“Neon” Leon Lights up Seattle

"Neon" Leon Washington is right at home with the "12th Man"

Seattle Seahawks running back/kick returner Leon Washington has quickly made himself at home with the fans and the organization. Washington has established himself as one of the most dangerous kick returners in the NFL, among the likes of Bears WR/KR Devin Hester, and Browns WR/KR Joshua Cribbs. Coming off a devastating knee injury and being acquired in a 2010 draft day trade with the New York Jets, Washington coasted with ease into his new surrounding. Aptly nick named “Neon” Leon Washington, he provided the die hard “12th Man” a whole new dynamic to their offense and special teams.

Washington has found himself in a different position this offseason, as the NFL remains in a state of limbo. Just like a vast majority of NFL players, Washington has had to take his offseason training into his own hands. He’s also had to get used to not being able to take part in the routine OTA’s. A time of molding the young players brought in via the draft and free agency.

“I’m not on the players side and I’m not on the owners side, I’m on the fans side. I want there to be football in 2011.  I’m optimistic that there will be football in 2011, it’s just the business side of the game taking place right now.”

Washington takes pride in his role as a mentor to the younger players, and his ability to serve as a good teammate.

“The part that goes unseen is that you have to build camaraderie as a team during the off season. A lot of players spend time together in the offseason, getting to know each other and spending time with each other’s families. This offseason, we haven’t really had the opportunity to do that. Especially after the draft, we haven’t had the chance to really get to know the rookie players. For the teams that have new coaches, like the Carolina Panthers. The players don’t have the opportunity to get to know their new coaches. For the guys that are new to the league, they are rushed into the situation and sped through the process because of the lockout situation.”

Washington feels that it’s important to the younger guys to have that veteran to rely on and fall back on. Especially when they’re bodies are starting to wear down due to rigorous 16-game NFL schedule.

“I remember having the talk last year with (rookie safety) Earl Thomas telling him to keep it going and to keep pushing. It was around Thanksgiving, the time when college football was normally ending. This is the time in the NFL where it’s really all just starting, the real meat of the schedule. Letting them know what the NFL is all about is really big. Without OTA’s this year, it’s a big aspect of the league that the rookies are missing out on.”

Washington feels that it his duty as an NFL player to help bring younger players into the league properly. Many players can be easily influenced and led a stray down negative paths. Washington remembers how important it was for him as a young player in the NFL to watch the veterans around him, and the things they did in order to be successful.

“Numerous guys helped me along the way. As a young player, I really just watched those guys closely. Especially Curtis Martin, it wasn’t so much what he said, it was what he did. One thing that stuck out to me about Curtis was how meticulous he was when it came to detail. Watching Curtis Martin take notes in team meetings, his handwriting was perfect. I mean this guy’s handwriting was better than my kindergarten teachers! It was just an example about how detailed and meticulous he was. Another guy I learned a lot from was Alan Faneca. He taught me a lot about how to take care of your body when we were with the Jets. He and I were usually one of the first guys to arrive to the facility at about 6:45 sitting in the cold tub preparing our bodies.”

Much of the success of the 2010 Seattle Seahawks can be attributed to the chemistry that the team as a whole possessed. In a weaker NFC West division, the Seahawks battled through injuries that veteran QB Matt Hasselbeck was facing as the team was making their run at the NFC West crown. The team also relied heavily on the once promising, first round pick of the Detroit Lions, Mike Williams. Williams had been out of the league before earning a second chance with his former head coach at Southern Cal and new the head coach of the Seahawks, Pete Carroll. Williams led the team with 751 yards on 65 catches. Washington credits the success the team had in 2010 to coach Carroll and the philosophy that he has brought in.

“One thing that Coach Carroll always talks about is his philosophy with the Seattle Seahawks. The central theme of our program is competition, and also camaraderie playing for the guy next to you. Building relationships with your teammates is important. Especially the young guys.”

The NFL wasted no time before the lockout by quickly implementing a rule change on kickoffs. Kickoffs will now be executed on the 35-yard line. The league felt that by changing the field position, it would help protect players from injury. Many players earn their paychecks as kick-return specialists and they might just as well see themselves and their skills worked right out of the league. Fortunately for Washington, he possesses the skills to contribute significantly not only as the teams primary kick returner, but also as part of the teams three headed rushing attack, led by Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett.

