Soon after, Washington's phone rang. His sister had been picked up by the cops. He needed to come get her, and he needed to come right away. "All I knew was my sister was in trouble," he says. "So when I showed up, and they asked me about the two of us, I said yes. I didn't know it was illegal."
As it turned out, according to Caylen's account, the cops had been asking a lot of questions about her home life, digging to find out how a 15-year-old girl ends up on the streets. (The Magazine left multiple messages seeking comment from the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office and district attorney but received no answer.) Caylen denied she was a prostitute. So they asked her if there were issues at home. Was that why she ran off? Had anyone in her family touched her, abused her? For more than three hours, she stuck to her story: She left home to meet her boyfriend. She adored her brother. He was a good kid who took care of her. Their family wasn't like that.
More officers came into the interrogation room. Caylen was alone. She had no lawyer, just her and a passel of cops and detectives, and it got later and later into the night, and she was hungry and tired. It was then, four hours in, she says, that they started talking about jail.[+] EnlargeSarah A. Friedman for ESPN The MagazineWashington hopes the road to the NFL runs through the Plano, Texas, practice field of his Arena League team.
Caylen did not want to go to jail. She wanted to leave. She says the cops promised her that if she confessed, everyone could go home, that she and her family would get free counseling and all this ugliness would end, and everyone could sleep in their own beds. They said it was her choice. Did she want to end up in prison? Her brother too?
Caylen folded. She said things that she insists now were "half-true" or "complete lies." She nodded her head yes to every question and said whatever she thought they wanted to hear.
"And then, like that, I was in jail," Tony says.
Caylen was let go as promised. Her brother, a juvenile, was processed as an adult and put in jail with grown men. He was released after a month, only to find out he would have to register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
It was an exile to another world. Washington soon found himself in mandatory therapy groups with men who had collected violent child pornography, men who had raped preschoolers. "I never thought I belonged in that club -- not by a long shot," he says. "My offense was over with when I did it. It wasn't a struggle I had or have still."
As a registered sex offender and on five-year probation, Washington could not live within 1,000 feet of a day-care center or school. He had to avoid playgrounds and churches. He could not move or travel without permission, granted at the discretion of a local officer. More immediately, he had to inform his neighbors of his crime: "I was required to put out fliers to a five-mile radius around my house. It was my name, my picture, what I was charged with. Incest."
His voice catches on the word.
"At first, people came around and talked to me. Then that stopped. I always knew when people found out."
He tried not to care. He tried to crawl even deeper into himself. But there was nowhere dark enough to hide. Every time he left his home, he felt the eyes on him, heard the whispers. He was unredeemable, broken. His sin was written on paper, put in people's mailboxes.
His mind began to betray him. Maybe he was what they said. A pervert. Sick. Maybe he didn't deserve to live. He considered suicide. "The intense humiliation," he says. "I began to feel like I deserved it. Maybe I wasn't so different from those other guys."
Washington's family stood by him. His mom, who blamed herself for the incident -- "I wasn't around," she says -- resolved to soldier on for the kids, "to act like a normal family." His dad, who had moved to New Orleans that same year but had remained largely absent from Tony's and Caylen's lives, was more confused than angry. "I would never have conceived it," Wells says. "My son and my daughter?"
Wells' friends advised him to let his son rot in jail. "But I didn't want to lose him," says the father. "If he had tried to hurt my daughter, I'd feel different. But he didn't."
Wells says his daughter told him that "she was as much to blame as Tony," that they "were experimenting." He pauses, takes a deep, cleansing breath, searches his mind for a reason. "Say you're playing football. The coach wants you to play but then says, 'Hey, we don't have helmets or cleats, but go out anyway.'" His voice sounds weary. "Sometimes in life we aren't equipped to deal with the game."
ACCORDING TO THE National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth, adolescent sex offenders have a low chance of recidivism -- 5 percent to 14 percent -- and are seen as highly treatable. Yet they are often prosecuted as adults and end up on the same state and federal sex-registration lists as violent predators, notes Patrick Maier, a former legal-defense activist specializing in sex offenders. "With these guys, the authorities can pretty much make it up as they go along," he says. Adds Bruce Cobb, an attorney in Beaumont, Texas, who is now looking into Washington's case pro bono, "Tony didn't get a fair shake. He was prosecuted as an adult. And he should not have been." Cobb has practiced law for 25 years, and he says he's disturbed by what he sees as an increasingly heedless mentality toward sex offenders: "The law is paved with good intentions, but we are starting to go crazy over this thing."
