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How straight talk helped Adolphus Washington turn the corner

Posted May 16, 2016

He wasn't sure a career in football was what he wanted until his father and his college head coach set him straight.

Adolphus Washington was done with football. A five-star prospect halfway through his college playing career at Ohio State, Washington had become disenchanted with the demands of big time college football. He felt like he was on an island. So five games into his junior season he called his dad at home in Cincinnati.

“I called him and told him that I was done and I wanted to come home and get a regular job,” said Washington.

Adolphus Washington Senior wasn’t having it.

“He would not let me do it,” said the younger Washington. “He told me if I came home I wasn’t going to be staying with him. He said, ‘I’m not going to take care of a grown man. You’re either playing football or get a job on your own because you’re not going to stay with me and do nothing.’”

Plan ‘B’
The defensive lineman quickly back pedaled and tried to approach his football-related issues from another angle. Washington popped into head coach Urban Meyer’s office and asked for a meeting. Meyer obliged and almost via a coach’s intuition told Washington to have his father come up for the meeting.

“I wasn’t in his office for more than 10 seconds and he said, ‘Tell (defensive line) coach (Larry) Johnson to call your dad and we’ll have a meeting,” Washington recalled. “A couple of days later my dad got out of work early and drove up and we had the meeting.”

Washington’s father thought his scare tactic during their phone conversation had worked after getting a call from his son’s position coach.

“At first I thought it was good news,” said Washington Sr. “Nobody told me what it was going to be about. Then Adolphus called me and asked if I had spoken to coach Johnson and I said, ‘Yeah he told me to come up.’ He didn’t tell me about the meeting that was going to take place.”

The junior Washington was hoping the meeting would address what he felt was a less than ideal relationship with the defensive coaching staff. What he walked into after sitting down in Meyer’s office was quite different.

The defensive lineman had shown himself to be a capable player on Ohio State’s defensive line. Even a playmaker at times, but that was the problem as coach Meyer saw it.

“I always felt like I was doing enough, but obviously I wasn’t, and when I got in the office I thought coach Meyer was going to sugarcoat some things, but he didn’t sugar coat anything,” said Washington. “He kept it all the way real with me and gave me a list of things I had to do to step up my game and my dad was all for it. It was what it was.”

“He was calm about it, but he was straightforward,” said Washington Senior of coach Meyer’s conversation with his son. “He didn’t pull any punches. He looked at me and once he and I found out we were on the same team together he looked at me and said, ‘It’s going to cost him games if he doesn’t straighten up. I’m not going to kick him off the team, but it will cost him games. So I’m just letting you know now if you drive up to a game and he’s not playing you’ll know why.’”

Washington’s father was all for Meyer’s reality check. He was glad that his son knew where he stood and how it was up to him to determine the outcome.

“When he called me earlier that week he said, ‘The coaches are against me,’” said Washington Sr. “They’re yelling at me all the time. I said, ‘Son listen, when they don’t yell at you that’s when you’ve got a problem. When they’re yelling at you that’s okay.’”

A familiar situation
His son’s complaints provided Washington with a flashback to his freshman season as a football player at the University of Cincinnati in the mid-1980’s. His first season with the Bearcats did not go as he had hoped. He clashed with the coaches. He thought they didn’t have his best interests in mind. Unlike his son he didn’t reach out to anyone.

“I didn’t go and talk to anybody. I didn’t call anybody. I just made up my mind and quit,” said Washington.

Washington transferred to Triton College in Chicago, a two-year community college, and played football for another year and a half before quitting the game for good. Some thought he had the tools to play at the next level, but Washington’s father never gave himself the chance to find out.

“To this day I regret it,” he said.

Working in maintenance for the Cincinnati Housing Authority, Washington’s father puts in a lot of hours every week. Sometimes he’s on 24-hour call. Growing up Washington Jr. saw the demands put on his father, so it was easy for the elder Washington to paint the picture for his son.  

