In the biggest moment of Missouri’s season, 100 black-clad Tigers looked to L’Damian Washington. It was late October, and South Carolina had just forced a game with then–no. 5 Missouri into overtime at Faurot Field in Columbia. Just before the coin toss, the entire team gathered around Washington on the sideline. “We’ve got to earn that shit!” Mizzou’s captain yelled, in earshot of the TV cameras. Turning in a circle, making eye contact with his teammates, he yelled it again. Some nodded. Some swayed. No one’s eyes wandered. When it was all there to be won or lost, they listened to L’Damian Washington — because he’d earned it.
During Washington’s first year at Missouri, I covered the football team as a student reporter. They say that at 6-foot-4, he weighed 180 pounds. I say they’re liars. He was as skinny as skinny comes, a two-star recruit ranked outside the top 50 in Louisiana alone. He redshirted that season; I don’t know how much anyone ever expected out of the stick from Shreveport.
How far Washington has come in life will always trump how far he has come as a player, but his football career has been remarkable in its own way. After catching 50 passes in his first three college seasons combined, Washington equaled that as a senior, snatching 50 balls for 893 yards and double-digit touchdowns. The best play of his career came a couple of hours before that sideline speech, with the Tigers backed up inside their own 5-yard line. On third-and-8, quarterback Maty Mauk hit Washington with a pass down the right sideline. When Washington made the catch, around the 25, there were two or three Gamecocks who had a chance to drag him down. It took a few steps for that chance to be gone. See, L’Damian Washington can fly.1
I’ll let you get to the end of the film before I spoil Washington’s 40, but all season, he showed off the type of speed that — at 6-foot-4 — is sure to leave NFL general managers at least a little intrigued. The concern with Washington is that even after putting some meat on that frame the past three years, he’s still slight for a professional receiver. Being able to burn down the sideline doesn’t matter much if you can’t get around or through a cornerback holding you up at the line.
There’s also occasional concern about his hands. He lets the ball fall into his chest too much before corralling it with his arms. If his college career is any hint, though, Washington has the interest and capacity to get better. And the promise is there. With the game tied in the second half against Texas A&M, and a trip to the SEC championship game on the line, Washington pulled in a back-shoulder, goal-line fade that we see all the time on Sundays.
That was the thing about Washington during Mizzou’s unlikely run in 2013 — his best plays usually came when the Tigers needed them most. The height and the speed will draw teams in, but what might ensure his draft-worthy status is what else Washington was to Mizzou. From those timely touchdowns to his defined role as the team’s emotional core, L’Damian Washington was everything a coach could want. This weekend, all it takes is for one more coach to think so.