“Obviously the production will go down, especially early in the season. That’s mainly why I don’t like the rule. Because early in the season, guys like Jay Feely and our kicker Olindo Mare, they have strong legs. Early in the season they’re going to be booming the ball out of the end zone. Later in the season when the weather becomes a little more inclement, like in Chicago or Pittsburgh, I can see things changing. We’ll probably have a better of a chance to make a return. The second reason I don’t like the rule is because teams that have crafty kickers, you’re going to see a lot more “bloop” kicks. Supposedly, you’re trying to make the game safer by moving the kickoff to the 35-yard line. Kickers are going to be blooping the ball near the 5-yard line with a 4-5 second hang time, causing more collisions. Guys are going to be fair-catching the ball on the 5 (yard line), if they don’t they’re going to have guys bearing down on him ready to take his head off. Lastly, I don’t like this rule because teams like ours in the Seattle Seahawks; our offense didn’t really drive until later on in the season against the St. Louis Rams, carrying on against the New Orleans Saints. The kick-off return was a big part of our game. It allowed us to gain great field position in setting up the offense. If you lack an explosive offense without having a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning behind center, the offense is assigned the task of driving possibly 80-yards every time. Offensive production can potentially really go down with the new kick-off rule in place.”

Washington isn’t opposed to the rule changes that the NFL has recently made in the effort of protecting his players. But at the same time, he remains aware of the fact that defenders have been playing this way their entire careers. To think that the players can adjust overnight and harness their instincts to hit the way the have been for years is unrealistic. It’s a matter of allowing the players to acclimate and adjust to the changes that are set in place.

“I definitely agree with protecting players and defenders going against unprotected players. But here’s the thing, guys like James Harrison are paid to be intimidators. They’ve been tackling this way for a long time and to ask them to stop playing that way in such a short time is a pretty tall order. I can definitely see where he’s coming from. Hopefully over time as the rules are implemented through the next 5-10 years and to the guys playing youth and high school football, they can adjust to these rules and adjust to the way that football in the NFL is played.”

Before Washington arrived to Seattle, he had been a mainstay in the backfield of the New York Jets. Drafted in the 4th round of the 2006 NFL Draft, Washington naturally hoped that he could be that player that wore one uniform over the course of his career. The business side of the game didn’t really affect Washington until the 2009 off-season. He was hoping to negotiate his first contract extension; instead he was shipped to Seattle. This was the first instance in Washington’s young career that he experienced how ugly the business side of the game can be and how quickly things can change.

“I was crushed, it really hurt me a lot. Like all players coming into the league, you think you’re going to spend your entire career with one team. There are a small percentage of guys that actually do that. To think though, that I did so much for the Jets and being a stand up guy on and off the field, I thought I would have an opportunity to stay. At the same time, it’s a business and I understand that. Coach Rex Ryan and GM Mike Tannenbaum called me and said that they had a bunch of guys they had to pay like (Darelle)Revis, (Nick)Mangold and D’Brickashaw Ferguson. I understood that, but the thing that hurt me the most is that their window for the opportunity to go to the super bowl is right there, those guys are in their prime. I just thought I would have the opportunity to help get them to the Super Bowl. But I’m in Seattle now and I really couldn’t be happier.”

Washington left the “Big Apple” with great memories. But he came to Seattle to create new ones and make his mark. Washington experienced this season, the passion and dedication that fans have for their beloved Seahawks. Seattle obviously isn’t the large market held closely under the microscope like New York, but the fans and the “12th Man” make Seattle an ideal place for players in it’s own right.

“Seattle is unbelievable man, the Jets fans in the northeast you can’t miss them. You know a Jets fan when you see them. The first thing you hear is ‘I remember watching Joe Namath at Shea Stadium in 1958.’ But with the Seattle fans and the 12th Man Nation, they love their Seahawks. They love all of their sports teams. It’s so awesome seeing Quest Field every Sunday, sold out. One moment I’ll always remember is that run Marshawn Lynch had during the playoffs in 2010. The crowd was so loud and crazy that it actually recorded on the seismograph. I talk to a lot of them on Twitter and we go back and forth. They’re just ready for their players to get back on the field. And I look forward to getting back and showing them that “Neon Leon.”

