From two miles away, Marcus Washington could hear the crowd roar on a college football Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala. As he sat on his grandmother's porch, the 10-year-old could hear the Auburn marching band and could tell by the sound which team had made a big play.
"It's kind of exciting to hear all that going on at the stadium," Washington said. "You're wondering what's going on. It sounds like it's a lot of fun over there. And you just want to be a part of it."
He took a step toward that goal when he was in the sixth grade and sold soft drinks and programs at the Tigers' games. "We got to watch the game for free, if nothing else," Washington said.
And finally, long after the sounds of the Auburn Tigers' home games hooked him, Washington became a star at the university and then made the jump to the NFL. Tonight, when he takes the field against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, Washington will be a bona fide star, the sole Washington Redskins player selected to the Pro Bowl last year.
In February, the 6-foot-3, 250-pound linebacker took his grandmother, Remur, 71, and mother, Earnestine, 53, to the Pro Bowl in Honolulu, where he was a starter for the NFC team. The flight was the first for his mother and Washington was curious to see how she would handle it. "She did good," he said. "She slept most of the way."
The storybook ending marks a beginning for Washington, 27, as the regular season opener nears. Washington's dreams on his grandmother's porch -- about 10 miles from his boyhood home -- have grown even more ambitious: He now wants to be considered perennially among the NFL's best.
"I want to come out every day and work like I'm a free agent coming out of butt-scratch university," he said.
Washington, who joined the Redskins last year after spending his first four seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, has a blend of speed, size and stamina. But his work ethic -- "keep chopping wood" is a mantra -- is the biggest reason for his success.
The linebacker has missed only one game -- Indianapolis's regular season finale in 2002 -- over five NFL seasons, playing in 79 of 80 games. At one point, he had played in 31 straight games. Washington's sturdiness has been particularly impressive because he has had a cyst removed from the base of his spine three times, most recently in late April.
Washington inherited his work ethic from his mother, a single parent who worked at a bottle-producing plant while raising her only child. Teammates say that Washington approaches practices as if he has no chance to make the roster.
"Marcus gives 110 percent every time we step on the field," linebacker Chris Clemons said. "We try to feed off his energy."
Washington is one of the Redskins' most exuberant players, with a motormouth that matches his relentlessness. During warmups, Washington has a habit of reciting lines from comedies. When practices turn sluggish, Washington often lifts the spirits of teammates with his seemingly boundless energy or silly remarks.
In games, Washington is a notorious trash-talker who seldom skips an opportunity to needle an opponent. The linebacker often punctuates a big hit with his trademark celebration: strutting a few yards then leaping high; he has a 36-inch vertical leap.
Teammates said that even when Washington isn't demonstrative on the field, he is likely to be doing something that causes them to loosen up. One example occurred early in the first quarter of last week's 17-10 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers. On first and 10 from the Pittsburgh 9-yard line, Washington tackled tailback Jerome Bettis -- nicknamed the Bus because of his size -- after a four-yard gain and loudly imitated the sound of a bus honking its horn.
"It was so funny," said middle linebacker Lemar Marshall, who added that in a game against the Dallas Cowboys last season, Washington started singing a rhythm and blues tune on the field. "That's just Marcus. He's just having fun when he's on the field."