When James Washington enters the Alemany High football coaches’ trailer and sits down to talk, a sense of presence permeates the room. It’s neither overwhelming nor foreboding; but it’s there. You can feel it.
It’s the life-force of someone who has seen a lot, been through a lot, accomplished a lot — and still has more to do.
His next task: new head football coach at Alemany replacing Dean Herrington back in January. It is his first head coaching job.
Washington said he doesn’t know why the position became available. But it was an opportunity he could not pass up if offered.
“There were some things going on. The principal was having conversations, and he was looking for someone who could carry the load, and carry the weight of the change,” Washington said.
“I can’t speak for the principal, but I think he felt he needed a person with a strong personality; somebody who understood about building a community. He wanted his football program to be bigger than just football. He wants it to be part of the Alemany community. And I guess I fell in line with the things he spoke about to me that we agreed upon.”
Washington has a specific idea of the kind of player he wants.
“My assistants and I came up with a philosophy called “‘CLIC.’” he said.“‘C’ is for character; ‘L’ is leadership or leader; ‘I’ is for intelligent; and ‘C’ is for coachable. That’s what I’m looking for in an Alemany player.
“We want kids who have character. We want kids who can lead on and off the field. We want kids who are intelligent on and off the field. And we want kids who are coachable — on and off the field. Everything that will be built around whatever legacy I leave, whatever legacy I present, it will be about building a brotherhood of young men that care for each other years after they graduate.”
He understands that his selection could be unpopular. In 10 years at Alemany, beginning in 2006, Herrington had gone 84-32 overall, won seven consecutive league titles, reaching the Southern Section’s Western Division final in 2009 — losing to Mira Costa High of Manhattan Beach, 24-21 — and reached the Pac-5 Division semifinals in 2010 and 2013.
But Herrington’s teams had missed the playoffs the last two years in the ultra competitive Pac-5 Division, arguably the toughest division in the Southern Section. In 2015 the Warriors finished 5-5 overall after beginning the season 5-0.
Washington initially expects plenty of scrutiny and second-guessing from Warriors fans. Today’s obsession with winning, even at the high school football level, can be suffocating.
He’s convinced he can and will handle the supporter’s demands.
“Anything I’ve ever done, [people] wanted results,” Washington said. “But the results are not [only] wins and losses. It’s how you can impact these young people, how you can change 50-60 young people. Everybody’s not gonna go to college from here. But I guarantee everybody’s going to be a man when they leave [the football program].”
For those who may try to intimidate or cower Washington, forget it. He has already faced — and overcome — bigger challenges.
Born in Watts 51 years ago, Washington had a bleak outlook as a youth growing up and surviving life in South Central Los Angeles. His father left when he was two. His mother lost custody of him when he was four, and his grandparents became his legal guardians.
It’s a life story he’s not ashamed of, and now tells more freely.
“I am a street kid. I am a product of the street. I am a story of the street,” Washington said.” I grew up in drugs, I grew up in prostitution. I grew up in a variety of things that the streets bring to you. Street life. But the lesson I learned was that’s not what I want. And the street taught me that.”
He said his grandparents, though not well-educated, “made sure I was loved, clean and taken care of.” His grandfather also instilled a life code. “Be respectful. Never disrespect women. And make sure every day you put in a hard day’s work.”
Football gave him an identity. His athletic ability was recognized at Jordan High School. The coach there, Henry Washington, worked to smooth Washington’s roughest edges and put him on a path to college.
“He’s had the biggest impact on my life to this day,” Washington said. “That’s where this whole bug for coaching came from. I watched him change so many people, how many people he affected. He probably could have gone on and coached anywhere. But he chose to stay in the community and help kids like myself.”
After graduating, Washington accepted a scholarship to UCLA where he was a four-year starter at free safety (1984-87), beginning as a redshirt freshman. He played in two Rose Bowls — five bowl games total — and was the co-MVP of the 195 Fiesta Bowl. Just as important to Washington, he earned a bachelor’s degree in history.
The Los Angeles Rams selected him in the fifth round of the 1988 NFL draft. He played there two seasons. Due in part to injuries, the Rams left him unprotected under the NFL’s then Plan B free agency plan, and Dallas signed him. With the Cowboys, Washington soon developed a reputation as a tough, hard-hitting defensive back. He won two Super Bowl rings with the Cowboys in 1993 and 1994. He played a total of eight seasons in the NFL, getting released by the Washington Redskins in 1996.
Washington did have run-ins and confrontations during his career. But as he aged, he matured. In Dallas he was an honorary chairman of Easter Seals Back-A-Fighter campaign, which included regular visits to children’s hospitals and nationwide appearances in telethons and public service announcements. In 1993, he founded SHELTER 37, Inc., a nonprofit organization that teaches goals for life to at-risk children throughout southern California.
He got his master’s degree in education from Azusa Pacific University in 1998. He returned to UCLA in 2010 as an assistant director of Alumni Giving for the University. A year later, he was named director of Scholarship Development for Intercollegiate Athletics — as in raising money for athletic scholarships for the university 24 men’s and women’s teams.
You aren’t hired in those positions if you are considered hotheaded or boorish.
He also worked as an analyst for Fox cable television on UCLA football games, and later on high school football games.
Washington’s primary coaching experience comes from being an assistant under Henry Washington at L.A. Southwest College. But “now I get to be the head coach, and create the philosophy that he instilled in me as a high school player, that carried me on to UCLA and the NFL.”
The Alemany players didn’t know much about Washington, unless they saw him on television. But since the first meetings, collectively and individually, there is a growing trust, a belief he has their backs if they have his.
Linebacker Lamin Touray, 17, a senior, recalled the first day Washington called him into his office for a chat.
“First impression? He’s all about getting down to business,” Touray said. “But he also likes to make sure everybody enjoys themselves, that everybody’s getting as much as they want out of playing football for Alemany. He’s not all jokes and playing around much of the time, but he has his moments. He’s a cool dude.”
Running back Cayden Dunn, 17, a senior, was initially unsure what to expect but is now sold on the team’s direction. “I’m super excited. I just think what’s going on here is going to be something special … it’s different, and ‘good’ different.”
Quarterback Miles Bryant, 17, a senior, transferred to Alemany from St. Francis High in La Cañada. He said Washington was “was one of those guys you’d heard about, especially his Super Bowl play (returning a fumble for a touchdown in 1994 game).” Meeting him in person was a revelation.
“I realized he was a very good man as well as a very good coach,” Bryant said “He genuinely loves his players and he will go to battle with us for anything. And he has a love for the game as well as his players.”
Washington should have time to shape the Alemany program in his image. How much time in today’s sporting environment is anyone’s guess; again, Pac-5 Division football is the most competitive in Southern Section.
But he already has a staff primarily of former college and NFL players to develop his teams now and the future.
And he has a presence.