By DENNIS WASZAK Jr. 3 days ago
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) Growing up, Leon Washington was always told he wasn't big enough.
Too small to play with the older kids. Too small to be any good at football. Too small to make it in the NFL.
"I just never got down on myself," the New York Jets' 5-foot-8 do-it-all running back said Thursday.
And, boy, are the Jets happy about that. A special teams captain in his third season, Washington is too quick and elusive to be tackled by any doubts.
"When you're a smart guy and you're a small guy, your heart doesn't pump Kool-Aid," Washington said, flexing his bulky biceps. "It can't pump Kool-Aid. That's one thing my dad always told me, that having heart can overcome a lot of things."
So can blazing speed. Washington put on a clinic in versatility last weekend, piling up 274 all-purpose yards while having a hand in all four touchdowns in the Jets' 28-24 win over Kansas City.
Brett Favre said he has never played with someone so dangerous in so many ways.
"I don't know that anyone would step into an offense and be as productive after returning kicks the way he does," Favre said. "He's dynamic. He's very smart. Versatile is an understatement with him. He's quick as a cat. He's just got great hands. I could go on and on."
Washington, who set a team record with three kickoff returns for touchdowns last season, ranks third in the NFL with 27.6 yards per kickoff return, and fifth with 13 yards per punt return. He also has 155 yards rushing and two touchdowns, and 22 catches for 153 yards and a score.
Last Sunday, the fan favorite had an 18-yard catch-and-run for a score, a 60-yard touchdown run, took a short pass on third-and-8 and got a first down that led to a TD two plays later, and returned a punt 37 yards to help set up the go-ahead touchdown.
"It kind of took me back to high school, the last time I had a chance to make a lot of plays like that in different phases of the game," said Washington, a fourth-round pick in 2006. "I just love playing football, love making plays and if I can help this team win, I'm down for it. Whenever I get the ball, I'm appreciative."
And so are his teammates sometimes a little too much.
"You get caught looking at him and you're like, 'Oh, I've got to keep blocking,'" wide receiver Chansi Stuckey said with a laugh.
Veteran fullback Tony Richardson compared Washington to former Chiefs teammate Dante Hall, a college running back who was converted into a wide receiver and Pro Bowl kick returner.
"You can put Leon in multiple positions and multiple situations," Richardson said. "To me, he's the ultimate pro."
As a rookie, Washington got to know his way around the practice field, taking countless penalty laps for mistakes on returns. He showed significant improvement last season and then worked all offseason with new special teams coordinator Kevin O'Dea, who spent the previous two years with Chicago and All-Pro returner Devin Hester.
"We caught a lot of balls in the offseason," Washington said. "That's what we did, so I'm feeling comfortable fielding the ball and making plays."
Favre said the only thing Washington can't do is block New England linebacker Adalius Thomas, whose sack of the quarterback with little Leon sandwiched between them in Week 2 was a humorous hit on the highlight films.
"Yeah, that's probably the only thing I need to improve on, blocking a 300-pound guy," Washington said, smiling. "That was pretty bad. I think they had it in the newspaper the next day, so I had to deal with that. We'll get better at that."
Improving has been a steady theme for Washington since those days growing up in Jacksonville, Fla., when he was several inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter than most kids his age.
"I just tried to make everybody miss," he said.
Washington grew a little and filled out a bit by the time he got to Florida State, where he was part of a crowded backfield that included current NFL players Lorenzo Booker and Greg Jones. Washington stayed on the field by carving a niche on special teams.
"It was something I enjoyed doing and it gave me an opportunity to make plays to help the team win," he said. "I think that in the NFL has helped me out, too."
He also showed the ability to shake off adversity, suffering shoulder injuries in his sophomore and junior seasons. The first cost him four games when his shoulder was dislocated on a hit by current Jets teammate Wallace Wright on a punt return in the season opener against North Carolina.
"I nicked him up a little bit," Wright said with a bashful grin. "That was years ago. Everything's good now."
Especially when Washington's got his legs moving, leaving anyone trying to stop him far behind.
"The guy," Favre said, "he's an unbelievable player."