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Gator Bowl: Local son steps into the spotlight

Jacksonville's Leon Washington dazzles his hometown crowd with a breakout ground game.

By ZACHARY SPAIN
Published January 2, 2005


JACKSONVILLE - With one run, tailback Leon Washington earned a place in Gator Bowl lore. From that point, adding his name to the list of the game's MVPs seemed inevitable.

On the second play of Florida State's 30-18 win over West Virginia on Saturday, Washington found a hole, tiptoed past a final defensive back and streaked down the right sideline for a 69-yard touchdown, his career-long run and the longest in the Gator Bowl's 60-year history.

In the second quarter, his third rush went for 47 yards and helped set up a field goal that put FSU ahead 13-12.

His final tally of 195 yards on 12 carries was another career best, and he set an FSU single-game record, averaging 16.3 yards per carry.

It was a heck of a homecoming for the junior who grew up just minutes from Alltel Stadium and played at Andrew Jackson High in the shadow of the downtown skyline.

"His role was so huge, you probably can't describe it in words or statistics," quarterback Chris Rix said.

While some might have lamented settling for the Gator Bowl, Washington looked forward to playing in Jacksonville for the first time since high school.

"After the Florida game (coach Bobby Bowden) was telling me, "Hey, we're going home,' " said Washington, who had a cheering section of 40 at the game.

After the early run, fellow tailback Lorenzo Booker could sense Washington was on the verge of a highlight performance. It mirrored the intensity he showed in the weeks leading up to the game.

"He didn't really have to say much, you could just tell by the look on his face, his attitude in practice, really," Booker said. "He didn't want his hometown people to see him go out with a loss."

Though Washington rushed for the Seminoles' best total since 1988, their rotation inhibited what could have been an even bigger game. Booker had 101 yards and 20 carries.

After the game, Washington faced questions about forgoing his senior season for the NFL draft.

"I had told my friends that I'd have to run for 200 yards and a touchdown before I'd think about leaving," Washington said.

Though he fell 5 yards short, he didn't rule out a jump. The decision will depend on how NFL scouts evaluate his draft status, feedback he expects in coming weeks.

Still, Washington placed the likelihood of his return at "70 or 80 percent" and said he would only consider leaving if projected as a second-round pick or better.

"I want to stay," Washington said.

For the moment, considering his future was less important than celebrating at home.