In a world where dog fighting, weapons charges and police blotters dominate the sports pages it’s refreshing to come across a player like Marcus Washington. Between his positive outlook, 100-watt smile and infectious personality he quickly became a fan favorite ever since taking over our nation’s capital in 2004.
As the Redskins head into their bye week, we caught up with the locker room leader to talk about everything from dealing with his share of adversity last season to the town where everyone knows his name.
You are originally from Auburn, Alabama. What’s it like there and what was your childhood like?
My childhood? Hmmm … there’s not really a whole bunch going on in Auburn. Most days just consisted of playing with your friends, running through the woods and playing all different types of games – football, basketball – a little bit of everything. But, not a lot. Growing up loving Auburn football, loving college football.
How early did you start playing football and how many other positions did you play when you were younger? What was your favorite NFL team growing up?
I started playing in the yard when I was younger. I started organized football when I got to the seventh grade, and I started off playing strong safety, fullback, tight end, wide receiver and cornerback in high school. Receiver and corner were my best positions back then.
My favorite NFL team growing up? Probably the Buffalo Bills. I just liked them because they won a lot, they had some really good linebackers and I liked Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed and all those guys.
Are you naturally athletic, or did you have to work harder to get to the highest level of competition? What other sports, if any, are you good at?
I’m pretty athletic, but I’m probably more tough than anything. Out-toughing people, that’s probably the biggest thing in football.
I played a little basketball. I had to work more at basketball – it didn’t come as natural. I used to really like soccer too. In high school I played forward and center in basketball, now I’m probably more of a banger – more of a Ben Wallace-type player. But I could play a little bit in high school.
You attended Auburn High School in Auburn, Alabama, which is also where Dallas Cowboys outside linebacker Demarcus Ware and New York Giants defensive end Osi Umenyiora went to high school. How is that much talent coming out of one high school?
I don’t know. Guys just really enjoy playing football down there in Auburn. It’s such a football-oriented town, you just kind of fall in love with it and you’ve got the university pretty much in your backyard, so you can watch certain players and get an understanding of how I need to play, day in and day out, to get to the next level.
Me and Osi actually took a couple classes together in high school and Demarcus, I played ball with him and his cousins. Yeah, we all know each other.
After high school, you played college ball for Auburn University. What was your overall college experience like and what did you get out of your time there?
It was cool. I played for my best friend’s dad, who was my position coach growing up. I got converted to linebacker and that was my first introduction to the linebacker position. It didn’t come naturally at first, but by my junior year I started coming into my own and got better. I was a slow developer – developed kind of late and was kind of small coming out of high school.
How big time is the football program there?
It’s pretty big time – especially the football program. That’s SEC football and people live, eat and breathe SEC football down there. We don’t have any pro teams, so either you’re Alabama or you’re Auburn. It’s not like a lot of other states where it’s divided up and people love a professional baseball team or professional basketball team. We don’t have any of that. You’re pretty much either Auburn or Alabama.
You were drafted by the Indianapolis Colts with the 28th pick in the second round (59th overall) of the 2000 NFL Draft. Talk to us about what it felt like to get drafted to play in the NFL. Were you happy to be drafted or were you disappointed you weren’t picked higher?
You know, I was just happy to be drafted. I figured if I could just get there I could do the rest. Just getting there, especially being drafted on the first day was a pretty big deal. I didn’t have any parties or anything, but just getting drafted was a big honor.
How much of a transition is it to go from the college game to the pros? And, what was like playing for a team that was clearly one of the best in the NFL on offense but wasn’t nearly as prolific on defense?
For me it was a pretty big transition because I was a defensive end my last year in college and had to become a stand-up linebacker. So a lot of times early on the play would be going one way and I’d be going the other way because I wasn’t used to it. It came and I got better, but I’m still learning – even if I’ve come a long ways.
It was an adjustment, but I learned a lot by going up against a really good offense day in and day out. You learn how to compete against guys that are pretty good at what they do. I think I really benefited by going against those guys day in and day out in practice.
Because of Peyton Manning’s contract situation you were made you a free agent in March of 2004 and the Washington Redskins quickly made you an offer. Were you disappointed that the Colts let you go or happy to head to Washington?
