ATHENS — It was the most memorable game day of Marcus Washington’s life, but he hardly remembers the game.
It was October of his senior season at Burke County. His team lost. He scored a touchdown. The rest is a blur.
What Washington does remember is picking up his girlfriend, Selecia, before school that morning and quickly setting aside her mild complaints about not feeling well. He remembers when a faculty member whisked him out of class later that morning. He remembers rushing to the hospital where Selecia was in labor. He remembers crying when his son, Marcus Jr., was born that afternoon.
Those things, he’ll never forget.
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“The game was really just a game,” Washington said. “It wasn’t really a priority. I was ready to get back home to the little guy and make sure him and his mother were doing OK.”
And so it was, from the first moments of Marcus Jr.’s life, football and family would be indelibly intertwined for Marcus Washington. The nearly five years since have been a whirlwind of responsibility, but never a burden. The realities of life with a family came sooner than he expected, but so did the maturity he needed to succeed. And through a winding road of peaks and valleys, Washington has relied on football to keep him strong and his family to keep him inspired.
AN EARLY TEST
Marcus was 17 when Selecia got pregnant. He was a star football player for Burke County with a bright future, but the news that a child was on the way had him questioning everything. He hadn’t committed to Georgia yet, and he wasn’t sure the coaching staff would still want him. Suddenly the couple’s dreams seemed far out of reach. Fear overwhelmed them.
The couple’s parents offered tremendous support, but many of the other adults in their lives did little to assuage their concerns. Teachers complained that Marcus and Selecia set a bad example for their classmates. The school newspaper labeled them bad role models. Marcus was never one to worry what others thought, but these criticisms stung.
“A lot of school officials were saying we’re not positive role models or whatever,” Marcus said. “I would agree. You’re not supposed to have a child in high school.”
Marcus was well aware of what his life was supposed to be, but that was no longer reality. He and Selecia had bigger dreams, more they wanted to accomplish, more they hoped to provide for their children. They knew the problems. They needed solutions.
As it turned out, football provided a light at the end of the tunnel. The coaches at Georgia didn’t criticize or chastise. Instead, they gave Marcus some fundamental advice. It was the same advice his parents had given.
“They said (it was fine) as long as you and her are on good terms, and you do right by your son, because for a child, especially a little boy, there’s nothing like a father,” Marcus said. “They supported me, and my parents supported me.”
A TIGHT BOND
Marcus learned a lot about being a dad on the fly, but one thing he always knew was that he was doing it with the right person.
He met Selecia in fifth grade. They weren’t best friends back then, he said, but they had always been close. They started dating their sophomore year in high school, and Marcus Jr. came along two years later. Two years ago, Marcus decided he needed to make things official, so they went to the courthouse and got married. Last year they welcomed their second child into the world, a daughter named Samira. That one wasn’t quite so scary, but Marcus still cried.
These days, family means everything to Marcus, but it’s hardly his only responsibility. Football and school are both full-time jobs, but he still works part time at St. Mary’s Hospital doing security and custodial work. Having a family isn’t cheap, and he was tired of relying on their parents for money.
By the height of football season, his schedule is overwhelming. During the week, he’s at work by 7 a.m. and at school by 10:30. He has class from 11 until 2 then heads to football practice. By the time meetings and workouts are done, it’s nearly 7 p.m. From there, he meets with his tutors for help with classes. Most nights, it’s close to 10 before he returns home. Time with the family is a cherished respite.
“At times you get to thinking, man, I really wish I was with my family right now instead of lifting weights or being on the football field,” Marcus said. “But you have to sit back and realize it’s what you’re doing — the lifting weights, going to practice, watching the film, going to class — it’s for the future. It’s hard, it’s a sacrifice, but it’s one that needs to be made in order to be in a position in the future where we can live comfortably.”
A QUIET LIFE
If time with the family has been hard to find, then time to be a typical college student has been non-existent.
There are no late-night parties, no trips downtown, no relaxing summer vacations with friends. In nearly five years as teammates, Jeff Owens said he only remembers Marcus going out once.
“While the other guys are going out having fun partying with their friends, he’s always been with his family since Day 1,” Owens said. “Everyone knows he lives a different lifestyle. But he’s living the American dream. He has two kids and a wife. That’s what one day we all hope to have, and he already has it at 22.”
Rather than making time for fun and friends amid the rigors of football and family, Marcus found a way to bring them all together.
A night on the town with teammates may be impossible, but he invites them over to the house for barbecues regularly.
Football keeps him away from home for long hours, but his family has always been a welcome addition at Georgia’s practice facilities. The football offices are regularly filled with flocks of children laughing and playing, and for Marcus Jr. and Samira, it’s a second home.
“It’s a big old playground over there for them,” Marcus said.
During those early years, Marcus and Selecia relied heavily on their parents for help. Throughout their time at Georgia, however, they’ve gained a much bigger support system.
Marcus Jr. calls every player on the team “uncle,” an apt title Marcus said. His teammates are like family.
Players are always offering to baby-sit, looking after the kids when mom and dad have class or when the couple simply needs some quality time together.
The coaches have embraced the Washingtons, too. In fact, Marcus said watching his coaches interact with their own children provided him with a blueprint for being a father.
“They embraced us,” Selecia said. “They never treated us any different. They’re like our family away from home.”