“I’d tell him all the time that I could be where he was,” said Washington Sr. “I told him that I’ve been down this road and I made the wrong decision. You don’t want to make that choice. You’ve got to stick it out because it’ll be good in the end. You don’t want to do that.”

Already straightened up from the meeting with Meyer, Washington was determined to re-commit himself to football. His father’s words only reinforced that commitment.

“As he was growing up he lived with me and I did maintenance then and I lived where I worked,” said Washington’s father. “He saw me working all day and I would tell him, ‘You don’t want this. You have a chance to do something better than this. I know I made a life for us and you don’t know any different, but there’s always something better out there. You’re going to be something better than I was.’”

“My dad didn’t want me to settle for work like he had,” said Washington.

Recommitted

Washington’s meeting with Meyer and his dad also convinced him that his head coach cared about the kind of player he could become.

“He told me I was going in the right direction, but it wasn’t enough,” said Washington. “So for him to get my dad involved definitely let me know that he cared. I wasn’t just a guy he was trying to pass through school.”

Meyer also took the time to show Washington some film of defensive linemen who had just made the jump to the NFL and completed their rookie seasons.

“He first showed me their film from their senior year in college and he told me, ‘If you learn to play like them on every play then you can play in the NFL,’” said Washington. “That still sticks with me now knowing I want to be how those guys were on film. That’s what I remember.”

Among the players Meyer showed him were St. Louis defensive lineman Aaron Donald and Atlanta defensive tackle Ra’Shede Hageman.

Right away the difference in Washington’s play was obvious. After registering four total tackles in the three games leading up to the meeting, the defensive lineman had 22 over his next five outings with two batted passes, one and a half sacks and a forced fumble.

“I feel like Penn State is when it started,” said Washington. “We had that meeting before Penn State and it started right then. I had no choice. I wanted to continue to play. So I played good at Penn State. Then Michigan State, I played well in that game.”

In addition to his six tackles against the Spartans, Washington had a key quarterback pressure on Connor Cook that led to a second-half interception to thwart a Michigan State comeback effort. The next week he followed up with a season-high eight-tackle effort in a win over Minnesota.

Washington took another step when he asked defensive line coach Larry Johnson to help him break down opponents more effectively on tape.

“Coach Johnson was teaching me how to watch film, looking at tendencies of other teams,” he said. “When I started learning that stuff the game became so much easier to me instead of just being out there and trying to guess what was coming.”

Advancing to the Big 10 title game against Wisconsin, Washington again put in a consistent effort in a 59-0 rout of the Badgers. He had a batted pass and a couple of tackles in the win over Alabama in the national semifinal.

“Then we go to the national championship and I got the only sack in the game,” said Washington. “That meeting was like a ripple effect. It worked well.”

Staying hungry
Washington returned to Columbus for his senior season determined to raise his game another notch. He wanted to demonstrate week to week consistency knowing it was a knock on his game prior to his meeting in coach Meyer’s office.

“I had to make sure I was doing the little things right,” he said. “If you’re doing the right things, other teammates will take notice and want to be how you are. I was a senior so the younger guys were looking up to me so I had to go out there and set the example. The good thing about it was on the D-line we had guys who did that.”

The defensive lineman would go on to post a career-high 49 tackles in 2015 along with four sacks and a 20-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Washington’s NFL draft stock improved even more when he earned first-team All-American honors from the Sporting News.

The Bills third-round pick knows there were a lot of other factors that helped get him to the point where he is now as he embarks on an NFL career. But he points to that meeting in coach Meyer’s office as the turning point.

“I’ll always sit back and think of things that got me to where I am today,” said Washington. “There are a lot of people that played a part. That one meeting though sticks out.”

“I think that he realized that football was something that he really wanted to do, and that he really needed to get himself together,” said Washington’s father. “It’s like a light bulb went on and he took off.”

Washington also carries his father’s decision as a young man with him. Knowing he has the opportunity to make good in a similar situation to the one his father faced only intensifies Washington’s will to succeed.

“That’s something that goes through my mind all the time,” said Washington. “He didn’t want me to be like him. So I’m going to try my best to make him proud.”


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