Secret Struggles From a Lost Season
Sunday, July 22, 2007
During the lost season of 2006, when little went right for the Washington Redskins, injuries jabbed Marcus Washington as if he were a pin cushion. He spent the last two games on injured reserve because of a sore hip, and when the season ended and most players went home, Washington went to the operating table for hip surgery.
The effects on Washington, clearly the most outwardly energetic defensive player, were obvious as the unit, especially its linebackers, struggled. Washington's 1,000-watt smile dimmed to a flicker. The perpetual motor wheezed. The unfailingly optimistic Washington was short in interviews, a physical presence virtually invisible in the locker room he usually illuminated.
But while the injuries were annoying and the losing worse, Washington also was left dark and brooding because of a hard and bitter secret that he believed could threaten a long-crafted reputation as a team ambassador. He is now convinced that it ruined his season.
During a routine round of mandatory drug testing last August, Washington's urine sample was flagged as suspicious, and by league rule he was placed in Stage One of the NFL's substance abuse program. His urine was classified as diluted -- a potential sign of a player using a masking agent to hide illegal performance enhancers from drug screens. He was subjected to random testing throughout the season, pregame urine testing and -- most humiliating, friends say -- psychiatric evaluation.
Washington never tested positive, and thus never entered Stage Two of the program, which often calls for a player to serve a mandatory four-game suspension and to have his name publicized. But people close to Washington say they watched him sink into fits of depression and anger, hurt by the rigidity of a process that treated him as if he were a criminal.
"I felt bad for Marcus," said Redskins defensive end Renaldo Wynn, the team player representative who approached the NFL Players Association on Washington's behalf. "It was a tough, tough time for him because when your name gets involved in these things, you're not sure you can get it back. You don't want people thinking you're a cheater. I reached out to him, and I know he held a lot of stuff in. I don't think a lot of the guys even knew about it, because he handled himself like a professional."
During the second day of the Redskins' three-day minicamp last month, Washington spoke for the first time about 2006, and why because of the combination of wounds to his body and his pride, he looks forward to the start of training camp on Friday more than any other player on the team.
"The problem is that no one wants to look like they're being soft on this stuff," Washington said. "I think the league needs a strong steroid policy, and I don't think there is place for drugs in football, but in my case, I'm telling you, I really didn't do anything wrong.
"For a while last season, I had to take it, and it was rough. I guess I pouted about it for a while, and had to stop feeling sorry for myself. Then I got hurt and that made a tough year tougher. This year, I'm just looking forward to getting out there and playing, being healthy and leaving everything that happened last year to last year."
Washington learned of the diluted sample after the Redskins had just begun their preseason schedule. He was subject to testing 36 hours before game time for as many times as a league medical adviser saw fit. He would have to travel to New York for intervention meetings. Missing a meeting or a testing appointment could be construed as attempting to avoid taking a drug test and Washington would be subject to a mandatory four-game suspension, his name publicized.
"The thing of it is once your name gets tossed into something like this, it's hard to get it back, even if you know in your heart you didn't do anything. People are going to think what they're going to think," Washington said. "No matter what you do, they'll have that in the back of their minds. I didn't want that for me."
The test result marred a season that was supposed to belong to Marcus Washington. The previous season, the Redskins had finished one game away from playing for the NFC championship. The signature of that team was defense, and Washington embodied much of its personality. LaVar Arrington, long the face of the Redskins' franchise, left the team after six years, the last two fraught with tension. The energetic Washington leapt into the void left by Arrington's departure. He signed a deal with the United Way, began his own charitable foundation and set upon building roots in the Washington area.