Washington has tough act to follow
By Bill Coats

J.D. Washington is trying to make the jump from Division II Morehouse College to the Rams.
(Marlene Karas/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Though he was working on his latest film in New Orleans, actor Denzel Washington hustled back to Beverly Hills a couple of weekends ago so that he could sit with the oldest of his four children and ... wait for the phone to ring?

But this wasn't just any call. John David Washington, a record-setting running back at NCAA Division II Morehouse College who goes by "J.D.," had been told he might get a shot at the NFL. And when the Rams called shortly after the draft, offering J.D. a free-agent contract and a chance, Denzel led a raucous celebration.

It was no act, J.D. assured, even for a world-renowned actor whose two Oscar statues loomed nearby.

"I believe he and my mother were more excited than I was," he said. "They were running all up and down the hallways in the house, calling everybody. They're very excited."

J.D. Washington is among 19 rookies who will get their first taste of the NFL during a three-day minicamp beginning this morning at Rams Park. Two practices are scheduled for today and Sunday, with a final workout set for Monday. All sessions are closed to the public.

Washington, 5 feet 9 and 190 pounds, holds Morehouse records for rushing yards in a game (242), season (1,198) and career (3,699). He was the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference's offensive player of the week six times and an all-conference selection after his senior season.

The chasm between Division II and the NFL is wide and deep, he acknowledged. "Everything's going to be so much faster, from the terminology to the play on the field," he said. "I've got to pick it up fast. I'm ready for it, though."

Washington, 21, described his leading assets as "my vision and quickness. I try to make people miss as much as possible. That's basically how I play."

Undrafted free agents face long odds, but Washington noted that his father started at the bottom, too. "It's a parallel, exactly," J.D. said. "He started with TV and then he got his big leap."

Denzel Washington's career began to blossom during a six-year run on the television drama "St. Elsewhere" in the 1980s. After turning to movies, he won an Academy Award for best supporting actor in 1989 for "Glory" and was named best actor in 2001 for "Training Day."

J.D. said that at times it's difficult to fully grasp his father's fame. "Honestly, you forget about how big he is," he said. "When we're in our house, it's just family. I've got my mom, got my dad, and my brothers and sisters. It becomes a bigger deal when I get outside of that."

Denzel Washington, 51, played three sports in high school and one year of football - he, too, was a running back - at Fordham University. Father and son often engage in good-natured arguments about their respective abilities.

"We go back and forth about that," J.D. said. "He still thinks he can run out there and play, too. He played seven-man football in high school and scored six touchdowns (in a game). I've gotten five but never six, so he hangs that over my head still."

Despite his father's prominence, J.D. stressed that his football achievements have come without any undue influence.

"A lot of people that don't know me think I got here on a free ride," he said. "That's my fuel: I know I've always got something to prove. People are going to think what they think about having the silver spoon fed to me, being spoiled or whatever.

"That's not the case at all. I've worked very hard to get to this point, and I'm continuing to work to make this team."

And will Dad, who attended each of his son's games the last two years at Morehouse, show up here at some point? Maybe during training camp?

With a laugh, J.D. said, "If I'm here, yeah. I think so."

bcoats@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8189