L’Damian Washington knows exactly where he stands with the Dallas Cowboys. He understands, as an undrafted rookie free agent, the numbers don’t favor him.
The Cowboys kept five receivers on their 53-player roster last season. Four veterans return this season, and Dallas drafted University of Pittsburgh receiver Devin Street in the fifth round to replace Miles Austin.
“I realize they travel five receivers, and they have four solid ones, and they drafted Devin,” Washington said. “It’s not even a fight. It’s a war out there. I’m just blessed to be here.”
The University of Missouri product has beaten longer odds just to get here.
Washington was only 5-years old when his father, William Myles, was shot and killed in a botched robbery in Cullen, La. His mother, Sonya, died of complications from a blood clot that broke loose during L’Damian’s high school basketball game Dec. 28, 2006.
Washington found himself an orphan at 15.
“I’ve basically taken care of myself since,” Washington said. “It’s kind of like that Darwinism, man. You’re going to survive. You’re going to sit there and feel sorry for yourself, or you’re going to do whatever it takes to survive.”
Washington and his three brothers — two of them older — promised to stay together through thick and thin. Their brotherly love sometimes was the only thing they had to sustain them.
The oldest, LaCourtney, was 19 at the time. He served as mother, father and big brother to Tobias, who was 17, L’Damian and Tomarious, who was 9.
Food stamps weren’t always enough for four growing boys, and Ramen noodles became a staple. The water got turned off occasionally, and the electricity sometimes did, too.
Still, the boys refused to separate, voting against going to live with an uncle.
“I didn’t know how to pay bills,” said LaCourtney, now 27. “I got frustrated when things got cut off. I never called around and asked for money. I did ask God to give me strength, and I got better at managing the money every day. We struggled, but we struggled together. All of us graduated from high school, so I think I did a good job. We’re all doing real well. None of us has ever been in trouble. The way my mother raised us, we are very respectful. She played a big role in our lives.
“God doesn’t make any mistakes, and I think he put me in a position to become a man, and I think that’s what I’ve done over the last eight years.”
L’Damian could have traveled a different path and nearly did a few times. He was sent to alternative school for a semester as a sophomore. But he got his life — and his football career — back on track and ended up catching 53 passes for 1,064 yards and 12 touchdowns as a high school senior to earn a scholarship offer to Louisiana Tech, which at the time was coached by Derek Dooley.
“It’s a great example to me of football being a vehicle for getting out of a tough situation and doing something with your life,” said Dooley, now the Cowboys receivers coach. “That’s one of the reasons I love this sport. In college, you’re able to go sit in people’s homes and see some really difficult situations and see how hard some of these kids have it. Nobody had it harder than him, losing both parents and no guardian, with he and his brothers trying to figure it out at a young age. I know I couldn’t do it.
“I just developed a great amount of respect for him and was real proud to watch him during his career. ... I know this: Whatever he does with his life, he’s going to be fine because of how he’s learned how to persevere through what he went through.”
Washington ended up switching his commitment to Missouri, where he caught 100 passes for 1,735 yards and 15 touchdowns in 51 games while earning a psychology degree.
Washington had hoped to be drafted, but when he wasn’t, he followed Dooley by joining his brothers’ favorite team. Washington signed for $7,000 with the Cowboys, though he said 13 teams offered him more.
“I feel like I was placed here for a reason,” Washington said. “I feel like God has a plan for me.”
Washington said he never has asked, “Why me?” Not when his father died. Not when his mother died. Not when the food ran out or the power was turned off. Not even when all 32 teams passed on drafting him.
“At the end of the day, it made me appreciate the things that are around me,” he said. “It made me appreciate that I’m still here. It made me appreciate the smaller things that some people in the larger picture will never understand until probably a later age. My life basically built the person that I am today, and I’m grateful for it; I’m thankful for it. I thank God every day. There’s no need to look back. It’s always good to look forward to what’s next. Never look back.”
LaCourtney, who knows the Cowboys’ roster inside and out, already is looking forward to the 2014 regular season. He likes his brother’s chances to stick.
“He’s been against the odds all his career, all his life,” LaCourtney said. “Nobody ever gave him a chance. He was always too skinny. He was always too small. He proved that wrong. This is just another stepping stone, another chance to prove them wrong. He’s going to do it. Trust me.”