- Monday, March 8, 2010 10:12 AM
- Written By: SportsFanLive Reports
By JENNA LAINE
Posted on March 8, 2010 at 6:12 p.m. ET
An offensive tackle from a small Division II Christian school, Tony Washington went to Indianapolis virtually unknown. After top performances at the NFL Combine, the Abilene Christian standout has seen his draft stock climb as high as the second round. But he bears the burden of a troubled past – one that’s causing some NFL teams to think twice.
Washington is a registered sex offender.
Until now, he has not publicly addressed the specifics of his situation, but in a statement provided exclusively to SportsFanLive.com, he confirmed what is likely to haunt him for the rest of his life.
“I made a mistake at the age of 16, and for that, I am deeply sorry,” Washington said. “I will not try and excuse or justify anything. I have worked extremely hard to do everything right so that I might have an opportunity to give back. I only hope that someone in the NFL will give me the same opportunity that Abilene Christian and Trinity Valley gave me.”
In May 2003, Washington was convicted of having sex with a relative that multiple NFL and college sources say was his 15-year old biological sister. The act was consensual, according to his college coaches and two NFL scouts, who spoke to him about the incident. The sister does not wish to speak publicly on the case, according to Washington’s agent, who added that the siblings are now on good terms and talk often. Washington received five years probation and did not serve jail time.
Due to the nature of the crime and Washington’s status as a juvenile, records specifically related to the crime itself could not be obtained in requests made to both the Texas Department of Public
Safety and the New Orleans Police Department. But if this had been "sexual assault," Washington’s report on the sex-offender registry would have listed a different offense.
Inside the interview rooms at the Combine, scouts questioned him at length about his past. Some are willing to give him a chance. After all, Washington had the best broad jump among offensive lineman at 9 feet, 6 inches and the sixth-best time in the three-cone drill. Despite that talent, other scouts may not be so forgiving.
Trinity Valley Community College coach Mark Sartain faced the same challenge back in 2005, when he met Washington, then a high school senior.
“He e-mailed me several times asking for an opportunity to play and finally sent me a grainy tape,” Sartain said. “You could barely see him in it.”
The only evidence of his potential as a football player was the massive 6-7, 300-pound frame he carried. Everything else, including his home, was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina.
“Katrina was a total disruption of his life and his high school career,” said Sartain, a coaching veteran of 26 years and father of two, who now heads up the football program at East Texas Baptist University.
Then Washington told him: “Coach, there’s something you need to know.”
Although it was unsettling, Washington’s confession did not cause Sartain to shy away from his young recruit. In fact, because Washington volunteered the information, Sartain realized “this young man deserves a second chance.”
The product of what Sartain calls a “dysfunctional” family, Washington arrived in Athens, Texas, with emotional needs that had long been neglected. “I don’t want to say he was emotionally ‘crippled,’ but with that traumatic time in his life, he skipped a phase, so to speak, in his emotional development,” the coach said.
His unique situation required authorities in both New Orleans and Texas to accept his transfer of residence, something law enforcement officials in his home state of Louisiana initially refused to do. It meant Sartain and his staff had to jump through hoops to get Tony into their program.
“They were ignoring him and not returning calls because they didn’t want to deal with him,” Sartain said. “We had to fight for a couple weeks to get that whole thing done.”
Abilene: Faith And Football
Like Sartain, Abilene Christian coach Chris Thomsen felt his profession was a calling from God, with the decisions he makes on the football field dictated by his faith. “It’s what guides me,” he said.
So when Sartain, a friend of 15 years, spoke of a promising left tackle who wanted to come play at Abilene but had some off-the-field issues, Thomsen took a closer look.
For Washington to enter Thomsen’s program, he had to pass through five levels of clearance, which the school considers protocol any time an at-risk student seeks admittance. He first needed approval from Thomsen, then the athletic director, the dean of student affairs, the chief of police and finally the president of the school.
“The biggest concern I had was, ‘Is he going to be a threat to the community?’” Thomsen said.
After a thorough investigation, the school agreed to accept him. “Even the chief of police thought Tony was a low risk,” Thomsen said.
Under Thomsen, Washington thrived on the football field. He became a two-time Division II All-American, was awarded the Lone Star South Division Offensive Player of the Year Award two years in a row and was a 2009 finalist for the Gene Upshaw Award (best Division II lineman, offensive or defensive).
Under his coach’s strong Christian influence and Abilene’s required daily chapel sessions, Washington began to thrive spiritually too, Thomsen said, by learning of Biblical figures such as Moses, David and Paul -- men who committed murder -- and Peter, who was impulsive.
He learned the power of forgiveness at Abilene, because he saw it firsthand from his coach. Thomsen has a reputation for taking on troubled athletes like Bernard Scott, who had several arrests before being drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals last year.
Thomsen also takes pride in the fact that he can help mold young men, like Washington, not just into better football players, but better people. “That’s what you want as a coach,” he said. “You want to see guys grow as players, you want to see them grow as people, and I saw that with Tony.”
But will NFL scouts be as forgiving as Thomsen and Sartain? Will the public?
“We all knew this day was coming,” Sartain said.
The juvenile justice system forgives troubled minors who break the law by sealing their records. But because Washington committed a sex crime, he must register annually as a sex offender – something that will follow him for the rest of his life.
