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Smoke through a keyhole
Edwin Shrake
October 06, 1975
That's Joe Washington of Oklahoma—just here, now there, hit hard, still moving—a runner who Sooner fans insist is the best in the country
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October 06, 1975

Smoke Through A Keyhole

That's Joe Washington of Oklahoma—just here, now there, hit hard, still moving—a runner who Sooner fans insist is the best in the country

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The door of the visitors' dressing room at the Orange Bowl flew open and Barry Switzer stomped out, a paper cup of ice rattling in his fingers, his voice rising to a howl that would make a fireman start looking for his hat. "Get me out of Miami!" Switzer yelled. That is the cry of pain one usually hears when the check is presented at one of those joints with purple lights and palm trees on the beach. What Switzer really wants is to return to Florida on New Year's Day—but for the Orange Bowl game, not for another meeting with the University of Miami. After barely beating the 35-point underdog Hurricanes 20-17 last Friday night, Switzer's Oklahoma Sooners can testify that the rumors about Miami dropping football are premature.

Inside the dressing room the Oklahoma players ambled about, pulling clothes on over rug burns and bruised bodies. Senior All-America Halfback Joe Washington tenderly probed a lump on his right forearm and glanced down at raw pink patches where skin had been scraped off his left leg. Washington had gained only 54 yards in 14 carries against Miami (a 41-yard run was nullified because of clipping). It was the second time in three games this season that Washington, who has been enthusiastically promoted as a Heisman Trophy candidate, was held to a mediocre output. But Little Joe was grinning, even breaking into song now and then, as if delighted to have run into the Hurricanes for the last time in his career.

"Those guys are always tough on us," Washington said, scrubbing at the yard-line paint that glittered like sequins on his arms. "They holler at us, cuss us, try to smash us. This is a terrible field to play on. I hate an artificial surface, anyhow, and this one [Poly-Turf] is worn out and slippery and hard to do a sharp cut on. That's no excuse, it's just a fact. But we won, and I don't see any reason why the score should affect our No. 1 ranking."

A couple of weeks ago, after Oklahoma crushed Oregon 62-7 in the Sooners' opener, Washington was not in such an amiable humor, nor was Switzer doing the call of the wild. The star halfback and the undefeated coach were in contrasting moods then, too, and the reason was clear. The Sooners had rolled for 544 yards on the ground against Oregon, but Washington had picked up only 57 of them and had been allowed to run with the ball but 12 times—hardly what he wanted in his drive for Steve Owens' Oklahoma rushing record of 3,867 yards. ( Washington needed 743 when the season began.)

After the Oregon game, Washington had dressed quickly and left the stadium in a heavy funk, feeling he had been slighted. "Joe's not gonna win the Heisman Trophy playing against Oregon," said Switzer that night. "It's what he does against teams like Nebraska and Texas that counts."

Switzer described Washington as "a Houdini type of runner. He's probably the fastest man in the world for 15 yards. Then he stops and sort of shakes himself and, bam, he's off again for 15 of the fastest yards you ever saw. His style is not at all like Greg Pruitt's. You could see Pruitt ignite, see an afterburner go off in his tail, and he'd keep moving faster and faster. Darrell Royal [who failed to get the Texas-born halfback] says Washington can go through a keyhole like smoke, which is a good way to put it. Pruitt once said if he had to tackle Washington in an open field, he would give up on the first shot and hope he could grab Joe from behind."

These opinions of his ability were repeated to Joe Washington the next morning. He sat in his small room in the campus athletic dorm, Washington House (named for George, though someone has printed Joe's name on the sign). A pair of Washington's spray-and brush-painted silver and red football shoes stood on the window ledge behind him. He had just switched off his reel-to-reel stereo tape machine, and he studied the floor. Inside the black boot on his right foot were a taped ankle and a bruised toe—the ankle a mysterious injury he says he got by stepping sideways off a board on a construction job last summer, the toe an equally vague mishap that he says he played on last season. Washington seemed to think the discussions on his style of running were somehow a reflection on his speed.

"There's three people in the world know how fast I can run," he said. "I know, my father [ Big Joe, head football coach at Lincoln High School in Port Arthur, Texas] knows, and Coach Wendell Mosley [once a high school coaching opponent of Big Joe, now coach of OU running backs and recruiter of Joe Washington] knows. People say I run the 40 in 4.5, or whatever they say. The time you run the 40 against the clock doesn't matter that much when you're playing a game. I've seen 5.5 tackles grab 4.4 backs from behind. Oklahoma has a tradition of good running backs. It started way before I got here, and there's been seven or eight good running backs every year I've been here. If you can't move, you won't make it here."

That is indeed true—this current group of backs may be the best Oklahoma has ever rounded up—and that makes it even more special that as a freshman Washington entered the lineup often enough to gain 630 yards. He has been a starter since he was in the ninth grade on a top-class Texas high school team coached by his father. Joe's younger brother Ken, a sophomore, is the starting quarterback for North Texas State. On the first weekend of last season Joe and Ken both made Associated Press Back of the Week—Joe against Baylor and Ken against Southern Methodist.

("We actually did Ken a favor by not recruiting him," Switzer says. "If we had needed a pure drop-back passing quarterback, I'd have gone for Ken in a minute. But Ken only weighs about 165 pounds, and our wishbone quarterbacks have to be more like running backs.")

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