This column is designed to reminisce and perhaps educate a reader or two about some defensive backs that may have been forgotten by history or become underrated. I’ll attempt to do that by sharing some of the football cards I’ve picked up in my new hobby of replicating the card collection I had as a kid.
Today’s feature: James Washington, S, Dallas Cowboys (Pro Set 1991)
The thing I don’t like about the term “one-hit wonder” is that it discounts all the sweat, tears and mixtapes that went into making that one hit. It implies the artist just wandered into a studio one day, accidentally made one hit, giggled their way to the bank and never bothered making another record. It takes what should be the highlight of an artist’s career and turns it into their entire career.
In football circles, James Washington might be called a one-hit wonder.
The eight-year NFL veteran safety had one shining moment for which he’ll (maybe) be remembered by most football fans. But rather than that moment being the only line of his career bio, that one hit should be the headline of a resume full of accomplishments.
In his college career at UCLA, Washington played in two Rose Bowls and was named co-MVP of the 1985 Fiesta Bowl, but his career was also marked by a pair of major knee injuries. Probably because of that injury history, Washington wasn’t picked until the fifth round of the 1988 NFL Draft by the Los Angeles Rams. He played two seasons for the Rams, then moved on to Dallas, before finishing his career with Washington.
Super Bowl XXVIII is James Washington’s signature moment. Even though he was a starter more often than he wasn’t a starter during his time as a pro, in 1993 Washington was a full-time backup for the Cowboys in a loaded secondary. When Dallas faced the pass-happy Buffalo Bills in that year’s Super Bowl, however — a rematch from the previous year’s Super Bowl — Washington was in the starting lineup as an extra defensive back.
He responded with the game of his life: 11 tackles, a forced fumble, an interception and a fumble recovery that he returned 46 yards for a touchdown in the Cowboys’ 30-13 victory. Emmitt Smith was voted the game’s MVP, but a lot of people felt Washington had as big of an impact as any man on the field. It was his second straight standout performance in a championship game; in Super Bowl XXVII Washington had an interception during Dallas’ 52-17 rout of Buffalo.
Though he was just 29 years old when his career peaked, Washington only played two more seasons in the NFL after that. In 1994 he regained his starting free safety job with the Cowboys, and then signed a free-agent deal with Washington’s NFL franchise in 1995. He played just one year there, however, before retiring.
Washington currently works in radio, does on-air analysis for UCLA football games and devotes his time to Shelter 37, a non-profit organization he founded that provides job training, life skills and educational programs to youth in Southern California.
How should we rate James Washington’s football career? Two Rose Bowls, two Super Bowl rings, no Pro Bowl selections, sometimes a starter and sometimes a backup, 17 interceptions and seven fumble recoveries in 114 NFL regular-season games. When the Cowboys were the best team in the league — arguably one of the most dominant teams in recent history — Washington was arguably their biggest playmaker on defense.
That sounds like someone deserving of more than a “one-hit wonder” label.