Lionel Washington worked hard to be a success on the field and an inspiration off it
On Saturday, Lionel Washington will be inducted into the Louisiana Sports Hall of Fame.
But three decades ago, there was another honor that became a major influence in Washington’s later achievements that earned him his spot among the state’s elite athletes.
In 1984, Washington’s hometown of Lutcher, where he’d starred for the Bulldogs before going on to do the same at Tulane, renamed Weil Street — the one he’d grown up on — Lionel Washington Avenue.
For Washington, this came after only one season in what became a 15-year NFL career at cornerback followed by 12 more years in the league as an assistant coach. But that might not have happened, he holds, had not the Rev. Versy Floyd and Deacon Bernard Lee of Greater King Triumph Baptist Church taken it upon themselves to honor the St. James Parish community’s favorite son.
“For a while it didn’t hit me about what it really meant,” said Washington, now headed into his third season as the co-defensive coordinator at Tulane. “But then I realized I was being held as a higher standard so that other kids in Lutcher might be inspired and motivated.
“That’s when I decided that I would never give them a reason to want to change it back.”
And he hasn’t.
“Lionel Washington is a phenomenal guy,” said Frank Monica, Washington’s high school coach who will be his presenter in Natchitoches. “And I really mean it when I say he’s a better person than he was an athlete, if that’s possible.
“I don’t throw out the word ‘trust’ liberally because there are so few people in the world you can truly say that about, but he’s one of them.”
At Lutcher, Monica had to persuade Washington to come out for football as a junior after he’d decided he preferred basketball and track following his freshman year when he played all three.
By his senior season, Washington was a standout defensive back who led his team to the Class 3A state championship in 1978.
But Tulane was the only Division I-A school to offer him, and Monica had to dissuade Washington from taking a basketball offer, pointing out that 6-foot-1 guards were a dime-a-dozen, but that 6-1 cornerbacks with his kind of speed were not.
A four-interception performance (with two returned for touchdowns) in the Louisiana High School All-Star Game demonstrated that Washington had been largely overlooked in the recruiting process, especially by LSU.
In his first two years at Tulane, Washington made major contributions to the Green Wave’s Liberty Bowl and Hall of Fame Bowl teams.
Tulane’s winning fell off during Washington’s junior and senior seasons, but he had the satisfaction of beating LSU for the third time in four years to close his college career.
“Nobody thought we had a chance to win that game,” Washington said. “Nobody but us.”
The then-St. Louis Cardinals made Washington their fourth-round draft pick (No. 103 overall) in 1983.
He spent four seasons with the Cardinals, nine with the Los Angeles Raiders and then two with Denver before returning to the Raiders, who by then were back in Oakland, in 1997.
In his career, Washington had 37 interceptions with four returned for touchdowns, including a career-high eight picks as a rookie.
Washington never made a Pro Bowl team, but his longevity (205 games with 137 starts) in the secondary is surpassed by only a handful of others.
“It was a blessing,” Washington said of his career. “I credit my faith, hard work and my desire just to go year-by-year and never look past that.”
And he certainly earned the respect of his teammates and coaches.
“On the field, Lionel was a fierce competitor who always took his job seriously,” said former Raiders quarterback Vince Evans, then and now and close friend. “Off the field, he’s just a wonderful person.
“He, Terry McDaniels and I would lead Bible studies, which was an intriguing thing for Al Davis. Al could see that Lionel lived his life in a different way, and I think that’s what attracted him to him.”
But that relationship with Davis led Washington to his biggest regret — leaving the Broncos after the 1996 season.
Denver had been the No. 1 seed going into the playoffs that year, but had been upset by Jacksonville in the divisional round of the playoffs.
The Broncos wanted to bring Washington back at a reduced salary. Instead he took at offer the Raiders owner to play for the same pay he’d received in ’96.
Denver wound up wining the Super Bowl in ’97 while the Raiders went 4-12 in Washington’s final season.
“It was one of the few times I didn’t see the big picture,” Washington said. “But that’s the way it plays out sometimes.”
It did, because with Davis’ help, a year later, Washington began his coaching career in Green Bay — a stint that would last for 10 years under three head coaches before he returned to Oakland for two more seasons.
“I don’t guess I’ve ever had a paycheck that didn’t come from football,” Washington said. “My faith and trust in God have always guided me.
“And I’ve always known I’d be OK because I have a passion for what I do and nobody is going to outwork me.”
Tulane coach Curtis Johnson, who has known Washington since Johnson was playing at neighboring St. Charles, said that dedication has Washington a vital asset to his staff.
“I call him ‘Tony Dungy,’ ” Johnson said. “He’s got that kind of personality – very smart.
“The players really look up to him because they want to be where he was. And he loves being around the kids.”
Indeed, while Washington’s entire coaching career was on the NFL level before he came back to Tulane, he had always had an interest in helping youngsters.
For years he sponsored camps both in Lutcher and Reserve that drew as many as 1,500.
“I loved working with kids and seeing their eyes light up when they could see chance that they could go to the next level one day too,” Washington said. “I always felt that I’d been blessed through my upbringing and in turn I wanted to be a blessing to others.
“There’s nothing more satisfying to me than at the end of the day to have someone I’ve tried to help comes back to say ‘Thank you.’ ”
It’s that willingness to give back which prompted the folks in Lutcher to name a street after him — something Washington laughs about when reminded that despite the community’s strong football tradition, he’s the only player to have been so honored thus far.
“We’ve had a lot of great athletes come of Lutcher, but Lionel Washington ranks right at the top,” said Ralph Patin, Washington’s junior high basketball coach and a strong influence in his life. “He had intensity from the time he started playing sports, and that carried through his career and carries over to him as a coach today.”
Football in Lutcher, Patin added, is a year-round obsession.
“When it’s not football season, people are talking about it the rest of the time,” he said. “That’s why everybody was so proud of Lionel, even that early into his career.”
But for Washington, there was another motivating factor beyond representing his community.
The youngest of 10 children, he likes to recall a conversation he had with his late father, Cornelius, before he left for Tulane.
“He asked me, ‘What’s your name?’” Washington said. “And I said ‘Lionel.’
“And he said, ‘No, your name is Washington, and that’s my name too. So don’t mess it up.’ I’ve always tried to do that.”
He’ll get no argument from the people he’s encountered along the way at Lutcher, at Tulane, as a player, as a coach in the NFL and now back at Tulane. All are all quick to say Lionel Washington has honored his father’s name in the best possible ways.
“My dad would have been so ecstatic about this,” said Rose Gordon, Washington’s older sister. “What made Lionel the person he became was the way we were brought up, which was with a sense of purpose and always doing certain things a certain way.
“That gave my brother the strength and courage to do the things he wanted to. I don’t think my dad started out as much of a football fan, but he sure became one when he saw where it took Lionel.”