LAWRENCE | Eric Washington sits in an empty bowling alley, wearing a camouflage shirt. Itís a fitting choice of attire, because lately, heís been a very hard man to find.
A year ago, on a September afternoon like this, you would have found Washington on campus, jollying with his friends and teammates. You would have found him at the Jaybowl, at the Wagnon Student-Athlete Center, at the Burge Union, places where the former KU linebacker spent nearly all his time before Sept. 30, 2006. Before a neck injury ended his career under the lights at Nebraska.
These days, Washington prefers to lay low. He bowls off campus and only steps foot in Wagnon when he has to. Even then, he tries to escape unseen through the back door.
In the 12 months since the injury, Washington has never felt so alone. His family lives in Detroit and didnít visit him in the hospital. His KU coaches, who visited him when the shock of the moment was fresh, havenít called to check on him in months. The loneliness Washington felt as he waited has now become bitterness.
"I went from playing the game of my life to, the next minute, Iím erased from the planet, from Lawrence," Washington says. "People didnít even know where Iíve been, what Iíve been doing. For all they know, I could have been in Iraq. I could have gone to Hawaii. Nobody would have ever known."
Washington made many sacrifices to make it to Lincoln, Neb., as the Jayhawksí starting outside linebacker. On the stage heíd been waiting for his whole life, No. 33 played a first half to remember. Four tackles. A forced fumble. Two pass breakups. Then came the second half, and a routine tackle of Nebraska tailback Marlon Lucky.
The scene that unfolded after that is what people remember, how 85,000 Nebraska fans went silent as trainers pleaded with Washington to move a leg. An arm. Anything.
For Washington, the separation between football and life had always been a fine line. Essentially, he left his being on that field.
"I just feel like a ghost, hollow, like I donít exist," Washington says. "I donít have much as it is, and anything can be taken from me at any time. That being taken away from me was almost like taking my whole family at one time, or taking an arm, or my heart. My heart was gone.
"I felt empty because my love was gone, the one thing that I did love unconditionally was gone, and I canít get it back."
"Move," the trainer said.
"I am," Eric Washington said.
"Move your leg."
"No, youíre not."
Washington thought they were playing. His mind was moving so fast, why couldnít his body follow?
Then he remembered the week before, the South Florida game. Washington made a tackle in that game and started staggering around after it. All of a sudden, his equilibrium was way off. He thought it might be a concussion. He played through it, even though he knew something wasnít right. Eventually, KU caught on and pulled him from the game. The Jayhawks had to hide his helmet from him.
To Eric, the South Florida game felt like a test from above. When he was 10 years old, his father, James, died of natural causes. James had always wanted his oldest son to play football, but Eric didnít want to. When James died, Eric made a promise to his dad: "Iím going to play football until I physically canít play anymore." He had passed the test, for one game at least.
Washington wore a yellow no-contact jersey during Nebraska-week practices. He joked with teammates about how another concussion might knock him out for good. Joking aside, he knew he was tempting fate.
"I was saying things that Iíd never said before," Washington says. "Like, ĎIím not going to be here forever,í or, ĎThis might be our last down.í "
Those close to Washington worried about him, but nothing was going to keep him from playing. This was Nebraska. Washington dreamed of running the Huskersí option attack growing up. And there he was in the first half, making a hit on Nebraska tailback Brandon Jackson. Only he couldnít feel his arms afterward.
"This ainít no concussion," Washington decided.
Still, he kept playing. He could hear his fatherís voice telling him that it would be OK, to keep going. He hid his injury from his coaches like any real warrior would. He made play after play, and he felt at home.
Just a few plays after halftime, Washington made a tackle on Lucky that was similar to the one that forced a fumble earlier in the game. But this time, he didnít get up.
The coaches and trainers rushed onto the field and crowded him. The players knelt and prayed. The Nebraska faithful didnít make a peep for the 10 minutes Washington lay motionless.
"I just felt heavy," Washington says. "I felt like someone was lying on top of me."
Washington believes the someone was his father.
"He said, ĎIf I let this boy get up, heís going to kill himself to play,í " Washington says. "Thatís how deeply I was engulfed in football. It was for a man. It wasnít for the sport. My love for my daddy pushed me to that point. He knew."
The doctors strapped Washington onto a stretcher and wheeled him out of the stadium. He couldnít give the crowd a thumbs-up, a harbinger of things to come.
A week later, it was game day again. After three nights in a Lincoln hospital and a couple more in Lawrence, Washington was released so that he could go watch his teammates play at home against Texas A&M.
Gradually, he had regained feeling in his legs and was using a walker to get around. He returned to his apartment on Emery Street, near Memorial Stadium, for the first time since going down. He walked outside as kickoff approached. He could hear the KU marching band bellowing the songs of battle.
"It all just hit me," Washington says. "Itís officially over."
At that moment, Eric Washington began to feel like an outsider.
"I wanted to be there," Washington says, "but I couldnít go to the game."
Over. Just like that. Washington had discovered that he had a small spinal column, or as he puts it, "a small neck."
"I just wasnít meant to play football," Washington says. "My inside wasnít built for a player like me. I should have been a guy who just grabbed legs. I wasnít built to be KOíing people."
For a guy who never should have strapped on a helmet, Washington sure did want a chance to play. It took him two stops before finding a home in Lawrence.
Washington accepted a scholarship to play football at Minnesota but left after a frustrating redshirt year that saw the murder of a close friend on the team. He relocated to Minnesota West Community College in the small town of Worthington.
Minnesota West didnít give out athletic scholarships, so Washington was on his own. His family thought he was crazy for leaving Minnesota, but he pressed on.
His first three months on campus, Washington slept at night in his backseat. He worked several jobs, including one as a dishwasher, until he could afford a place of his own. He took out a loan to pay for school.