Clemency for sex offenders is as uncommon as unicorns. Politicians who pardon them aren't rewarded with re-election. Cops who are lenient on the accused aren't promoted. The public wants to believe that everything that can be done to protect their children is being done -- as well it should be. Sex offenders can be dangerous, morally corrupt sociopaths. But some are just kids like Washington, reared in a soup of turmoil, unable to decipher what sex and love are supposed to be.
"I believe I should face the consequences -- and I have," Washington says, his voice rising slightly. He is in line at a 7-Eleven, waiting to buy chewing tobacco. "I hated myself for a long time. I hated that I couldn't make a better decision. I hated what I did. I hated who I was."
Looking back, he can see the true measure of his misjudgment. He can sense in his gut the inborn error, the bedrock level of wrong. He knows how it looks to others, and he does not expect to be understood or absolved. What he wants now, as a grown man -- what he prays for, from God -- is for someone, anyone, to appreciate the circumstances.
"I'm more than what people see me as," he says, wiping his mouth with his thumb. "What I went through as a kid. I wanted to find love so bad. But I had no idea what love even was."
WASHINGTON WAS INTRODUCED to football like so many kids are, via Pop Warner. He was 9, tall enough that he played quarterback. His father jokes that he has video of a young Tony running the length of the field for a touchdown -- at his own team's goal line. "Just racing as fast as he could in the wrong direction!"
The kid continued playing through middle school in Louisiana, until his life started "going south." After his first year of high school football, in 2002, he quit the sport. Dreaming about it had started to feel useless, like a trick he was playing on himself. Then the arrest happened. And jail. He dropped out of school for a year, moved in with his dad. He reduced his world to their apartment, pulled the blinds. "I just said 'Forget it.'"
But his body continued to grow. Without lifting a single weight, Washington began to add size. Local coaches took note, pushing him to re-enroll. He did. And in 2004, his junior year, he played football at Alcee Fortier High School in New Orleans, dominating on the defensive line. He began to believe that his body -- the body that was betrayed, then betrayed him -- could be a tool. LSU expressed interest in recruiting him. "Every time I put on the pads," he says, "I felt my dream."
But the dream was short-lived. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit, and Washington's family moved back to Texas for a fresh start. There, he enrolled at the University School of Las Colinas, a charter program outside Dallas. But there was no football team, and he fell off the recruiting map.
School ended. With no college offers, Washington devoted himself to his new girlfriend, a staunch Christian he met in line at the DMV. "She was the first girl I met after the situation," he says. He was 17, she was 16. He called her for a date the same day. The two went to see "Pirates of the Caribbean." "We didn't even look at the screen." Two months later, he told her about his record. "She said she wasn't going anywhere just because of that."
When his girlfriend became pregnant, they got married and moved in together into their own apartment. "She was everything to me," Washington says. "She looked past what I did. She just wanted to be with me. That's all I wanted in the world, just someone to sit by my side."
The marriage lasted about a year -- "We were teenagers," he says -- but the friendship survived, and the two remain close, co-parenting their 5-year-old son, Tony Jr., and talking every day. (Washington also has an 11-month-old son, Tage, with his current girlfriend.) It was during his marriage, and shortly after his graduation, when a used-car dealer offhandedly suggested to Washington that he should play football. His wife saw it as a sign from above, so he went online and started searching for a coach and school that might accept him the way she had. He wrote letters, mailed grainy footage from his junior year. He implored and begged. He cast his humility like seed.
Then it happened. A nibble. Mark Sartain, then the coach at Trinity Valley Community College in Athens, Texas, wrote back. He saw something in Washington. A hunger. He decided to take a chance. "I basically interrogated him," Sartain says. "I could sense the pain in his voice, on his face. He was being held hostage to this thing." Washington voluntarily confessed his sins the first time they met, which impressed Sartain. "We'd all be in trouble if we were judged based on something we did as kids," the coach says.
Officials in both Louisiana and Texas had to ratify Washington's petition to move, something New Orleans officials initially ignored. But thanks to his persistence in seeing the process through, Washington eventually received permission. At Trinity, he started late in his first year, in 2006, after switching to the offensive line, then earned all-conference honors his second year. "There were no protests or boycotts about Tony being on the team," says Sartain, who's now the coach at East Texas Baptist. "No teammates quibbled about it."
Opposing teams were less magnanimous. You f---ing pervert. You gonna rape me like you raped your sister?
"I heard it all," Washington says.
During the lineman's second season, a friend of Sartain's, Abilene Christian coach Chris Thomsen, called about transfer prospects. Sartain assured him that Washington would be a good fit, then even wrote a letter to Abilene's president, explaining the player's past and vouching for his character. Abilene, one of the most religious schools in the country, opened its doors. Washington started every game for two seasons, and was named a two-time Division II All-American. "One of the most gifted athletes I have ever been around," Thomsen says.