Washington came into Seattle with a familiar rival from his college days. Former Penn State QB and converted NFL fullback Michael Robinson, had just been cut from the San Francisco 49ers as a late camp casualty. Washington and Robinson were thrilled to be in the same backfield as they had met previously on the gridiron during their college days. Robinson had stepped into the role as starting fullback for the Seahawks leading the way for Washington to spring several long touchdown runs and kick-returns.

“Me and Mike became really good friends, he’s one of my best friends on the team. We hang out with each other families a couple times a week. I was so ecstatic to have the opportunity to meet him; it was even better when we had the opportunity to pick him up. First off, Mike is an extremely classy guy and he’s very intelligent. He’s a Nittany Lion, and I hate that because he beat us in the Orange Bowl in 2005 and he reminds me every time that game comes on ESPN Classic. Besides that he’s a stand up guy ha-ha. And I really do believe that without him, I wouldn’t have had as of a successful season. A lot of those touchdown runs and kick returns, they wouldn’t have come without his efforts. I remember in the San Diego game, he blasted his guy and created a huge cavity in coverage. I have so much gratitude towards him, he’s a great friend and teammate.”

Washington continues to set his sites on bigger things in the NFL. After 5-NFL seasons, Washington aims to shape his game and become an even bigger threat then what fans are accustomed to.

“I haven’t reached my goals. One of my goals is to be the best returner that this game has seen, and I really feel like I can achieve that. I’ve only been returning for about 3 ½ years. I want to be one of the best returners in the game, overtaking Joshua Cribbs and Devin Hester. That is going to be a task, but I’m going to work really hard. I also feel that I am a really complete running back because of all of the things that I can do with the ball. A friend of mine was telling me ‘ yah’ know Leon, they need to get you out in space so you can bust out those big runs.’ I told him ‘dude, if you look at all of my touchdown runs, they came running straight up the middle.’ That’s one of those things I was able to do with the Jets, being able to do a lot of different things with the ball. You’ll see that this year in 2011 with the Seahawks. I also feel like I have one of the best arms in the league, I can really throw the ball. I mean, just look at my QB rating ha-ha.”

Washington has brought his talents to Durham, N.C this offseason as the lockout has kept him away from Seattle and the camaraderie of his teammates.

“I’m spending the offseason in Durham, N.C. I have my wife and two boys here, expecting our third little boy in mid-June. I’m working out with some young men over at NC Central University. Over the course of the last few weeks I started to transition to working out at Duke University. My cousin, Rainier Rackley, who plays RB at Elizabeth City University, we train everyday together. But everybody at NC Central and Duke are great. They just let me come right in and use their facilities and training staff.”

As a student of the game his entire life, Washington has been fortunate to allow all that he has learned to translate successfully onto the field. Washington stresses how important it is to absorb information during team meetings and to dissect the film to gain any advantage possible on his opponents.

“I really do feel that I’ll be a coach someday. I’m maintaining my contacts in the NFL. Anybody that’s ever spent time with me in the meeting room can tell you that I really know my craft. I’ll definitely get into coaching when it’s all said in done. All of my previous coaches know that, Pete Carroll, Rex Ryan, Will Muschamp and Jimbo Fischer, they all know that’s the next avenue of the NFL that I want to pursue when my career is over.”

Washington is one of the true good guys in the NFL and the kind of player that never manages to let fans down on or off the field. During his brief NFL career, Washington has already managed to battle back from a devastating injury and acclimate to a new organization. “Neon” Leon Washington will continue to dazzle fans with his stellar return ability and big play potential in the backfield for many years to come.

“The legacy that I leave behind and the type of player that I want to be remembered for is that type of player that left it all on the field. I don’t ever want to be known for holding anything back, and giving it my all. I was never satisfied and I always wanted more!”

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