"Heís proud, so he didnít tell people that," says Cheryl Avenel-Navara, a guidance counselor at the school who looked after Washington. "We tried to make sure that he was OK, that he had a place to live. It was very important to him to take care of himself and to be seen as self-sufficient."
Washington was just like his mother, Linda Hobbs, back in Detroit. She never asked for anything and, if she had to, could stretch a dollar for a month. When times got tough for Washington, he would simply not eat, all the while sending money home to his family.
Somehow, he became a better linebacker during those two trying years.
"Football meant everything," Avenel-Navara says. "It was his way to make contact with people. To be a part of something. If you told Eric he was a good student, heíd blush and say, ĎNot me.í If you told him he was a good football player, he just puffed up."
Eric became a good player. In his fifth year of college football, he had 34 tackles and was the KU defenseís vocal leader. But when the Jayhawks took the field without him for the first time against the Aggies, he knew heíd never play again. Was all the work worth it?
That weekend, Washingtonís neck began to swell up. He had rushed things with the walker, and heíd have to return to the hospital. Soon, there would be surgery. The most challenging year of his life was only just beginning.
Practice wasnít the same without Eric Washington.
"He was one of those guys who made practice fun," KU linebacker Joe Mortensen says. "Heíd work hard, but heíd also be silly and make us laugh. There was kind of a drop-off."
Kansas athletic director Lew Perkins noticed Washingtonís personality during his first year on campus, when he was a little-known backup.
"His personality is infectious," Perkins says. "Heís a very charming and engaging man."
Perkins felt Washington reaching out to him, so he reached back. They became friends.
"I felt like there was a void in his life," Perkins says, "and I could help him."
Thatís how it went for Washington at every stop. As independent as he wanted to be, he would find someone to take care of him. At Minnesota, it was the friend who was shot to death, fellow Detroit native Brandon Hall. At Minnesota West, it was Avenel-Navara, whom heíd call "Mom." At Kansas, it was teammate Brandon McAndersonís family and Perkins, whom he calls his "godfather."
It was those people in his close-knit circle who kept Washington going during his months of recovery, visiting him often and making him feel better. Washington wishes his real family in Detroit could have been there, too.
"I try to play it off," Washington says, "but it kind of hurt me. I was literally down here by myself. Itís different than feeling alone when you just donít have a girlfriend. I felt like I didnít have nobody. Thatís a sad feeling."
Washington also felt as if his football family, the one that recruited him to Lawrence, had forgotten about him. He said they treated him as if he had a normal injury, not one that very well could have left him paralyzed.
"I understand football goes on and life goes on," Washington says, "but you know I donít have nobody down here. You would just assume that with the magnitude I got injured, thatís not like I broke my ankle."
Washington checked himself out of the hospital. He went to some physical therapy, but ultimately, he never fully healed. According to Ramon McAnderson, Brandonís father, and former KU defensive end Paul Como, KU could have done more to make sure Washington got a clean bill of health. But McAnderson also acknowledged that itís a two-way street. Washington wasnít exactly begging for handouts.
The pride that he learned from his mom back in Detroit, the pride he perfected at Minnesota West, was dictating everything.
"If I wanted to," Washington says, "I could have had it. But that building (Wagnon) ... I just didnít want to be seen in that building. I just left it alone. There was something else they could have done. I donít know. Something."
KU coach Mark Mangino disagrees with Washingtonís assessment.
"Iíve been extremely supportive," Mangino says. "I donít think his remarks are accurate. I went to the hospital to see him. When he got out, I met with him every day when he came to practice just to watch. Weíve done everything we can to help him."
It wouldnít be long before Washington disassociated himself from all things KU football. It was just too painful.
"I donít dislike KU," Washington says, "itís just associated with so many bad memories. Itís bad it had to happen here, because this place was good for me. I could see something like this happening in Detroit, because bad things happen all the time in Detroit. But here, I thought this was like a city of dreams."
When he walks through his city now, Eric Washington doesnít really care whether anyone sees his massive afro or wizard-like goatee.
"I donít go down the same streets no more," Washington says. "I donít go to certain peopleís houses on certain days. I donít have no dislike. Itís just emptiness."
Thereís emptiness now where a big olí giving heart used to be. Washington is trying to fill it back up. Heís got a new girlfriend; theyíve been dating for two months. He even tried coaching football as a volunteer at Haskell Indian Nations University in Lawrence. Everyone who knows Washington well thinks he would be a great coach. But Washington quit. He just wasnít ready.
After taking some considerable time off from school -- he couldnít write most of last year because he couldnít feel his thumbs -- Washington is back in the classroom and still on scholarship. He hopes to finish a concentration in early childhood development in May. Perkins is doing what he can to make sure that happens.
"I check on him more than he thinks I do," Perkins says. "Heís my friend, and heíll always be my friend."
Washington, whether he feels it from everyone or not, has some true supporters in Lawrence. He spends lots of time at the McAnderson house and playing video games at Comoís. He doesnít have a car of his own, but when he needs a lift, he can usually find someone to drop him off or let him borrow their car.
Washingtonís health could certainly be better. His neck is still sore, which affects his sleep most nights. The left side of his body is noticeably weaker than his right, and he is always one collision away from catastrophe. There is no room for error.
Yet, there he was on a sunny afternoon last week, playing flag football with some friends. If you caught him at just the right times, you would have sworn he was happy. Thatís the Eric Washington he wants you to remember. Not the one who couldnít move.
"The last thing people remember about Eric Washington is him lying on a football field," he says. "I will never be known for anything I did before that. How do you want to be remembered? I told coach, if I could play one more down ... just let me stand. Put me out there and call a timeout and take me out. Just let me leave like that."