Catching Up With ... former Colt Joe Washington
Each week in The Toy Department, veteran Baltimore Sun sportswriter Mike Klingaman tracks down a former local sports figure and lets you know what's happening in his/her life in a segment called "Catching Up With ... " Let Klingaman know who you'd like him to find and click here to check out previous editions of "Catching Up With ... "
He wore silver football shoes, the right color for a mercurial runner. Was there ever a seam so small that Joe Washington couldn’t sneak through it? For three years, he rallied Colts fans, feinting and dashing and dancing for yardage, a ray of hope on a team spinning in reverse.
"Yeah, they were lean times," Washington, 56, said of his hitch in Baltimore (1978-80). "But I never thought I had limits. I could get in and out of places that other guys couldn’t dream of.
"My feet had a mind of their own."
Getting Little Joe proved a bonanza for the Colts. Remember Washington’s debut on Monday Night Football? Acquired a month earlier from San Diego in a trade for Lydell Mitchell, he put on a show that made a believer of acerbic Howard Cosell.
In the fourth quarter of a game at New England, Washington scored three touchdowns – all by different means – to upset the Patriots, 34-27 in a driving rain in September, 1978.
First, he threw an option pass 54 yards to Roger Carr for a TD. Moments later, he caught a 23-yard scoring pass from Colts’ quarterback Bill Troup.
"That ball was right on the money," Washington recalled. "Ray Charles probably could have caught it."
Then, with 1:18 left in a tie game, the onetime Oklahoma All-American ran a kickoff back 90 yards to win it.
It’s a play he’ll never forget.
"I fielded the line drive kick on the short hop, grabbed that rascal and took off," said Washington, 5-10 and 175 pounds. "It was pouring rain, so everyone was running real tentative, except me.
"I found some room, made a cut, ducked a guy and found more room."
End of game. The Colts, who’d been shut out in their first two contests, 80-0, had knocked the socks off a national TV audience.
Even now, watching tapes of the game in his Lutherville home, Washington gets a kick out of hearing Cosell’s spiel on the Colts.
"Beforehand," he said, "Howard was critical, saying, ‘How could Baltimore have made this trade? Sure, Washington was good at Oklahoma, but what has he done in the NFL?’ "
Afterward, swept up in the Colts’ heroics, Cosell shouted, "What a night this has turned out to be!"
For Baltimore, Washington proved as versatile as a Swiss army knife. He gained nearly 4,000 yards for the Colts, rushing and receiving, and made the Pro Bowl in 1979 when he led the NFL with 82 receptions.
In 1981, however, upset with his diminished playing time, he was traded to Washington, where he earned a Super Bowl ring. He retired in 1985 after a 10-year career.
Today, Washington works for Wells Fargo as a financial advisor. He and Meadowlark, his wife of 33 years, have one daughter, Brandy, a former tennis champion at Park School who won the Association of Independent Schools title in 1998.
He cherished his time with the Colts, said Washington, because they were his team while growing up in Texas in the 1960s.
"They were the epitome of what the NFL was all about," he said. "In fourth grade, I won a local punt, pass and kick contest. First prize was a Colts jacket. I wore that thing forever and a day. I even wore it to bed. Still have it, too."
Lenny Moore, the team’s high-stepping running back, was Washington’s idol.
"He was the reason I wore No. 24 in high school and college," he said.
When Washington joined the Colts, Moore’s jersey had been retired.
"But Lenny asked me if I wanted to wear it anyway," said Washington, who respectfully declined. He wore No. 20 instead.
He still plays tennis and golf and, on occasion, throws the football with neighborhood kids.
"When I go, I want to have both of my knees and one tooth in my head that’s actually mine," said Washington. "That’s my bucket list."
Top photo: Baltimore Sun; Bottom photo: J. Pat Carter/Baltimore Sun/1979