RENTON - As Deon Butler gingerly maneuvered his way through the Seahawks' locker room on crutches and protected his surgically repaired broken right leg, Leon Washington eyed his teammate knowingly.
As Butler passed by, Washington interrupted his interview with local media to offer encouragement.
“Nothing but love!” he shouted to Butler, who grinned widely.
Maybe it wouldn’t mean much. Maybe it would. But he had to say something. Because it wasn’t long ago he was the guy on crutches, nursing a broken a leg.
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“I know that feeling,” he said. “Oh, I know that feeling. I was doing the same thing in the Jets’ locker room this time last year.”
Now it’s a completely different feeling for Washington.
He’s healthy. He’s happy. He again one of the most feared return men in the NFL. And today, he will try to help the Seahawks advance to the NFC playoffs with a win over the St. Louis Rams at Qwest Field.
Most of all, Washington is thankful. Thankful his career didn’t end prematurely. Thankful he was given another chance to play football – a game he dearly loves.
“I thought to myself, ‘If I have another chance to play football, I won’t live another regret,’” Washington said. “I’m just so fortunate to have it. I cherish it.”
How close was he to not having any of it?
The broken leg Washington suffered against the Oakland Raiders last season when he played for the New York Jets was gruesome. On a 6-yard run, a defender rolled up on his ankle on the tackle. The awkward hit broke the fibula in his right leg and sent it through the skin for a compound fracture.
Replays of that moment can make your stomach flip.
“It was disgusting,” said Seahawks special teams captain Roy Lewis.
It was bad enough, some wondered if Washington would play again, let alone return to the form that made him a Pro Bowl and All-Pro returner and a versatile, dangerous running back.
The uncertainty made him expendable to the Jets, who traded him to the Seahawks for a fifth-round draft pick.
“When Coach (Pete) Carroll called me and told me I was traded to Seattle, I knew I had another opportunity and I wanted to make right by it,” he said. “I did everything in my power to help this team win games and be available.”
He’s done both.
On Friday, Washington smiled at the thought of preparing to play his 16th game of the season, with a chance to play a 17th.
“I’m just so fortunate to have an opportunity to play again,” he said. “It was a devastating injury that was hard to come back from.”
Save for a few bumps, nicks and tight muscles, he’s been healthy this season.
And the leg?
“I don’t even think about it,” he said. “I got God’s steel rod in there. I know I can’t break it again.”
It’s not just that Washington has played every game. He has excelled. He’s been one of the best in the NFL. He has three special teams touchdown returns, and is fourth in the league in kickoff return yards.
“He should also have a punt return for a touchdown,” Lewis said with a chuckle, referring to the infamous play where Washington started his celebration early and was tripped up by Carolina punter Jason Baker on what appeared to be a sure scoring play.
Chicago’s Devin Hester beat out Washington for the NFC Pro Bowl returner selection, but Washington also has been mentioned as a candidate for the NFL’s comeback player of the year along with New England’s Wes Welker, Minnesota’s E.J. Henderson and Philadelphia’s Michael Vick.
“It’s nice just to be mentioned as part of that,” he said. “That award is about going through adversity and coming back. It’s a compliment.”
And it’s deserved. Washington has been one of the team’s most consistent performers this season, and arguably its most valuable player.
“He’s been a great contributor to this club,” Carroll said. “Not just in the touchdowns that he scored, but in the energy he generates because of his play-making ability, his attitude and his competitiveness. He’s been a great, great contributor on this team – and as valuable as anyone on this team.”
Any time Washington fields a returnable kick or punt, there’s reason for optimism.
“We know every time the ball is up, he has a chance to score a touchdown,” Carroll said. “And everyone knows it that’s watching us. It’s a very exciting element that he brings to our club.”
Said Lewis: “He’s just a phenomenal return man. We know we have to block our tails off because he can break it at any time. He is a game changer.”
Just ask the San Diego Chargers, whom Washington made look inept as he returned two kicks for touchdowns earlier this season.
“He just about single-handedly won that game for us,” Carroll said.
Both Carroll and Washington hope he gets a chance to change the game today.
But teams have become aware of how dangerous the Seahawks return unit has been this season.
“Teams have tried to do different things, bloop and squib kicks,” Washington said. “They mix it up. It just seems that teams are more aware.
“It’s a little bit of scheme, but a lot just has to with that teams are just more aware of what we are doing.”
If Lewis were playing against Seattle, he would be more than aware of Washington.
“I wouldn’t kick the ball to him,” he said. “The same way you don’t want to kick the ball to Devin Hester and DeSean Jackson. When you have a returner of that caliber, do not kick the ball to them because they will make you pay.”
It’s a matter of respect, and a bonus for the Seahawks.
“It’s a win-win situation with us,” Lewis said. “Cause if you kick it to him, we have a chance to score. And if you choose to squib it or bloop it, you are taking the loss on the play and giving us good field position.”
But all it takes is just one time for Washington.
“You just wait for that opportunity,” he said.
Kind of like his time with the Seahawks.
“I talked to coach a brief moment earlier today,” he said. “I told him I really appreciated him giving me the opportunity.”
That appreciation will hold weight for Washington when he decides where to play next season as an unrestricted free agent.
“Right now we are focused on the next game, but it’s there in the back of my head of how much faith he had in me,” he said. “That means a lot to me. He believed in me.”
Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/seahawks/