James Washington figures to make a few of his teammates' jaws drop when he shows up at training camp this summer. All of the other Dallas Cowboys will be talking about their book contracts and celebrity golf tournaments and Tonight Show appearances. And how, they will ask, did Washington, whose fame was assured with an interception in the Super Bowl, cash in? Did he open a restaurant back home in Los Angeles? Did he do Arsenio? Wouldn't you love to be there when he tells them that he did none of those things but that he did get a good start on his homeless shelter.
To tell the truth, Washington had the idea for this project long before he began dreaming of winning a Super Bowl. After growing up with his grandparents in the Watts section of L.A., Washington was determined to come back and somehow make his old neighborhood a better place. "It's been a dream in my head, ideas on a shelf," he says. "But now it's plans on paper."
What Washington hopes to create is a community center that will feed and house up to 30 homeless people at a time, with adjacent facilities for counseling and education. Called Shelter 37—that's the number on his jersey—it will be part of the reconstruction of South Central Los Angeles, which was set ablaze in last spring's riots. He has already purchased the land, commissioned an architect to design a building and is aligning himself with groups in the community that can lend him support and credibility.
Unraveling the tangle of bureaucracy and banking has kept Washington, a fifth-year pro, off what used to be called the banquet circuit. Instead of enjoying his celebrity, either in Dallas or L.A., he has been researching urban-rehabilitation funds and zoning codes. "I knew it would be complicated," he says, laughing. "I had to put an office in my house just so I could be with my family at all."
Washington has always been an activist. At UCLA, where he starred before knee injuries in his junior and senior years threw his career into doubt, he organized a student outreach program called Athletes for the Future, which traveled to area high schools. He even selected his fraternity at UCLA, Phi Beta Sigma, based on its involvement in community service.
Washington's trip to the Super Bowl was circuitous enough to make him doubly appreciative of his good fortune. He was a fifth-round draft pick of the Rams but got very little playing time in Los Angeles. Then, as a Plan B free agent in 1990, he signed on with the Cowboys, where his job, as he remembers it, was to "weather adversity." He emerged as a starter two seasons ago. Now he is one of the top tacklers on the NFL's No. 1 defense.
"I can't be too mad about my athletic goals," he says. "Two Rose Bowl rings, a Super Bowl ring—God has given me a lot, a degree from UCLA, a world championship, and all at the age of 28. Now, finally, it's time to give back."