When ball carriers are hit by Washington, they go backwards-- the 5-11, 225-pound Washington hits like a solid rock. But the Saginaw, Mich. native openly acknowledges that he has found a solid rock for his own life. His name, says Washington, is Jesus Christ.
One might somehow expect that the son of a pastor (Otis Washington, Sr. is pastor at Saginaw's Holy Communion Gospel Center) might have been raised with some religious leanings. However, it only takes a little time spent with the Commodore middle linebacker to realize that for him, this "religion" stuff is much more than a leaning-- it's a calling. His deep faith is owned, not inherited.
Stories like Washington's makes for great newspaper copy. The amazing stories have begun to seep out to the media about just how much adversity this amazing 21-year-old has overcome in his short life.
But seldom, if ever, do newspaper stories discuss the reason for the inner motivation that has driven him to succeed.
Washington points back to a harrowing event early in his life as the point at which God became very real for him. Growing up in a rugged part of Saginaw, Mich., Washington at age nine was the victim of a much-publicized drive-by shooting.
"I was playing football at the church with some other children," he recalls. "A car had rolled by a few times and opened fire on us. I was ten feet away-- I tried to run away, but you can't run away from bullets."
One bullet pierced the young Washington's lung and collapsed it, and one lodged an inch away from his heart.
"It was one of those times that I found out that God was actually real. I was lying on the floor of my Dad's van, and said probably the most important four words of my life-- 'Lord, spare my life.' Immediately I knew everything would be OK, that God would take care of me. And he's done so throughout my life.
"Four days later, I was out of the hospital. The doctors said I should have been dead. I truly believe that God works miracles. He saved my life."
The bullet still remains in his body today near his lower back, as physicians felt it would be too risky to remove it.
"If that bullet ever had any power to harm me, it's gone now," Washington said. "I just don't worry about it any more."
Washington's faith also played a role in his return to Vanderbilt after a freshman year which saw him fail to live up to the school's rigorous academic standards. Washington said he knew he'd eventually be back-- but many of his own teammates doubted that he'd be able to get his academic act together.
"Even the people in the community doubted," Washington said. "They were like, well, he's just like everybody else.
"But in the face of opposition is when I'm motivated the most. I always knew I'd be right back here and doing the same thing that I was meant to do."
Asked why he chose Vanderbilt in 2001 over a number of other big-name programs which sought his services, Washington could only say, "I don't know-- it felt like home.
"When I called Woody [Widenhofer] up and said, 'Coach, I'm coming down,' I knew it was the right decision," he says. "This is my home. This is where I'm supposed to be.
"I absolutely love the new coaching staff. Coach Johnson, all the coaches really. They're a great group of moral men. That's what I appreciate the most. They're guys that I can respect and play for."
Washington credits his faith for his ability to focus clearly, both on the football field and in the classrom.
"There's so much God wants to do for people," he says. "He wants to bless them so badly, if they just have a little extra faith here and there. When I don't live like I should, I don't feel as good, and my practices aren't as good as they should be.
"But when I'm on track... there's nothing like it. I have all the confidence in the world. It's like having a Big Brother always behind you. He's always there."
Washington, active in the Bethel Church in Nashville, says he is just one of a number of Vanderbilt's players who expresses his faith openly. He mentioned Walter Clark, Herdley Harrison, Funtaine Hunter as teammates who understand and share his deep faith.
"There's a lot of players on our team who are really trying to move forward and change their lives around," Washington said. "I think God is going to move on a lot of people's hearts sooner or later."
Despite having missed two years of eligibility, Washington is proving to be one of the biggest difference-makers on a Vanderbilt team that has gotten off to a disappointingly slow start. In his first year of playing college football, Washington has started every game and has moved up to second on the team in total tackles after a 19-tackle performance against Navy.
Coming out of a high school noted for producing NFL players, he dreamed of playing professionally, and still does despite his setbacks.
It's been somewhat difficult, he says, to watch one of his former teammates, Charles Rogers, make it to the NFL [Miami Dolphins, second overall pick in last year's draft] before Washington even played a down of college ball.
"But I'm not a person who gets down on myself," he says. "This is my situation-- I have three years to make it where I want to be.
"And it's not on my time, it's on God's time. So whatever happens, happens."
Top and bottom photos by Brent Wiseman copyright 2003 for VandyMania; photo of Otis Washington in action vs. Navy by Neil Brake for Vanderbilt athletics.