Too small to ball? Not Southern freshman Jamar Washington. 'He came in and made believers out of us.'

Friday, 29 September 2017, 08:03:04 PM. The valedictorian of Peabody High School’s 2017 graduating class stood as tall as he could in front of his peers and countered conventional wisdom: The first impression, he told them,

The valedictorian of Peabody High School’s 2017 graduating class stood as tall as he could in front of his peers and countered conventional wisdom: The first impression, he told them, is not always the most important one.

Life reinforced this message to Jamar Washington, from his earliest memories on a football field to the day he stood in front of his classmates on that day. People have a habit of taking you at face value.

The real important thing is to make sure you nail the second impression.

Jamar’s mother, Laquisha Washington, remembered hearing her son give this speech. It was based on an experience in Washington’s AAA youth football league, when his coach told him he was too small to play.

That was the first impression. The second was a doozy.

“When he did get in, he ran an 80-yard touchdown for them,” Laquisha Washington said. “And he’s been playing ever since.”

Washington can’t avoid those first impressions. He’s still, at face value, too small to play football. The official Southern roster lists the freshman at 5-foot-7, but the true figure probably lies somewhere farther down the measuring stick.

“He’s more like 5-5, 5-6, but you can’t tell him that,” said his position coach, Mark Frederick. “He calls himself a big guy.”

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He excels at the things he can control, though. It’s why the little walk-on, through four games, leads Southern in catches (16) and receiving yards (154).

All he needed was the chance to make a second impression. Like all those tests the 4.0 student aced in the classroom, he has passed with flying colors.

“A lot of times, those guys are out to prove themselves because they’ve been overlooked a lot in their lives,” Southern offensive coordinator Chennis Berry said. “They just go out with a sense of urgency.

“They believe in themselves. And he came in and made believers out of us.”

The believer is an achiever.

Southern did not make Washington available for interviews because team policy prohibits freshmen from speaking to media. But he is described as meticulously organized.

He had to be, considering everything he put on his plate.

“He used to come and tell me at practice, because he was involved with so much stuff, that he would have to leave early,” said Benny Vault, who coached Washington his final two years at Peabody. “He would come and tell me, like, two days early, so we could organize practice and he could get his work in.”

He sang in his church choir. He played four sports in high school. He was a state champion power lifter in the 148-pound weight class — and it was his first year competing in the sport.

“He did it all and maintained a 4.0 (grade-point average),” Laquisha Washington said. “Since he was born, he didn’t let anything stop him once he put his mind to it. ...

“Once he decides and sets a goal, he prays on it, and he accomplishes that goal. Everything he said he was going to do, especially in high school, he accomplished.”

That goal included playing college football, and it almost didn’t happen. Despite his skill, Washington did not receive an athletic scholarship offer.

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He had his pick of places to go on academic scholarship, but he felt his football playing career was not finished.

Then Southern entered the picture.

"Southern got them a steal," said Vault, himself a Southern alumnus.

The Jaguars are dealing with scholarship reductions as a result of NCAA sanctions. Working with five fewer scholarships per season than they would typically be able to offer, they needed to find capable preferred walk-ons during this last recruiting cycle.

“You’ve got to find a way to get players,” Southern coach Dawson Odums said. “He’s one of those walk-ons that we targeted.”

Both parties fit a need. Southern could afford not to worry about the first impression, that Washington may not be big enough to play college football. It skipped straight to giving him the opportunity.

“They wanted to take a chance,” Laquisha Washington said. “And that’s what he believed: You take a chance on me, I’m going to prove to you I’m worthy of the chance.”

What happened since then has exceeded even Washington’s expectations.

He told senior cornerback Danny Johnson while practicing kick returns earlier this week he figured he would redshirt his first season and focus on academics.

Instead, he lined up as Southern’s starting slot receiver in the season opener.

It’s the same position that was filled last year by another player who had to prove he wasn’t too small for the college game: Southern’s all-time leading receiver, Willie Quinn.

The comparison comes naturally — and not only because of the players' limitations in height. Berry saw in Washington a lot of the same qualities that he saw in Quinn.

“I saw he had those intangibles like the guy who just left, a guy with No. 25,” Berry said. “He had that wiggle and that change of direction and he had that heart of a lion. We want guys like that in the program.”

He has still had to deal with uncertainty about his stature at Southern, but he’s cleared them quickly.

Senior quarterback Austin Howard’s initial thought when he first saw Washington during summer workouts: “Dang, he’s real fast, but he’s short though.”

Then he continued watching as Washington breezed through a set of sprints.

“All I remember is his speed and his face being at the front of the pack on every single rep,” Howard said.

Frederick’s reaction was limited to a single word when the 5-foot-something Washington first stepped into his office: “Wow.”

Then he gave him another look.

“Hey, he’s kind of small, but he’s put together,” Frederick said. “He’s rock-solid.”

The lesson: First impressions aren’t as important as the lasting ones.

“If I had to create a person, Jamar would be the perfect model,” said Vault, his high school coach. “I’ve been coaching for 19 years, and I haven’t met many kids like him.”

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