ISU Hall of Fame linebacker Chris Washington on action. (Photo courtesy ISU Athletics Communications)
AMES — The shimmering rings weigh equally on Chris Washington’s strong hands.
A Super Bowl ring adorns his right hand — one earned as a member of the 1989 San Francisco 49ers. An Iowa State ring shines on his left hand — one earned as the Cyclones’ all-time leading tackler.
But which one is he most proud of? The answer is both, but he knows the “Super” one will draw the most attention.
“Getting elected to the (ISU) Hall of Fame, was tremendous and I’ll never get over that,” said Washington, who served as an honorary captain for this month’s weather-altered spring game. “And I wear these two (rings) — again, not to show off — when I see students, and I see a lot of high school students and high school students, you have something, they’ll find it. They’ll see that ring, ‘What is this about?’ And I tell them why I’m wearing it.”
The rings remind Washington of where he came from — and where he works to help others go.
He’s an evangelist for the NFL’s array of programs for future and former players and shares that valuable information often.
He’s a lifelong underdog who grew up in Chicago before finding his way to Ames under ISU coach Donnie Duncan.
He’s a former NFL star whose career was cut short by injury, but once shared locker room space with Joe Montana, Roger Craig and Jerry Rice.
He’s also extremely impressed by the vision current Cyclones coach Matt Campbell has established and nurtured for the next generation of ISU players.
“He’s letting them know they need to be accountable and they need to be accountable to one another,” Washington said of Campbell. “The little things that he’s having them do and he repeats and repeats and repeats — it’s consistency that is going to help you be successful. That’s what he’s teaching these young men and that’s something that they need to know.”
It’s something that fueled Washington his entire career.
At ISU, he racked up an astounding 457 tackles and was tabbed as a sixth-round NFL Draft pick by the then-lowly Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Washington made the most of it, though, swiftly becoming a top-performing linebacker in Tampa. He totaled 17.5 sacks in his first four seasons — two as a full-time starter — and recovered four fumbles.
Still, being a Buc wasn’t easy. The team never won more than six games during Washington’s stint in Tampa. The lack of success wore on him and his teammates — and the derision from fans further damaged morale.
“Going to Tampa Bay, because we lost so many games, it was hard to give away tickets to Tampa Bay,” Washington said. “And it hurt your heart, because you have all this negative attention and you worked so hard to get there, but I realized just as they have gotten used to the ineffective team that they’ve had, and then they’re throwing it all at you, and this is one of the biggest accomplishments of my life — and I’m getting crap for this from fans every day? I was lucky enough that we had free agency for the NFL in ’89 and I was recruited by the 49ers and that happened to be the year they won Super Bowl 24. That was great — and I saw why we were so unsuccessful in Tampa Bay. Because it was the attitude. Period. Same thing here. Same thing I was talking about in there. It’s the attitude and just not believing in the guy you’re next to and I could go on and on and on. But it’s just coming out every day, giving your all.”
“Same thing here.” He’s talking about ISU — and he’s seen a seismic shift in terms of the team’s attitude; its collective sense of what’s possible.
“The same thing we’ve been saying,” Washington said. “And I was telling them about experiences as a kid in the neighborhood. You just have to learn to believe in yourself. People are going to be telling you you’re not big enough to do this or that. When I got drafted they said, ‘You’re too small to play middle linebacker.’ Everyone always has something to tell you what you can’t do, but don’t let them dictate what you can and cannot do. Make the effort and as the other speakers were saying in there, you have to believe in yourself when nobody else does. That’s the bottom line. It sounds simple, but a lot of people won’t do that, or don’t have the capacity to do that. But you have to believe in yourself and you never know what the outcome will be.”
For Washington, grinding away while the doubters scoffed led to being part of a Super Bowl win. He didn’t play that season because of a broken ankle, but got his ring anyway. He deserved it.
“You understand if you’re on the team and it’s your first time how it would blow your mind, because everywhere you go, everybody’s cheering and this or that,” Washington said. “There’s so much going on. … But at the same time you have to prepare for a game. I was like one of the fans. I was taking pictures. I went through locker rooms taking pictures of everyone and I’m glad I did, because I have those memories now that I use. It was just great to be a part of that. I grew up all my life just watching and now, ‘We have a chance to win the Super Bowl.’ And then we did. It was just unbelievable and then our owner took us to Kaua’i over in Hawai’i for the ring celebration and it was just mind blowing.”
But that luster can fade. It did for Washington as his career wound down. He signed with Arizona in 1990 and played in eight games and — poof! — it was over.
“I got what I call not a fair contract, but it shouldn’t have mattered, I had a contract,” Washington said. “And I had the worst attitude I ever had as a professional athlete, because usually I was the first one there, but I didn’t do that because I had this bad attitude because it was a financial thing. So I was introduced to that early on. And after that, I went back to San Francisco and retired and I was angry. I was angry when I retired because I didn’t prepare myself. So I was angry with myself and I gained all this weight and everything and I was just angry all the time. One friend that I had gave me some advice and it literally saved my life.”
“It took a little while to get rid of the anger, but he just let me know that if there’s something you want to do, you need to do, shut up talking about it and go do it,” Washington said. “You know, ‘We can help you. We have the resources,’ and that was the main thing he did, was he opened my eyes up to the resources that the NFL had that I wasn’t taking advantage of — that a lot of guys weren’t taking advantage of — and I worked with the NFL alumni, I was the vice-president of our chapter in San Diego and that’s what I would do. I’d help young guys, old guys, take advantage of the benefits because we would not go to the doctor. For whatever reason, we would not go to the doctor, and you had families that were depending on you, so just getting them to do that and making sure that they’re aware of what’s available, because the NFL isn’t giving away anything for free, so you’ve earned it, for however many years you played, take advantage of it and work from there.”
Washington’s spreading the word now and living each day with a deep sense of gratitude. The rings only gleam as testaments to his past achievements. His wise words help chart successful paths for others, in football and in life.
“I walk up to high school students and I just walk up to them and say, ‘Hi, how you doin?’ Hello,’” Washington said. “And I say, ‘Do you watch football?’ ‘Yes.’ And, ‘You ever see a Super Bowl?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Have you seen a Super Bowl ring?’ ‘No.’ I say, ‘What if I told you I wanted to give you a Super Bowl ring and let you take a picture with that on.’ They say, ‘Right. Yeah, right.’ And I say, ‘No, here.’ And I did that and I said the reason I did that is because you never know what could happen. You never know what opportunities might come along and you have to be ready to accept it or not.”
Washington eagerly took advantage of his opportunities — and both of his rings serve as conversation starters that chart the future instead of merely documenting the past.
“I said, ‘It doesn’t mean much,’” Washington said. “‘I’m not doing it to show off. I’m just showing you you never know what might happen.’ So I enjoy that.”