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USF football assistant has lessons to share from childhood of tragedy

L’Damian Washington and his brothers fought through despair, grief and even periodic destitution. Now, he seeks to help others when times get tough.
 
New USF receivers coach L'Damian Washington totaled 100 catches at Missouri, helping lead the Tigers to a share of the SEC East title in 2013.
New USF receivers coach L'Damian Washington totaled 100 catches at Missouri, helping lead the Tigers to a share of the SEC East title in 2013. [ UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA ATHLETICS | Photo provided by USF Athletics ]
Published March 31, 2023|Updated March 31, 2023

TAMPA — At the dawn of April, USF’s receiving depth is barely discernible, but that’s OK.

Only one of last season’s top five pass-catchers remain — no biggie. A couple of guys currently are dinged up, reinforcements won’t arrive until after spring practice, and to complicate matters, the offense is brand new.

“We’re still really, really light there,” first-year coach Alex Golesh said.

But worry isn’t warranted. If the Bulls receivers can siphon the fortitude of their new position coach, they’ll survive — maybe even surmount — this grim stretch. L’Damian Washington has a doctorate in desperate situations, and these aren’t them.

“Life has been good,” said the 31-year-old Washington, a father of two with a fiancée. “Not fair at times, but definitely I have not had the bad share of life at all. I’ve honestly lived a tremendous life and would not do anything over again or have it any other way, honestly.”

Washington’s perspective certainly doesn’t match his past. Myriad trials have accompanied that “tremendous life.”

The third of four boys raised primarily in the projects of Shreveport, Louisiana, Washington was 5 when his father was murdered. A close friend was killed when he was 15. That same year, his single mom fell ill during one of his high school basketball games, and died of complications from a blood clot. Oldest brother L’Courtney — then 19 — became the boys’ guardian.

“We never had a father figure,” L’Courtney said. “But we had to be men.”

Together, they fought through despair, grief, even periodic destitution. Hope was further stifled when Washington — an athletic late bloomer — ended his prep career with zero college offers.

He ultimately landed at an SEC school, earned a psychology degree, had a cup of coffee in the NFL and played in Canada.

Just the kind of odds-bucking bio that resonates among a group of impressionable split ends and slot receivers.

“(Washington’s) a guy that’s really, really powerful in that room in terms of who he is as a man and who he is as a position coach,” Golesh said. “Adds a ton of value.”

A mother’s legacy

New USF receivers coach L'Damian Washington addresses his players during a March 23 practice.
New USF receivers coach L'Damian Washington addresses his players during a March 23 practice. [ UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA ATHLETICS | Photo provided by USF Athletics ]

Washington credits his worth — the kind measured in character instead of cash — to his mother. Sonya Washington, described by L’Courtney as strict without being rigid, often worked two jobs, including her full-time one delivering medical supplies for a local hospital. Yet somehow, she never missed any of her kids’ sporting events. Ever.

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“She was great, worked two or three jobs at a time,” Washington said. “Made sure she made every sporting event. You never knew that we were poor, because what we did have she made sure that we were grateful for it. And what we didn’t have, we never thought about it in that sense.”

Around Christmas 2006, Sonya had begun struggling to walk and consulted doctors, who found nothing. On Dec. 28, she made it to nearby Bossier City for one of Washington’s basketball games but fell ill as it was ending. As an ambulance transported her to the hospital, Washington and his younger brother Tomarious were driven there by a friend who had accompanied Sonya to the game.

She died shortly after arrival, at age 38.

“The doctors come in, and it’s like how you see it in the movies where everything kind of slows down and they say, ‘Your mom has passed,’” Washington recalled. “And it feels like a dream. I don’t know, it just kind of hits you.”

Some relatives — including Sonya’s sister — resided nearby and tried providing comfort, and a temporary cocoon of stability.

As for the long term? Talk ensued about the boys — at least the three minors — moving to Florida and living with an uncle in Land O’ Lakes. Other options were tossed around, too. For the siblings, there were none.

“And we just decided as young men — if you can call us that — that we were going to stick together,” Washington said.