I wasn’t really disappointed because you have to understand the business side of it. In a perfect world I’m sure they would have kept me. Bill Polian actually wrote me a letter just kind of saying that he hated to let me go and things like that, but I didn’t have any hard feelings about it. There were some great guys over there, but I fell in love with D.C. We built this team based on our defense, so everything kind of worked out for me in the end. There’s a lot of tradition here, we’ve got a hard-nosed type of squad and the fans here are great and really love football. It reminds me of Auburn a little bit – we even have our big rivalry with Dallas and that whole Cowboys and Indians type of thing. I fell in love with the Redskins and with D.C.
A lot of people who are critical of the Redskins say they continue to overpay for free agent busts instead of focusing on the draft. Well, you were a free agent, and since Mr. Washington came to Washington, you’ve made the Pro Bowl in 2004 and anchored a top-ranked defense that carried the entire team to the playoffs in 2005. So not all of the Redskins free agents are busts, right?
It worked pretty well for me. You know, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. Some teams like to do it from the draft. Some teams like to go out and get high-quality guys and we’ve been lucky to bring in some really good guys in here and we’ve been able to gel really fast. We’ve been pretty successful as a defense since I got here and I think we’ll continue to get better as a defense and as a team.
We think you’ve been spoiled a little bit – playing for Hall of Fame coach Job Gibbs and for future Hall of Famer Tony Dungy. Some players are only in the league long enough to play for a guy like Steve Spurrier, so how blessed are you to play for two of the best coaches of our generation?
I’m really fortunate because, the thing about great coaches is you learn a lot about football, but you learn a lot about life as well. You know, how to approach everyday life. Coach Dungy is a big Christian guy who has had to fight through some tough adversity and been pretty successful. You just kind of watch a guy like that and try to imitate him and you know you’ll be a pretty good man. And Coach Gibbs is the same way – he’s a Christian guy who very seldom curses, loves his family and is pretty much successful at everything he touches. Just being around people like that, I think it rubs off on you. Most times, when you hang around great people, they rub off on you.
Speaking of coaches who rarely curse, what is it like to play for Gregg Williams?
(Laughs). Gregg is a fiery coach, and I think on the defensive side of the ball you need a little of that. You need a coach who will light a fire up under you every now and then. I think if we gave Gregg a helmet on Sundays he’d be out there trying to make plays with us, so he definitely gets you going. He comes from that Buddy Ryan school of thought – a high intensity type coach. As a defensive player you love playing for a fiery defensive coordinator like that.
During a routine drug test last August, your urine sample was classified as diluted, and by league rules you were placed in the NFL’s substance abuse program. For the rest of the season you were subjected to random testing and you even had to undergo a psychiatric evaluation – even though you didn’t actually fail a drug test. How tough was it to go through all of that and should the NFL fix the system so they’re not penalizing a guy who could have simply drank too much water?
It was a tough deal last year. I hated it because I felt like I was being accused of a crime I didn’t do. It really pisses you off because you shouldn’t be guilty until proven innocent. It should be the other way around. But unfortunately, in that situation, it wasn’t the case. They definitely need to revisit that whole rule. I think in some of the other leagues – like in baseball or the NBA – if a guy’s sample is too diluted they just test him again. Especially if he hasn’t ever failed a drug test.
I’ve never failed one, all the way back to college, and this is my eighth year in the league. I got tested in the first couple days of training camp, when it’s pretty damn hot in Virginia, so you gotta be hydrated because they’re constantly preaching to us to hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Well, you don’t wanna be too hydrated or you can get thrown into some crazy deal that haunts you all year. So, I think they need to revisit it and come up with some better ways to handle it to weed out the guys who are trying to mask something versus the guys who are just trying to take care of their bodies and do the right thing by hydrating.
Between the drug test, your hip injury last season and the dislocated elbow this preseason, I know you just wanted to get all of that past you and play football. How great has this solid start been for you personally and are the 2007 Washington Redskins for real? I know Coach Gibbs doesn’t like predictions, but can we expect a return to the playoffs?