When his son was born, Marcus couldn’t help but wonder how he would find time for the sport he loves and the family he had started. As it turned out, football taught him a lot about how to be a dad.
Of course, Selecia and the kids have done their part in keeping Marcus’ football career on track, too.
The parallels don’t always seem obvious, but being a dad has been great practice for being a linebacker. The outcome may be different, but the execution is pretty much the same.
“In football everybody has to do their job, everyone has a responsibility,” Georgia linebackers coach John Jancek said. “Marcus has shown he can take care of his responsibilities, and I think when you develop those habits off the field, they just naturally come out on the field.”
Marcus may be a natural at handling responsibility, but the time on the field is a welcome reprieve from the daily grind. Game day is a reward for all the sacrifice during the week. Family comes first now, but football will always be his first love.
The past year, however, has been tough. A shoulder injury suffered in the spring of 2008 kept Marcus out of action for the entire season, and watching from the sidelines was difficult. During his junior season, Marcus appeared on the verge of stardom. Instead, what should have been a breakout senior year turned into 12 long months of rehab.
The hardest days were the road games, watching his teammates on TV rather than helping them on the field. What made it bearable was his son sitting next to him, cheering on the Bulldogs with as much intensity as his dad.
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Marcus Jr. won’t turn 5 until October, but he already knows his football.
He comes to all the games and keeps a keen eye out for his father’s No. 44.
He lets his dad know every time Georgia is on TV, and he reports back with any news about Uncle Knowshon or Uncle Matt, otherwise known as former Bulldogs running back Knowshon Moreno and former quarterback Matthew Stafford.
He knows the enemy, too, Marcus said. He hates watching anything about Georgia Tech or Florida.
“He tells me all the time, ‘The Gators are on TV, Dad. I don’t like that. They need to put the Bulldogs on,’ ” Marcus said.
If Marcus must watch the game from home, he said, there’s no one better to watch it with than his son, and that’s been the silver lining during the past year. The on-field success was out of reach, but time with the family was every bit as rewarding.
“It was hard not being able to be out there with my team,” Marcus said. “But on the flip side of that, I wasn’t on the road as much. I got to watch my daughter and her first couple of growing up stages – taking off crawling, growing teeth, getting big, just being born. Watching Marcus Jr., he’s continuing to grow. It had a lot of positives and it helped me out to just grow as a man.”
TIME FOR PLAY
Marcus has done a lot of growing since he was rushed from class to the hospital just hours before a game five years ago, but deep down he’s still a big kid, Selecia said.
After a long day of lifting weights and laying out hits on the practice field, Marcus is quickly on the floor at home, playing with the kids and horsing around. He might be sore from football, but he always feels good enough to let the kids crawl on his back. And no matter how late he gets home, the kids light up when he walks in the door.
“He’s a goofball, and when he comes home, they’re smiling and they’ve been waiting for him,” Selecia said.
The statistics said their home shouldn’t be so happy. So many teenage fathers don’t stick around to see their kids grow up. Marcus and Selecia defied the odds, and in doing so, they’ve become everything that high school newspaper story said they weren’t.
Georgia linebacker Rennie Curran looked up to Marcus immediately. At first, the relationship was all about becoming a better football player, but when Curran learned he had a child on the way, too, he turned to Marcus for advice that had nothing to do with the playbook.
It wasn’t an unfamiliar request. As much as the Washingtons have relied on Marcus’ teammates for support, a lot of those players began relying on them, too. The couple serves as the team’s de facto mom and dad, and Selecia said she has taken nearly as much pride in watching the players grow up as she does in watching her own children.
Five years ago, they were told they were bad role models. Now, Curran said there isn’t a better example to follow.
“Marcus could easily have taken the easy route out, but he’s a guy who’s just unselfish,” Curran said. “He’s taking care of business. He’s showing an example of how to be a man, and it’s really awesome to see with the kind of statistics there are about black men of a young age, and he really defies that.”
Marcus said he never set out to be a role model. He just wanted to do right by his family. Still, hearing the praise from his teammates brings a smile to his face. It means he’s done things the right way.
MAKING IT OFFICIAL
Through it all, there’s not much Marcus regrets. There is one sacrifice, however, he wants to remedy.
The couple’s small courthouse wedding wasn’t what Selecia deserved, he said, and once he can scrape some money together, he wants to do things right.
“He thinks that I deserve a big ceremony, but I’d be happy if it was only us,” Selecia said.
But Marcus knows better. The two of them have been through a lot, but there are too many people they’ve shared the journey with to have a small ceremony.
The wedding plans are still in the discussion stages, but many of those other dreams that seemed so far off five years ago are now within reach.
Selecia graduated with a criminal justice degree from Athens Tech earlier this month. Marcus is on track to earn his diploma in residential property management in December and is expected to play a big role on Georgia’s defense this season.
Those are all accomplishments in which Marcus can’t help but take pride.
Looking back, however, all those dreams he worried a family might interrupt turned out to be nothing more than icing on the cake. He’s a dad, and there’s nothing he would rather do.
“I had to step up and realize that Marcus Jr. didn’t ask to be here,” Marcus said. “I brought him into this world, so it’s my job to take care of him. I made sacrifices on the stuff that I want so that he can have the things he needs. And it’s not that big a tradeoff. Just seeing the smile on his face brings me the utmost joy.”