Feb. 17, 2013
By MALLORY TRELEAVEN
In sports and particularly in football, sometimes success can be found when its least expected.
Entering his senior season at the University of Hawaii in 2008, receiver Mike Washington faced an uncertain situation. The coach who recruited and developed him in his first three seasons, June Jones, was leaving for another coaching job and taking most of his staff with him. Despite having to learn a new offense, Washington took advantage of the situation and flourished under the new system. He led the team in receptions and touchdown catches and was named Second Team All-WAC.
However, coming off of his productive senior season, Washington did not have the easiest transition to the next level.
“I didn’t really have anyone to invest in me to help get me an agent because usually coaches connect players with those people,” Washington said. “So when I graduated, the tryout process was the only way to go for me.”
Washington graduated in 2008 and after two years of bouncing around different tryouts and workouts, Washington felt defeated. At 5-foot-8 and 175 pounds, Washington doesn’t necessarily look the part of a professional receiver on paper.
“My results and my speed weren’t the problem,” Washington said. “It’s a business and it all comes down to whether or not a team is going to take a chance on a guy like me at 5’8 instead of guy who’s 6’3 or 6’4.”
In 2010, he noticed that an Arena Football team was starting up in Pittsburgh.
“My family is from Pittsburgh, we’re only 30 minutes away from the city and I always thought that playing here would be great,” Washington said.
So he decided to make his way to one more tryout.
“Before I went I thought to myself, ‘if this doesn’t work out you have to lean on your degree and look for something else,’” Washington said.
All he needed was one coach to take a chance on him, and then-Pittsburgh Power Head Coach Chris Siegfried was up for the challenge.
“When Pittsburgh called back and said that I made the training camp roster, it was like ‘finally man, now I can get my foot in the door,’” Washington said. “I was just happy. I wasn’t overly excited because it’s all a business and you never know what can happen.”
Luckily for Washington, the AFL became a great fit for him. His success on the field has made him a Power fan favorite.
In his first season in the League he led the Power with 114 catches for 1,367 yards and 30 touchdowns.
When Pittsburgh acquired another playmaking receiver, PJ Berry, in 2012, the tandem became a dynamic duo, last season they tallied over 2,700 receiving yards and 52 touchdowns together.
“PJ is a veteran in this League and anytime you get two strong receivers together on the same vibe, then you get into this mode where you can be creative. You have such good chemistry that you can almost feel where eachother will be on the field,” Washington said.
The two teammates and friends also became known for some of the League’s best touchdown celebrations.
“You have to thank PJ for that, it was all him,” Washington said. “For me personally, I’m not a big showboat type of guy, I usually catch the ball, get a touchdown, give it back to the ref and get on to the next play. But sometimes you have to go with the energy and with the flow of the team.”
With countless choreographed celebrations, Washington struggled to narrow down a favorite.
“My favorite so far is when we played ‘Duck, Duck, Goose’ in the end zone.Tthat one was pretty awesome,” Washington said. “It’s between that or the one where PJ scored and I had the ball under my shirt and I acted like I was delivering a baby and he reached under my shirt and pulled the ball out.”
With his family and hometown friends just 30 minutes outside of Pittsburgh, Washington has plenty of fans to out to see his touchdown celebrations at Power home games.
“After playing at Hawaii for four years, my family and my close friends couldn’t come see me play a whole lot so it’s great because now I can put on a show for my home town,” Washington said.
He has developed a bond playing for Pittsburgh, although he realizes that with the business of football he may not play here forever.
“It’s good to play in front of family, Pittsburgh was the first organization to take a chance on me and sign me professionally and that means a lot to me,” Washington said. “So far everything has been working in my favor, but that could change at any time so I have to stay prepared and stay on my toes.”
Even with his eye-popping statistics, Pittsburgh has been 14-22 over the past two seasons. One of the largest challenges both Washington and the team has faced is inconsistency at the quarterback position. In 2011 and 2012, Washington has played with nine different passers, a very uncommon trend among professional football.
“Hopefully we can get our quarterback here and get this thing snowballing because we have a lot of potential,” Washington said.
Pittsburgh may have found an answer in rookie quarterback, Jordan Jefferson. The LSU standout led the Tigers to the 2012 BCS National Championship game and finished his college career with 46 total touchdowns. Jefferson, who is joined on the Power depth chart by AFL veteran Steven Sheffield and 2011 University of Hawaii graduate Shane Austin, will look to solidify Pittsburgh’s passing attack in 2013.
With training camp less than a month away, Washington has high hopes for the 2013 Pittsburgh Power team.
“This year we have a different attitude, a different focus and some different personnel here. Coach Tomczak and Coach Stingley are doing a great job with the playbook and with recruiting, so I feel confident with the players coming in,” Washington said.
Since Washington, a handful of players have been discovered at an open tryout and have gone on to have successful AFL careers, but he doesn’t see any reason why more players can’t have a similar outcome to his.
“It’s more of a mentality thing to be honest,” Washington said. “There’s plenty of talent out there and players that can play at this level but it’s all about your attitude, because you’ll get somebody who comes from a small school to an open tryout they walk in and see someone with Ohio State gear and Florida State gear on and it’s easy to get discouraged.”
He is okay setting the example for AFL hopefuls everywhere that the underdog can make it.
“All it takes is one person to take a chance on you and so far the Pittsburgh Power organization hasn’t regretted their decision to take a chance on me,” Washington said. “So I’m really proud of myself.”
Despite his unconventional journey, Washington has established himself as one of the top receivers in the League since returning to his hometown. As he looks forward to the 2013, his hope is to take his team to new heights and into the postseason.
Fortunately for Pittsburgh, Washington has experienced difficult transitions before, and is definitely up for the challenge.