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Jacksonville star does it all

Jackson's Leon Washington can run, tackle, return kicks and (so the story says) avoid every tackler on the field.

By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 20, 2002

The legend goes like so:

In a 2000 playoff game against Citra North Marion, Leon Washington caught a screen pass, broke two tackles, cut back across the field to leave the defensive front seven gasping for air and sprinted past the defensive backs for a 68-yard touchdown. Add it up, and you get 11 defenders who came within a few yards of Washington. And 11 who missed.

"We had a draw play this year against (Neptune Beach) Fletcher where he made nine guys miss him," Jacksonville Jackson coach Kevin Sullivan said of his prized player. "That game, it was 11."

Or was it?

Most legends are prone to inaccuracies and exaggeration over time, and Washington is the first to admit his is no exception.

"It was actually 13 guys that missed," he said, laughing. "Two guys came back around a second time."

Eleven, 13, 15. The number matters little.

Point is, the number of players it takes to tackle the 5-foot-9, 180-pound bolt usually is a handful ... at a minimum.

A compact combination of Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, according to those who have seen him play, Washington is the Times Blue Chip Prospect of the Year for a season filled with breathtaking plays and mind-numbing versatility.

As a running back, he ran for 2,237 yards and 28 touchdowns. As a defensive back, he led his team with 88 tackles, nine for a loss. As a returner, he brought back four kicks for touchdowns. As an all-around player, he was Florida's Mr. Football.

"I made enough big plays in big games," Washington said.

The most memorable -- the screen pass aside -- came this season against Orange Park Ridgeview, when Washington flashed all of the glitzy components that made him a star.

With his team trailing 15-0, he returned a kickoff 98 yards for a touchdown.

Ridgeview then drove down the field before Washington intercepted a pass at the 5. Two plays later, he took a handoff into the end zone.

"There's a reason why he won Mr. Football," said Jamie Newberg of "The kid is so versatile. He does it all. He runs. He punts. He holds on kicks.

"He may be a little bit small, but he makes up for it with other attributes."

One recruiting service has Washington as the No.1 defensive back in the country.

But most agree he will be a running back in college, regardless of his size, because he's just too explosive, too dangerous and too darned good.

"Size is way overblown," said Jacksonville First Coast coach Martin Lee, whose team gave up nearly 300 yards rushing to Washington. "Leon had a lot to prove this year, and he came out and did it.

"If you don't want Leon to be your running back, then you don't want to win."

A Pop Warner legend in Jacksonville, Washington didn't play much prep football until his junior season. After transferring from Jacksonville University Christian after his injury-filled freshman season, Washington spent his sophomore season packing clothes in a factory for $6.25 an hour to pay off his $1,200 private school debt.

He made his debut at Jackson as a punter.

The first snap to him was, well, kind of "bobbled," and he took off running -- for a 98-yard touchdown.

"I could have punted that ball," Washington said. "But it was the first time I touched the ball, and I just took off. I remember I dove into the end zone and got a flag.

"The next time I touched it, I ran the kickoff back for a touchdown, got up, pointed to my dad in the stands and got (another flag and) kicked out of the game."

After an all-star season as a receiver in 2000, Washington was moved to running back. Timed in the 40 at 4.27 seconds in Jacksonville, 4.32 at South Carolina and 4.35 at Florida State, running by defenders proved no problem for Washington.

He outrushed touted Florida signee Ciatrick Fason, led the city in yards and landed squarely in the cross hairs of a Florida-FSU recruiting war.

It was believed Washington, who is academically qualified, was leaning toward FSU.

But his parents are Florida fans, and word has him tilting toward the Gators.

With a visit left to FSU, the decision is expected to come down to the final hours before signing day on Feb. 6.

"This is definitely fun," Washington said. "I get e-mails from Florida fans and FSU fans. It's funny because I wasn't on any All-America teams. Some people didn't have me rated. I didn't make any of those lists.

"I just thank God for the opportunity to play college football. Once that happens, it will all come out. People will see."

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