FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Senior Mike Washington has helped organize independent workouts with the quarterbacks and his fellow receivers.
Washington ready to live out his dream
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A multitude of things burn in the mind of Michael Washington.
Among them, troubles back home and difficulties cracking the starting lineup the past three years for the University of Hawaii football team.
Recently, he uses Hawaii's 41-10 shellacking at the hands of Georgia in the Sugar Bowl as motivation to help his Warriors teammates get ready for the season opener at Florida in the fall.
In his final year, he considers it a duty to be vocal and get his teammates ready for another Southeastern Conference powerhouse.
"You really gotta instill that football-ness, that savvy, to people," said Washington, who was disappointed in the team's effort while watching from the sidelines on New Year's Day. "I use that Sugar Bowl example a lot. I took that (beating) to heart, man. We got embarrassed and everything. That's just shows you a lot. When we go to Florida this year, it's going to be the same thing, if not worse. It starts now. It really starts now."
He's been among many Warriors who've been practicing unsupervised on campus over the past few weeks.
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Michael Washington dreams football.
In less than 90 days, Hawaii opens its college football season at Florida with a largely new cast of leading men and supporting players. As we did leading up to last season's historic run to the Sugar Bowl, the Star-Bulletin will introduce and re-introduce you to some of the personnel expected to impact the Warriors' chances at success this fall. Brian McInnis' piece on senior slotback Mike Washington is the first in our series of Sunday profiles that will carry you into the start of fall camp.
It's a far better subject than the alternative.
Despite -- or perhaps because of -- a seemingly never-ending stream of bad news from home in Aliquippa, Pa., the Hawaii senior slotback keeps his mind attuned to the here and now of the Warriors' upcoming football season.
Thoughts of Hawaii's season opener at The Swamp in Florida never stray too far from his mind, or a football too far from his bed. He's helped organize independent, unsupervised workout sessions over the past few weeks with his fellow receivers and the UH quarterbacks. Members of the team have noticed Washington help fill the void of a crop of departed offensive leaders.
For the past few months, the 5-foot-7, 175-pound Washington has been consumed by a hunger to make good on his final year of eligibility. The past three seasons have been an exercise in frustration as he's bided his time on the Aloha Stadium sidelines, waiting for any and every opportunity to get on the field behind former stars Davone Bess and Ryan Grice-Mullins, who arrived in the same 2005 season.
The highly touted recruit (he turned down scholarships from California, Miami, Penn State and other schools) earned some playing time at wideout his freshman year, but was then buried in the deep slotback position for the next two seasons. With Bess and Grice-Mullins leaving for the NFL a season early after the Warriors' 12-0 regular season and loss in the Sugar Bowl, Washington is in prime position to be a difference-maker in 2008.
"There's not a day that goes by that I don't go to sleep dreaming about the Florida game, dreaming about games during the season," he said. "Me, Yoda (slotback Aaron Bain), (quarterback) Tyler (Graunke), we got one year left, so we just gotta ball out. I definitely didn't come here all the way from Pennsylvania for no vacation."
Offensive coordinator Ron Lee, the former receivers coach, knows exactly what Washington can bring to the team -- unparalleled speed and meticulous route-running. It was reaffirmed in the team's recent spring training sessions in March.
"He has been waiting a long time for his chance, and it's here now," Lee said. "He had a great spring, working hard, he's excited. I'm excited that he's going to get the chance. The only thing he hasn't really done -- he knows what we're doing -- is doing it on Saturdays."
Washington returned a punt 80 yards for a score against Northern Colorado last year, but Lee said it's too early to tell whether he'll get a crack at the special teams job this season -- the coaching staff plans to meet on it in the next two weeks.
While football has been Washington's existence in Hawaii, things back home have been a source of constant worry.
When Mike was a fifth-grader in South Carolina living with his parents and three siblings, his mom and dad argued one night. The Washington kids woke up to find them gone. Mike and his older brother scraped and struggled to support their two younger sisters, and after a month and a half of leaning on each other to survive with no food or power, the kids were rescued by their maternal grandparents to live in Aliquippa.
"It was hard to forgive (our parents) for what they did because they blame each other for their actions," Washington said. "Their actions affected all of us. I forgave them, but I didn't tell them that. I put it behind me. Everything that happened back home, that just added fuel to the fire to my ambition and dreams, man."
In his adult life, things haven't been much better. His cousin E.J. -- who he grew up with him in Aliquippa and considered a brother -- was murdered during his freshman year, and old friends and teammates have become casualties of the violent culture of his neighborhood. He recently found out his mother, Gloria, is in jail, and he doesn't keep in contact with his estranged father, Lawrence.
He considers his grandparents and the Aliquippa Church of the Round his saviors, and keeps in contact with both weekly. But it is still a struggle, and he often felt out of place during the Warriors' best season of record last year.
His lowest point mentally came between his sophomore and junior years, when a summer of hard work went unrewarded with no firm spot on special teams the next season. Washington entertained thoughts of transferring, but decided to stick it out. After all, he'd come so far in learning the run-and-shoot system.
Now, he figures it's time to display all the hard work he's put in; he'll have a speech degree to show for it in the fall.
Washington discovered a kindred spirit on the team in Graunke, a fellow second-stringer stranded behind Colt Brennan for the bulk of his Warrior career. Over the past three years the two have developed a connection working together in a similar situation during team practices.
"I love the kid. I can't wait for this year for me and him to shine together," said Graunke, who is competing for the starting quarterback job. "He should have been starting the last three years, but we had an unbelievable athlete in Davone Bess. Now it's Mike Washington's turn, and I know he's going to make the best of it."