"At that point, I'm thinking oh man, how bad can it get?" Washington said Saturday after the Orange and Blue Game before a record spring football crowd of 58,500 at The Swamp. "I really didn't know what was going to happen and what I was going to do. We hear these stories about how the new coach is going to run people off and stuff like that and we wonder…. I wondered is there a place for me here at Florida?"
When Tavares Washington came to Florida, he was considered one of the best junior college offensive linemen in the country, a 6-3, 310-pound tackle with quick enough feet to pass protect and the strength to maul defensive ends in the running game. The people who saw him play in junior college envisioned two all-star years at Florida then a pleasant weekend in April 2005 when he heard his name announced in the National Football League draft.
Even the best laid plans sometimes run amok. Washington's plans hit a few hiccups along the way. He had to adjust to a new offense, then he had to battle through injuries. And that was just his first year in the program.
"I started against Miami and then I got hurt," he said of his first year at UF. "I missed three or four games, but then when I got healthy, I'd go in for a play or two, then I'd come out. I never did get in a rhythm. I looked back on that season and felt there wasn't a lot of good that came out of it."
As bad as it was in 2003, 2004 was worse. Injured again, he had to have surgery which led to a redshirt.
"I had the surgery and every time I start feeling healthy and think I'd be back playing again, I'd get some kind of setback," he said. "It was bad. It was real bad. And then Coach Zook is fired and after that Coach Wickline is gone, too. That was the worst. I know rock bottom. I've been to rock bottom. That was rock bottom."
Tavares Washington (#76) in action blocking a defender near the top during O&B game
Meyer came to Florida with a reputation as a coach who doesn't tolerate unproductive players. Washington looked back on two unproductive seasons and questioned himself, wondering if Meyer and his assistant coaches would overlook the past and allow him a fresh chance.
"I'm a pretty positive guy, but that was a lot of stuff to handle," he said. "I didn't know. I just didn't know if I had a future here. I knew that these new coaches would come in here and they'd look at film… but there's no film on me hardly at all… so I had to wonder what would they expect of me? Would they even want me to be here?"
That's when the hand reached out, almost from out of the blue, an unexpected gift and just the right lift at just the right moment. In a matter of one meeting, he went from the walking dead to the very much alive.
"The new coaches came in and they set up their rules first off," Washington said, "and then they started calling us in to talk. They called me in and first thing they tell me is how much they are counting on me to be a player on the field and a leader off the field.
"This was the positive thing I needed in my life. Coach Meyer let me know that I had hope and a future. All I had prayed about is one chance and I didn't even have to ask. Coach Meyer granted me this one chance and this is something I won't let him down about. Whatever this coach needs, he'll get it from me."
Granted new life, Washington dedicated himself in the preseason strength and conditioning program. He got in the best shape he's been in since arriving at Florida and prepared to have a spring to prove Meyer was right to show such confidence.
"It really said something to me that Coach Meyer and then Coach (John) Hevesy would just give me this chance like that," he said. "You can go through life without ever getting a second chance. They offered it to me and I'm doing the best I can to show them how right they were."
Given what he calls a "new birth," he's not just shown up in the weight room and on the practice field he's also shown up in a rather new and important capacity. Meyer calls him a true team leader.
At Saturday's post game press conference, Meyer said, "Tavares Washington … he's a guy that when I have an issue, for some reason, it's interesting who you go to. He's the guy I go to."
Washington in the lower left of the photo shown holding off Todd McCullough.
Meyer knows he can go to Washington because his big tackle is conscientious and not a player who you can lump into one single group. Washington is not a troublemaker or one who is a trouble magnet. He's also a trusted teammate that others know they can talk to anytime about anything.
"I don't just hang with one group," Washington said. "I'm with one group one day, with another group another. I like to mix and like to get a feel for what everyone's thinking and what everyone's doing. I think my teammates trust me. I think the coaches know I'm not going to be in trouble and they know they can get an honest answer from me."
The leadership has also shown up on the field in a very positive way according to offensive coordinator Dan Mullen. Mullen appreciates that Washington has shown by example that he's a leader, but also that the big guy isn't lacking the courage to speak up on the field when necessary.
"He's a guy who didn't play last year because of injuries, but he's made a great improvement," said Mullen. "I think he's shown some versatility within our offense that he can do different things, but the one critical thing with him is that he has developed as a leader. He's someone who offensively that can be vocal.
"We don't have a lot of vocal guys on the offense, someone who will stand up and say 'this is how it has to be. This is my last chance.' When you get to be a senior it's a lot easier to be a leader because now you can see that light at the end of the tunnel. So now it's time to go. He wants to make sure he leaves here on a great note and he's willing to hold himself and everybody else accountable for him having success this year."
Mullen said that Washington has been a quick study, making the transition from Wickline's way of teaching blocking to that of Hevesy. The new offense requires more of a zone blocking scheme and with Washington's good footwork, he's a natural for a tackle position.
"Obviously when you come in here and you learn a new offense and your coach is teaching you new fundamentals that are different that you've done in the past and everything's a different way of doing things, that takes some time," said Mullen. "Just in this past week I've seen everybody know not just what to do but start to know how to do it and how we want to do it.
"Tavares is a great example. He's really worked hard with his fundamentals and how we want them to look. He's learned how we're teaching fundamentals and to get the job done that way. One of the best things he's done is to develop fundamentally with what we want, not just general offensive line play, but with the fundamentals that we're teaching."
Because the coaches have embraced him, Washington has become comfortable in his role both as a starter and as a team leader. He likes Meyer's open door policy that allows any player to come in and talk any time.
"He's made it like a family here," said Washington. "You can go talk to coach Meyer and you don't have to have an appointment. You can walk in his office if he's not busy and say, 'can we talk?' And you know he's always ready to talk. You just sit down or you can even lay down on the couch in his office. He lets you be comfortable and he lets you open up to him. It doesn't matter what you want to talk about."
Washington is aware that second chances in life don't come often so he's decided that he will do everything in his power to see that Meyer and this staff succeed.
"All I needed was a chance and they gave it to me," he said. "They didn't have to do that but they did. I'm going to do what I can to make sure I don't let them down. This is my rebirth. This is my renewal."