At this year's NFL combine, in March, Washington finished with a 6.3 national grade, projecting him as a possible second-round talent. Then the whispers started. In team interviews, he had been up-front about his record. "No big deal," he says he was told by league gatekeepers. But Ben Roethlisberger and Michael Vick were causing a stir, ushering in a new tide of character scrutiny. And as the draft neared, owners and their decision-makers began to think it through. How do you defend your choice to draft a known sex offender? Would Washington need to announce his crime every time his team traveled to another state? (No.) Would teammates accept him?
With the whispering came rumors. That he was a rapist. That his sister was mentally disabled. That he'd had run-ins with women since the incident.
"None of which was true!" shouts his agent, former NFL defensive back Vann McElroy. "You get a feeling from bad guys. Things keep coming up. But Tony is clean, and has been for years."
The big day arrived. Washington knew better than to expect to go during the first round of the draft. "But on the second day, we believed, maybe," he says. The call didn't come. Certain he'd be selected on the third and final day, he threw a backyard party in Dallas. There were more than 30 people -- his parents, uncles, aunts, his two kids, his girlfriend, his trainer, his trainer's family, Abilene teammates -- all watching together, eating barbecue and flipping dominoes, waiting for his name to be announced.
By the fifth round, it started to hit him: Players with lower combine grades than his were being drafted. He began to pray, to beg God. The sixth round ticked by. Nothing. Then the seventh. Finally, the last pick came. No call. No one drafted him. "I couldn't explain it," he says. "I didn't want to have to explain it."
Washington got into the car with a friend, one of his Abilene teammates, and told him to "just drive." They ended up at a park, sitting there, Washington silent while his friend tried to convince him that his chance was still coming. But in the days and weeks after, there was only silence -- no invitations to camp, no tryouts, nothing. "I thought worst-case, free agent," McElroy says. "I did not sense, visiting with these teams, that no one would do anything."
The agent begins ticking off the NFL players he knows with records or bad reps: "They've got guys with DWIs, guys who killed dogs, beat up women, smoked drugs, fought in bars, raped, worse. I could go down the list." By comparison, McElroy argues, Washington's offense was minor. "I'd have no problem letting him sleep at my house with my two daughters there."
Before the draft, McElroy hired sports psychology consultant Robert Andrews to determine Washington's readiness for the pressures of the NFL. "You know what I say to people who want to throw this kid out?" Andrews says. "I say go spend six months in the worst part of New Orleans, and imagine yourself being a child there, and see if you can come to a place of understanding about how this could have happened."
Andrews dug deep in his evaluation, administering a battery of psychological tests. Washington profiled as a leader. A sociable person. A man with resilience. "Nothing to indicate any trouble down the road," Andrews says.
One front-office source from a team that dropped Washington off its draft board says the player didn't seem to show enough remorse. More to the point, the team didn't want to deal with the complications of having a sex offender on the roster. "He'd be a media distraction," the source says. "You have to ask, is he worth the headache?"
"I get it," Washington says. "It isn't just about sports. It is politics and money. Why would they take on a sex offender? I wouldn't."
ON A LATE AUGUST evening, Caylen Wells, now 23, is resting in bed at her father's house in Fort Worth, Texas, where she lives with him. She punctured her eye as a child, jumping off a mattress. She can't see clearly, or drive, so he helps with all that. The two were rebaptized not long ago, she says. They wanted to renew their faith. They wanted God to bless them.
"I feel for my brother," Caylen says calmly. "I was so happy when he got out of jail. He had no reason to be in there."
She wants this to be known, to be clear: "My brother never, ever raped me. He never tried to hold me down. Or threaten me. Or abuse me. Or frighten me. Or anything like that. What some of these people are speculating, none of that ever happened."
The Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office recounts it differently in an arrest report that says, in part, "victim tried to push and resist the subject, but was unable as he used his body weight to hold her down."
"They twisted our stories around," Caylen says. "They wanted us to incriminate each other. They told me if I said that, we could all go home."
Caylen remembers Tony's return from jail, how they hugged each other and cried with relief, how they "thought everything was done with." She didn't understand then what her brother's sentencing meant, how the ghost of their choices would haunt him, the specter trailing him until death. "We thought we could all just move on with our lives."
She insists now, eight years later, that they have. Her brother Kim is in Kuwait, a sergeant in the Marines. Her mother lives in Jamaica with her husband of five years. Tony has his football. "I would go to the ends of the earth for Tony," Caylen says. "I love him. And I know he loves me. He would never do anything to hurt me. And I would never hurt him. Not intentionally."
