, Port Arthur, Texas

Bob West

August 30, 2012

Best of West: Little Joe's return time to celebrate regal running back

PORT ARTHUR — Editor’s note: The following column from the Best of West collection was originally published in the Port Arthur News on Feb. 21, 2001.

     Like Little Joe Washington, time flies and memories blur.

      Can it be nearly 30 years since the greatest high school football player these eyes have seen left Port Arthur to dazzle collegiately at the University of Oklahoma, then leave his elusive imprint on the Baltimore Colts and Washington Redskins?

     "Well, I'm getting close to 50, so I guess it has," Washington said with a laugh from his home in Baltimore.  "Sometimes, when I wake up I feel like I'm 200. I have a lot of aches and pains from football."

     A professional athlete who prepared himself well for the day the cheering stopped, Little Joe heads a successful marketing firm. He's also involved in broadcasting, auto dealerships and, along with former NBA great Julius Erving, was part of the first black owned and operated NASCAR team.

     It is Washington's past more than his present that will be lauded here, however, because a couple of generations of Southeast Texans know of him only by name.  Mere words, to be sure, can't match the magic of No. 24 with a football tucked under his arm, but they can at least strive to heighten awareness of perhaps this city's most special athlete.

     Amazing doesn't begin to describe the explosiveness that came wrapped in a 5-9, 170- pound package.  No matter whether it was at the schoolboy, collegiate or professional level, the little guy with the flashing silver shoes left tacklers looking like they were grasping for ghosts.

     Washington's most remarkable feat was an electrifying game for the Baltimore Colts that was voted the greatest individual performance in the history of Monday Night Football. Howard Cosell, if he were alive, would still be raving.

     On the rainy evening of Sept. 19, 1978, in Foxboro, Mass., Little Joe turned a ho-hum game between the Patriots and Colts into his personal showcase.  In only his third game since being traded to the Colts, he caught a 23-yard touchdown pass early in the fourth quarter.  Minutes later, he took a pitchout and threw a tight spiral for a 53-yard TD.

     The coup de grace came after New England rallied from a 27-13 deficit to tie the score with 1:17 left.  Washington added a mind boggling punctuation mark by streaking 90 yards for the winning touchdown on the ensuing kickoff.

     It was, in the span of only one quarter, a statement of why Joe Washington was such a unique, incomparable football talent. He could run, pass, catch, return kicks, and yes, even block, which was maybe the most remarkable skill considering his small frame.

     But, more than anything, it was Washington's lateral quickness, his ability to stop and start, to shift into reverse, to hurdle tacklers, that inspired expressions of disbelief.

     UT coaching legend Darrell Royal, after watching Little Joe make monkeys out of Longhorn tacklers, said he unleashed so many moves it wouldn't surprise him to see Joe come spinning through a keyhole.  Asked about it years later, Royal used the same line.

     "Joe Washington was one of the all-time great runners I've ever seen," Royal asserted.  "I made the statement that I thought he could jump sideways through a keyhole, if he didn't have his headgear on.  He was incredible."

     To this day, Little Joe remains the leading career rusher at Oklahoma, a school known for yardage-gobbling running backs in the Barry Switzer era.  With 3,995 yards, he sits atop the likes of Billy Sims, Greg Pruitt, and Steve Owens. His OU yardage, ironically, is the exact same total he rushed for during a star-spangled Lincoln career.

     There were other parallels. He was a rare ninth grade starter at Lincoln and an even rarer freshman starter for the Sooners.  The latter became a cinch after Barry Switzer, goaded by assistant coach Wendell Mosley, inserted Washington into a scrimmage against Oklahoma's heralded defense.

     Joe raced 80 yards to the end zone on his first carry.

     He probably should have won the Heisman Trophy after an 11-0 1974 season which saw him average 6.8 yards per carry, rush for 1,391 yards and get named the Washington, D.C. Pigskin Club and NCAA Player of the Year.

     But OU, which won two national championships during the Washington era, was on probation, and couldn't appear on TV. Joe paid the price, finishing third.

     Washington's pro career got off to a shaky start, after he suffered a major knee injury, then an eye injury which forced him to wear goggles.  But, after the trade to Baltimore, and later with the Redskins, his ability to excel as both a runner and receiver came shining through.

     The apex in Baltimore was a 1979 season in which he broke Raymond Berry's single season receiving record, led the NFL with 82 receptions, topped the Colts in both rushing (884) and receiving yardage (750) and was voted to the Pro Bowl.  Only two NFL backs that year -- Earl Campbell and Mike Pruitt -- had more combined rushing and receiving yards.

     Washington's highlight with the Redskins was being the MVP of Joe Gibbs' first team (1981), after leading in rushing (919 yards), receptions (70) and receiving yards (558).  A year later he was the proud owner of a Super Bowl ring.

     Now, many moons and touchdowns since he left Port Arthur, Little Joe is coming home as grand marshal of the Mardi Gras parade.  It's certainly appropriate because this guy is true football royalty.

     Sports editor Bob West can be e-mailed at   


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