Denzel Washington's son makes name for himself as tailback
Posted: Friday September 17, 2004 4:21PM; Updated: Friday September 17, 2004 4:21PM
What's up with Denzel Washington's kid? He's polite to a fault. He's unassuming and yet hell-bent to make a name on his own, starring again this fall in the role of student-athlete on the Morehouse College campus in Atlanta.
Most kids with his pedigree wouldn't leave for college without the keys to a Beamer and a wallet full of credit cards. Yet here's John David Washington -- J.D., as he's known to teammates -- on the opposite coast from his SoCal roots, hunkered down in Kilgore Hall across the way from the football field, eating on the meal plan and no wheels to his name. Not even a bike.
When football season ends next semester, the oldest son of the Oscar-winning actor talks of nailing down a job. Maybe a part-time gig at a local Subway sandwich shop or something. Really?
"No, I got to get some income -- I'm serious,'' J.D. responds to the bewildered look and raised eyebrow. "People get the wrong idea because I'm related to who I am related to. They think everything is easy. I know the value of a dollar. I work hard for everything I get, God willing.''
Work hard, he does. And talk about a model son.
OK, so the kid is off to a horrible start [his words] to his junior season. His numbers after three games -- 41 carries for a meager 100 yards -- aren't the stuff you write home about. But, hey, Johnson C. Smith visits Saturday night and the kid ran through them last fall for a Morehouse-record 242 yards en route to a single-season school record 1,124 yards and all-conference honors.
That's a load for a shifty back who might have weighed 175 pounds soaking wet. So did he rest on his fame? No, the kid hooked up six-days-a-week last summer with a strength coach, some weight-room maven known around Atlanta as Rope Man, and packed another 20 pounds on his 5-9 frame.
Kids of famous folks aren't known to worry about gaining full rides to college. This kid put a football scholarship atop his list of goals. Offers would trickle in from San Jose State, Cal and Grambling. In the end, his parents pushed hardest for Morehouse, a historically black college with a fine academic reputation and modest Division-II football program.
Typical parents, Denzel and Pauletta had their reasons. After years of sending J.D. to private, predominantly white schools outside L.A., they wanted a new experience for him. Not to mention a taste of the South, where folks talk slow and a kid is good naturedly called a "weirdo'' for musical appreciation that ranges to rock 'n' roll.
And Morehouse was making a nice pitch. Of course, it didn't hurt that athletic director Andre Pattillo enlisted his Class of '79 friend Shelton "Spike'' Lee to educate Denzel on the value of what's known as a Morehouse Man.
Back in his office, head coach Willard Scissum had no clue what he was getting until the kid showed up, full scholarship in hand, and won the starting tailback job as a freshman.
"I'll be honest, I thought that coming from the type of environment he comes from he wouldn't be a very tough kid,'' says Scissum, a burly man who played on the O-line at Alabama under Bear Bryant. "I thought he might be hard to deal with. I thought you couldn't fuss at him and yell at him or he'd go and tell on you. But he has been just the opposite.
"We've been able to discipline him like anybody else and there haven't been any repercussions about it. No one thinks about him being the son of Mr. Washington until Mr. Washington shows up. It is just not an issue.''
So when Mr. Washington's kid screws up in practice he does up-downs or runs hills, like everyone else. When he had a fumbling issue as a freshman, he lugged a football around campus for a day. And that's the way the kid wants it.
See, being Denzel Washington's kid means having to constantly prove yourself. "When I first got here it was 'Denzel's son, he really can't play,''' J.D. recalls. "'Why is he here? He's gonna quit the first week.' I was able to earn my stripes, move my way up.''
And Saturdays in the fall? Late hits. Trash talking.
"There has not been a game played where I haven't heard a comment about my father,'' he says. "Oh man, crazy stuff. I've heard every movie. They call every movie out, every game. Giving me stuff, whatever. I ignore it.''
Maybe they should just give the business to Denzel and let the kid be. Dad is a strong Morehouse supporter, just like Mom, regularly showing up for games without much fanfare.
As the kid tells it, Pauletta is his agent, pastor, and best friend. Word in advance is "Pops questions'' are off-limits, but J.D. volunteers that Denzel was one of his early coaches -- directing his 11-year-old Pop Warner team, the South Valley Panthers, to the championship game in Las Vegas.
"Remember the Titans was real,'' J.D. cracks, recalling Denzel's role as the intense coach Herman Boone. "That wasn't acting. That is what it was for me, too. When he coached he was tough. We were hitting all the time.''
Now the kid can't get enough of the game. He lives to put up gaudy rushing numbers and make a name for himself. His major is sociology, but ask about career plans and J.D. mentions the NFL's developmental league in Europe, if not the league itself.
What he wants most is to move outside his famous father's shadow, not that there are hard feelings. Do something different. Attract friends for who he is, not because he's Denzel's kid.
"It's hard because a lot of people expect me to be a certain way,'' says J.D., whose face is a bit fuller, yet sounds strikingly like his father. "They want to see Denzel when they see me, and I am not him. I've been successful here, but it is still 'Denzel's son has been successful.' Maybe the NFL, if I make it, then it'll be off. But I can't seem to shake it.''
Whether he's the next Barry Sanders or never catches the eye of an NFL scout, it shouldn't matter. Just talking with the kid you can't help be impressed.
Mike Fish is a senior writer for SI.com.