It’s been great to put all that stuff behind me. Last year was a tough year for me, a tough year for the team, our coaches, the fans – everybody. It’s great to put all that behind you and start on a clean slate. So far we’ve gotten off to a pretty good start and we’re just trying to focus on the next game. We’re trying to go 1-0 for a week and not look too far down the road. We’re not worried about playoffs or starting to get measured for our Super Bowls rings or anything like that. We’re just out here working hard and approaching each game by putting our best foot forward and doing the best we can do. If we can consistently do that all year, then I think we’ll be fine.
Talk to us about gameday. Are your superstitious? Do you have a set routine – you know, a certain meal or music to get you in the right frame of mind?
I’m not a real superstitious guy. I like to listen to music to get hype. I like my music really loud so I can almost go into like another dimension. I don’t have a lot of superstitions. My towel has to be really nice and perfect, the way I like it and my music’s got to be loud. That’s it for me.
Anyone who has ever stepped into the locker room or watched you on the field during a TV timeout knows you love music. What are you listening to these days and what should fans put in the CD player to get them fired up on Sundays?
You know, I’m all over the place. When I first come into the locker room we’ve got maybe an hour and a half before its gametime, so I’ve got the slow jams pumping. I don’t wanna get too hype too fast. So I’ve got some slow jams, maybe some south rock. But about 30 minutes before the game you start to crank it up a little bit. Right now we’ve got that Young Jeezy, T.I. and that Soulja Boy’s been pretty hot lately. That’s kind of how I do it.
For fans, I would definitely go T.I. with T.I. versus T.I.P. That’s probably the hottest CD out right now. The hottest single out right now is probably “Crank That” by Soulja Boy.
A lot of your teammates are big into video games. Between the PS3 and the 360, I know some big games of Madden and Halo are played. Do you play?
I’ve got a PS3, but I haven’t played it a bunch. Actually, I haven’t played it any. I’ve been over on the PS2. I love playing NCAA college football. That’s my favorite game. I think some of the guys play Madden and have tournaments, but I’m more of a college guy. I just like to run the option. That’s one of my favorite plays and you can’t really run that on Madden, so I always play it on NCAA.
What would you be doing for a living if you never got into football?
If I hadn’t played in college and hadn’t gotten a scholarship then maybe I would have went into the military. Try to do it that way and choose a profession. Or, I’m really into history, so maybe I would have become a history teacher.
Which military branch could you have seen yourself choosing?
My uncle was an Army guy, but I think I would have tried the Navy SEALs – that’s the coolest thing ever. I don’t know if I could even make it, but definitely trying would have been cool. I would have been able to say I tried it and got this far.
And what do you see yourself doing after you retire from football?
Maybe teaching history. I think I want to go back to school and study history a little more. Maybe teach, and I don’t know, maybe even a little coaching.
I’m not sure if you know this, but 2,551 miles from Ashburn, Virginia, is a town called Marcus, in Washington State. Have you ever been out there?
I’ve never been out there. A couple people looked it up on the internet and told me about it. I used to know the population, but I can’t remember it right now …
At last count, there was something like 117 people there. Even though you’ve never been there, how do you envision the town of Marcus, Washington?
I think it should just be happy all the time. There should be a happy hour and wingfest every day, you know what I mean? There should be a mandatory nap time, so people can get off of work and go home and take a nap. But people would definitely be hype and have a good time with a bunch of parades, parties and a real upbeat town.
So if you roll in do they automatically have to give you the key to the city? How does that work?
I think I should be able to get the key to the city. If it’s a town called Marcus, Washington that would only be right. I should at least be considered for the key, if not given to me.
It’s funny because you grew up in Auburn and then went to Auburn. Your name is Washington, and you’re playing in Washington. At some point, you’re going to end up in Marcus, Washington – it’s already been laid out there for you.
(Laughs). I think so. I think that’s probably my destiny. I’ll be a history teacher out there in Marcus, Washington. That sounds like it may be in my future.
And finally, when they make a movie based on your life who will play you and what will the name of the movie be?
I think Denzel Washington might play me in the movie, and the name of it would be “Grustling” – a mixture of hustling and grinding. We call it grustling.
Interviewed by Brian Murphy, September 2007.