She reminisces about how sweet Tony used to be when they were kids, and how funny. He is less funny now. "Tony and I, we talk," she says. "Sometimes we hang out. I support him, I go to his games. We have a nice relationship. Just like any family."
WASHINGTON IS idling in the parking lot outside the high school field in Plano, where he practices with his Arena football team, the Dallas Vigilantes. He's early, so he rolls down the car windows and waits. He says hello to a few other players who amble past, some he knows from watching the NFL, men "who used to pull millions."
He earns $400 per game. His regular season is four months long, from April to July. He has no insurance, no benefits. The team has little budget for perks, like ice water, so training sessions are sometimes brief and halfhearted. Still, Washington keeps on. He loves to play. He needs to play. "With my record, it is damn near impossible to get a job," he says. "So really, this is all I got."
Although his sister's admission to police has irreparably altered his life, he insists that he has never felt betrayed by her. "We were kids," he says, then stops. He shifts in his seat, turns away.
At 24, he is just learning how to cry. Without the benefit of counseling, which he can't afford, he is trying to evolve, grow into a man. Part of that, he believes, is sharing his story. Stepping in front of the gun and waiting to see if the world will pull the trigger. "I let everyone in my life know my record," he says.
On his arm, Washington sports a tattoo of the NFL logo. Around his collarbone is more ink, several inches high and running shoulder-to-shoulder, which he got after the draft: "Only God can judge me." Both, he realizes, are wishful thinking. There are rare weightless times, moments when he almost forgets. When he is driving his car and his only concern is the snarl of traffic. But most days it feels as if he will never escape the heat of his past, like he is a giant, pressing his cheek against the sun.
Last night, his credit card was denied at Walmart. He had to leave his shaving cream and deodorant on the belt. "I'm used to it," he says, spitting Grizzly dip into a busted Styrofoam cup. Washington is broke. He buys gas with change, bums his protein powder from friends. McElroy is paying for his motel room, his rental car. Both men are counting on that one elusive big break. "My chance for salvation," Washington says.
He opens the car door, heaves himself from the cramped space. "I know how people think of sex offenders," he says, citing cases involving predators who rape children. "But that wasn't me." He pulls a shoulder to his ear, rubs the two together. "If someone did that to one of my kids, I'd kill them."
Moments later, Washington is easy to spot on the field, like a great white shark in a sea of baby seals. The day is brutally hot, wilting players like leaves. Most of them go through practice with the enthusiasm of sullen teenagers, but Washington's outsize body twitches with desire for the hit. He speeds through the drills, intense, purposeful, cocking his head to listen as the coach advises him to hold back a touch, to attempt patience. He tries again. Tamps down the eagerness. Makes himself a wall. Braces for impact. Hours pass. His exhausted teammates goof and lounge on the grass, helmets at their feet. Washington stays dressed, keeps on running, trusting somehow that it matters.
After practice, the sun finally setting, he races in his car to visit his boys before bedtime. Unshowered and damp with sweat, he is reciting his poetry. I'm cold and shivering, weak in the knees. The poetry was a therapeutic exercise he learned in jail. His first poem, the one he is reciting, is called, "Why?" I think to myself, how could you do this to me?
Washington makes a point to visit his kids every day. (The boys live with their mothers in the Dallas area.) He and Tage's mom plan to marry. Despite everything he has suffered, he still believes in true love. It is, he says, all he has ever really wanted. "I had a notebook full of love poems," he says, "but they were destroyed by Katrina." He hasn't written any lately. "If I wrote a poem now, it would be called, 'When is it over?'" He laughs a hollow laugh.
"What I dream for, it may not ever come to me," he says softly, eyes skipping over his NFL tattoo. "But I have to be ready to receive it. Just in case. Otherwise, what am I doing?"
Recently there has been been a slim ray of light. A scout from a UFL team has been sniffing around, albeit cautiously. "I'm trying to make that jump from a kid having a tough time to a kid who has sex with his sister," the scout says. "No one is going to argue that Tony is not talented enough. We just need to know the ramifications of putting him on the roster."
Washington isn't celebrating yet. He has learned his lesson about hope, fallen through those trap doors too many times. He has slogged his burden around for eight years -- longer if you start counting at age 9, when he was just a boy in a go-kart, tracing the Texas fields. He has learned something else, too, something about life and lines and what happens when you cross them. "I used to always be in such a rush," he says. "Now I wait."
"For change. For a chance. For somebody to decide it is enough. Because in the end, no matter how much right I do, it isn't my choice to say, 'You're forgiven.'"
Until that day, for as long as the universe will allow, he will put on his pads, and he will stand in the heat, on that line, and he will take the hits, one after another, unflinching. It is the thing he does best.
It is, he believes, what he deserves.
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