By Howard Bryant
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.
But the Tuesday before the Redskins' 36-30 overtime thriller against Jacksonville on Oct. 1, Washington canceled a United Way event because he had been summoned to New York to meet with a league counselor. Washington raged at the perceived humiliation, once threatening to refuse the session, which could have triggered a four-game suspension. Tuesday is the one day players have off during the week.
"They wanted some things from you, and no, I wasn't happy about it. I had to go to New York a couple of times. They wanted me to see the league's psychiatrist. And I pouted a little about that. They wanted you to pee before game day and if you didn't, you weren't playing. They kind of treated you like you were a criminal, and yes, I was definitely mad about that. I always think of myself as a fun person, but last year, there was nothing about it that was fun."
Coach Joe Gibbs, assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams and director of sports medicine Bubba Tyer declined to comment for this article. The league levies heavy fines on teams and officials who disclose information about the program that can be considered confidential. Tyer, through a Redskins spokesman, declined to discuss even in generic terms how the medical staff advises the players about how to stay hydrated.
Citing confidentiality, the NFL also declined to comment on the sections of the league policy applicable to Washington, not even to provide clarity to the procedural elements of the program.
"In this day and age, no one is going to defend anyone," said a confidant of the linebacker who is unhappy that the team's medical staff and coaching staff did not defend its own player for this report. "I remember when it happened, when he had to go to New York. He didn't know what it was, whether it was too much water or some painkiller. When it happened to Shawne Merriman, I said, 'Okay, I can see that.' When it was Marcus, I didn't believe any of it. But in this world, there's no more room for mistakes, even honest ones."
The point, according to one Redskins official, was clear.
"During this time, in this climate, this is one issue no one wants to go near," he said. "Everyone loves Marcus, but no one in the organization is going defend him if it looks like they're criticizing the league. I hate to say it, but he was kind of on his own."
Some teammates and union officials said that in today's climate, with the intense scrutiny on steroid testing, players should always know better than to put themselves at risk.
"During my 12 years here, I know there are guys who have tested positive under the steroid program as a result of not knowing what they were taking," said Stacy Robinson, the former New York Giants wide receiver who is now director of player development for the NFLPA in charge of the substance abuse policy. "They were making innocent mistakes, which is why we created the supplement certification program, which is a safe haven for players to take supplements that have been tested and approved, which means they contained no substances which are banned by the NFL."
In the end, Washington considers himself fortunate to have a clean slate. Most players dread training camp, but Washington sees it as the official erasure of the 2006 season. He says he has recovered from the hip surgery. Earlier this year, a portion of his dignity, he says, was returned to him. Having served 90 days in the program without a recurrence or diluted sample, Washington said he was released from it, instead of having to remain under the league's steroid microscope for the next two seasons.
"I don't ever want to go through what I went through last year," Washington said. "I'll drink a little bit of water, but from now it's all lemonade, or Gatorade or something. That will never happen to me again."