RENTON, Wash. – Leon Washington is back.
He's no longer a Jet. Yet the former All-Pro is soaring again, 10 months after a grotesque compound fracture in his leg.
He thanks uncle George Mangrum back in Jacksonville, Fla., for that.
"He taught me a lot, mostly about hard work and appreciation," Washington said Wednesday, after another practice as the Seahawks' first-team running back. "Before my senior year in high school I went out and laid concrete with him. Blocks and bricks. And, man, when I did that."
Washington shook his sweat-filled head.
"Yeah, I remember that vividly, boy. A young kid, 17 years old out there in the summertime lifting bricks and concrete. I did one summer with him. I had to get 25 work hours in. When I came back, I was strong as an ox, man. I won weightlifting contests from lifting those blocks and bricks."
He's won way more than that. Mangrum's nephew took those lessons learned in the stifling Florida heat and humidity and became Mr. Florida in football for 2002 months later at Andrew Jackson High. At Florida State, he was the only player in the Bobby Bowden era to score a touchdown five different ways. He was a Pro Bowl kick returner for New York in 2008.
Then last week, Mangrum died in his early 50s after a long battle with illness. Washington, his family and six of his other aunts and uncles remain in mourning.
"It was special. I scored a touchdown a day after he passed away," Washington said, his voice filled with pride. "I'm sure he had something to do with that."
That touchdown was Washington's first for the Seahawks since they acquired him in a trade from the Jets in April for a fifth-round draft pick. He doesn't mind that he has a rod in his right leg from the compound fracture of the tibia and fibula he suffered in a game at Oakland last October. He jokes the metal reinforcement means he can't break that leg again.
"Just getting back on the field again made me really, really appreciate how much I love this job," he said of his Seattle debut last weekend.
He will start Saturday night in Seattle's third exhibition game, at Minnesota. It's essentially the final dress rehearsal before the regular season starts Sept. 12. Seattle ends the preseason five days later with a throwaway exhibition at Oakland.
Washington is ahead of most estimates on his recovery. And he's at the front of the race to become coach Pete Carroll's No. 1 rusher this season.
Carroll had cautioned Washington would be limited in training camp, yet he's been going all out since almost Day One. His only limitation: A cautious Carroll won't let him return kickoffs yet.
"I'm just really pleased with the way my body's been recovering. Not missing a practice has really been a bonus for me," Washington said.
Saturday night, he took a stretch handoff behind left tackle and didn't even cut before bolting through the line unlike any back Seattle has had in years. As he ran through the end zone to celebrate his 11-yard touchdown run, he had his arms extended rigidly to each side at shoulder height. Then he tilted like ... a Jet?
"I was told I need to flap my arms more," he said. "I saw that hawk come out that tunnel and it just stays low like that. Just got to get a little more flap next time."
He brought the ball to the bench for a souvenir of his injury comeback, and to honor Uncle George. He was then mobbed by teammates and the always-excited Carroll, who's been eager to see how ready Washington will be for the regular season.
His new teammates love him. One late night in training camp, way past curfew, he sent quarterback Matt Hasselbeck a text message asking about a pass route on a third-down play. The 34-year-old Hasselbeck was sleeping.
"I got the text at five in the morning and I texted him back," Hasselbeck said. "It's just rare that a guy cares that much, he's working that hard and he'd reach out to guys.
"He called me a few times in the offseason just to see how I was doing. I'd call him back and say, 'Hey man, what's up? What's wrong?' He goes, 'Nothing man, just checking in on you. Wanted to see how you're doing.' I'm like, 'Good.' 'All right.'
"That's pretty awesome — and rare, you know? And then you take what kind of player he is, a great player."
The Jets deemed Washington, who turns 28 this weekend, expendable when they drafted USC running back Joe McKnight in April. Washington had recently signed his $1.759 million tender offer as a restricted free agent. He will likely be poised for a big payday in 2011 if he proves he really is back.
He says he isn't bitter with the way he left the Jets.
"Not at all. I really had to come to closure at that point," he said. "Right now, I'm just trying to outdo myself, honestly. If I could give my best, my best is good enough."
Asked if he might like it if New York begins to notice he's back, Washington cackled.
"I'll let them assume that," he said. "I've got a bunch of friends in New York. All my teammates were texting me back and forth (after Saturday), some of the coaches over there were texting me. Some of the media guys were texting me, also.
"So I've got a bunch of friends over there who are happy for me."