“(L’Courtney) became our guardian. Days weren’t easy. Sometimes no water, sometimes no food, sometimes no electricity. But at the end of the day, we had each other, and you go from that brother rivalry to where now you truly become a team and a pack. When you think about the law of the wolfpack, that’s exactly what it was.”

The initial stretch of the journey was the roughest. The boys had to move from the house Sonya had bought a couple years earlier — the first mortgage of her life — back to an apartment. L’Courtney, who had an infant daughter at the time of his mom’s death, had a job but no experience paying bills.

And shortly after losing his mom, Washington was sent briefly to an alternative school after standing up for his older brother, Tobias, during a fight.

“We had to learn, I had to learn,” L’Courtney said.

“I never paid a bill. I used to help my mom out, giving her $40 or $50 on a bill just so I wouldn’t have to hear her mouth. I wasn’t grabbing a bill out of the mailbox and checking to make sure to hang it up on the refrigerator like she did. I wasn’t hip to that.”

Hope manifested itself through football. A three-way player at Green Oaks High, Washington had seven interceptions as a cornerback his junior year but didn’t possess the size that garnered major-college attention. As a senior, he caught 53 passes for 1,064 yards and 12 touchdowns, with four more interceptions.

In a game against Rayville, Washington shut down receiver Kenny Bell (who would sign with Alabama) while catching seven passes for 257 yards and three TDs. LSU coaches in attendance to recruit Bell noticed L’Damian, who by then stood 6-foot-4 but still weighed only 160 pounds.

When LSU tight ends coach Josh Henson — who had begun communicating with Washington — was hired as Missouri’s offensive coordinator, the Tigers offered. Late in the recruiting process, Washington spurned Louisiana Tech (the first school that offered him) and signed with Missouri.

Months later, he finished in the top 10 of his class at Green Oaks.

“When you see the inner workings of who L’Damian Washington is, all you need to know (is), he has a 3.5 (high school) GPA, and he’s on a different couch every week, living from home to home to home,” Henson said in a short documentary on Washington’s website.

“And the kid doesn’t get a square meal hardly any night, and yet he looked to the future with a great amount of hope and said, ‘I’m going to choose this path.’”

A Tiger’s tenacity

L'Damian Washington makes a catch in front of Georgia's Qunicy Mauger (20) during an Oct. 12, 2013, game in Athens, Georgia. Missouri won 41-26.
L'Damian Washington makes a catch in front of Georgia's Qunicy Mauger (20) during an Oct. 12, 2013, game in Athens, Georgia. Missouri won 41-26. [ JOHN BAZEMORE | AP (2013) ]

In five seasons at Missouri (including a redshirt year), Washington totaled 100 receptions, breaking through with a prosperous senior year (50 catches, 893 yards, 10 touchdowns) for a 12-2 Tigers squad that won the program’s first SEC East Division title. He also graduated with a psychology degree and became a motivational speaker.

Despite a solid pro day on the Missouri campus (including a 4.39-second 40-yard dash), he wasn’t drafted. He logged brief stints with seven NFL teams but never appeared in a regular-season game. After getting work in three other pro leagues, he turned to coaching, and spent 2022 as Oklahoma’s interim receivers coach.

His three siblings, all of whom live in or around Columbia, Missouri, landed on their feet as well. L’Courtney works for a Mercedes-Benz dealership. Tobias works on engines for Ryder. Tomarious transports fuels in an 18-wheeler.

“I never felt like I’m going to go play pro for a long time,” Washington said. “I always felt like I’d probably get into coaching because I liked to mentor and help out young men, and I always wanted to be a coach.”

More than a coach, he’s a compass. A reality-hardened adult who can help offer direction to a teen or 20-something student when things go south or sideways in life.

Washington has hit all points.

“Everybody’s so scared of failure, that they don’t understand you spend more time in failure than you do success,” he said. “But it makes the success that much greater when you get it, and you’ll go a whole lot farther. But my mom truly never left me. My foundation was right, my faith was right, and she taught me both of those things.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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