Darnell Washington fell in love with football when he was 6 or 7. Yet throughout elementary school, whenever he’d ask his mother if he could sign up to play, Katrina Graves would turn to the youngest of her eight children and give him the same answer: no.
“She was like, ‘Oh, I don’t want you to get hurt,'” Washington said.
So Washington began playing soccer. Then basketball. Finally, when he reached junior high, Katrina’s safety concerns eased, convinced not by her son’s precocious size but by the assurances from the mother of one of Washington’s friends who already was playing.
“It was all she wrote from there,” Washington said.
Already bigger than his classmates, Washington seemingly never stopped growing. From running back to offensive lineman to wide receiver to defensive lineman to ultimately a 6-foot-7, 264-pound tight end who always has stood out in — or maybe that’s above — the crowd.
Even on a practice field filled with 50 other players trying to get the hang of the NFL while participating in the Pittsburgh Steelers‘ rookie mini-camp, Washington stands out. The crown of his black-and-gold helmet peaked out of the top of every offensive huddle. His No. 80 basically unmissable as he broke from the line of scrimmage, towering over whatever defender forced to try to cover a player who has the size of a left tackle but essentially the athletic body of a wide receiver.
The Steelers plan to use Washington as a little of both as they put together a roster designed to make inroads on the current AFC powerhouses. Pittsburgh used free agency and the draft to get bigger — a lot bigger — in hopes of being a stylistic antithesis to the Kansas Cities and Cincinnatis of the world. The Chiefs and Bengals are built on offense and dynamic passing attacks. The Steelers appear intent on turning themselves into bullies, and in Washington they believe they’ve found someone who can push an opponent around on one snap and run away from them the next.
“It’s going to be interesting how they account for him because it’s one of the things we talked about in the evaluation process,” Pittsburgh assistant general manager Andy Weidl said. “How are (other teams) going to treat him? Because he’s so flexible and versatile in what he can do … he is just a unique player.”
What’s most surprising about Washington may be the fact that coaches at every stop in his life have watched him grow — and grow and grow — but never tried to pigeonhole him into a position.
The kid whose mother was worried he was going to get hurt was already 6-4 and 238 pounds as a freshman at Desert Pines High School in Las Vegas. The inches and pounds kept coming. Yet given the way the weight spread — more top to bottom than mostly around the middle — and the fact he had a nearly 7-foot wingspan, having him plant himself at the training table until he filled out to become a lineman seemed foolish.
The player who believes he’s a “skinny dude” even at his dimensions isn’t lying exactly. Washington is somehow taller and leaner than he looked during his standout career at Georgia, where he helped the Bulldogs win back-to-back national championships.
At most programs, Washington would have been a favorite target of the quarterback. Yet Georgia was so loaded with talent that his numbers as a pass-catcher were relatively modest. He caught just 45 passes and three touchdowns in 27 games, but his 17.2 yards per reception showcased how dangerous he can be in the open field.
The Steelers already have an excellent pass-catching tight end in Pat Freiermuth and an oversized target on the outside in 6-5 second-year wide receiver George Pickens, a teammate of Washington’s at Georgia. There is no rush to try to figure out how to use Washington. It’s more likely offensive coordinator Matt Canada experiments while trying to see what kind of mismatches he can create for Washington.
Washington, who signed a four-year contract on Friday, is just as willing to take on a defensive lineman as he is trying to outrun a safety.
“I’m a pretty fast learner,” he said.
Spoken like a player who didn’t waste time catching up, even if as big as he is compared to his peers, Katrina can’t help but still worry a little bit about her son in the way that moms do.
“I’m pretty sure she probably does (worry),” Washington said. “But I mean, at the end of the day, it’s a game and we’re out there to have fun.”
Reporting by The Associated Press.
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