“He just made a mistake. He made a bad choice, in a bad situation, in a bad environment,” said Sartain, who understands that Washington must live with the consequences but doesn’t believe he should have to be humiliated for something he did at a young age.
He added that because of Washington’s troubled life at home, he was forced to make a “quick sprint into adulthood.”
“I don’t want to cry ‘victim’ and he never has, per se, but I really believe that he was a 16-year-old victim of his own environment,” Sartain said. “It’s unfortunate that the counsel that he got at the time led him to have this label on him the rest of his life.”
It’s a label he couldn’t escape in his hometown of New Orleans, where as a high school student, he bagged groceries at Save-a-Lot until 5 a.m., went directly to school, then practice, then back to work. He couldn’t escape it when he came to Athens, Texas, and had his name printed in the local newspaper as part of the required community notification of his status.
But if he truly wanted to run from his past, he would have given up long ago. Instead, he’s choosing to face it, something Sartain hopes people will appreciate.
“I find it hard to believe that people cannot realize the resolve, the perseverance, the character and determination that this young man has had to get where he is,” Sartain said.
Thomsen points to the fact that his former player has had no run-ins with the law since his offense seven years ago.
“I have no fear in my mind of anything like that happening with Tony again,” Thomsen said. “I wouldn’t have brought him here if I had that fear. And I have no reservations about anything like that happening again in his future.”
The fact that the offense was committed as a juvenile means the odds are in his favor. According to a report published by the National Center on Sexual Behavior of Youth, adolescent sex offenders have a 5 percent to 14 percent chance of sexual re-offenses.
Dr. Fred Berlin, Associate Professor of the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, and founder of the Sexual Disorders Clinic, believes that unlike adult offenders, juveniles are “highly treatable” and “rarely go on to become adult offenders.”
According to Berlin, who has treated juvenile sex offenders, in some cases a young offender must simply accept the consequences of his mistakes and learn how to behave differently in order to move on. Other times, more intensive treatment, such as medication, is needed to ensure they are not a threat to others, or even to themselves.
Berlin has been an advocate for shielding juvenile sex offenders from the harsh stigma and even humiliation that accompanies placement on local and national registries.
“We want adolescent sex offenders to go on and become productive members of society, but they can’t do that if we’re constantly throwing barricades in front of them,” Berlin said.
Berlin cautions that each individual must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. But he says the fact that Washington’s wasn’t a forced act, that there was just a one-year age difference, and that he has not had any reported run-ins with the law since, suggests that as long as Washington has had the appropriate counseling, “the likelihood is very high that he’s going to go on and live a good, responsible life.”
Scouts Weigh In
One NFL scout, who asked to remain anonymous, isn’t so sure. He points to the fact that the 24-year old has already been divorced, which could suggest a pattern of broken relationships. “I worry about this kid. Whether it's that again or something else, he has a history of serious problems,” he said.
“What disturbs me is that I don't know if he sees anything wrong with it,” the scout added. “He said
where he comes from, this kind of thing happens all the time. I don’t think he’s at all ready for the rejection he's about to face once people find out.”
Another NFL scout, who also asked for anonymity, worries about the reception Washington would receive in the NFL. Despite his concerns regarding the sex-offender status, the scout said that Washington's performance at the Combine was unquestionably good and gave him a "second-round" grading.
“I’m not so much concerned with the incident. It happened seven years ago,” the scout said. “But I am concerned with his maturity level. He’s going to walk into an NFL locker room where it’s tough enough being a rookie, but this – this takes it to a whole new level. And I worry about how the media in whatever market his team is in is going to take this.”
Thomsen disagrees with the assessment that his former player is “immature,” saying he was a model citizen, and “never had any off-the-field incident or any problems whatsoever” at Abilene Christian.
Rather than preparing for the Combine at one of the trendy high-end training facilities, Washington chose to work out privately with former Ohio State linebacker Anthony Schlegal, who was the campus president for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
“He’s surrounding himself with good people,” Thomsen said. “He wants to succeed. And that’s what he needs.”
Washington’s choice of agent is also telling. Vann McElroy is not only a former NFL safety who won a Super Bowl with the Raiders, but he is also the son of a pastor.
“We didn’t put people like Anthony Schlegel in Tony’s life,” McElroy told SportsFanLive.com. “He reached out to them. He chose to go to Abilene Christian. To me that says a lot.”
According to a third scout, “He’s too talented not to get drafted. Plus there are a handful of teams out there who would give this guy a chance.”
Berlin agrees that Washington deserves a chance to play in the NFL, just as he believes other juvenile offenders deserve a right to move on with their lives after serving sentences for their crimes.
“We need to do everything we can to support those folks in turning their lives around rather than doing things that might act as an impediment,” Berlin said.
Sartain feels Washington could use it as a platform to potentially inspire others who have overcome personal struggles and bouts with adversity.
“I believe that in God’s plan for Tony, he’s going to turn all of this that’s happened to him and turn it into something very positive," Sartain said. "And I’ll stand right there beside him through it if I need to. I really believe in this man.”
Berlin echoed Sartain’s sentiment.
“I would like to believe that there are a lot of people out there who would cheer him on, and to the extent that he succeeds, be very happy that someone who has gone astray has really turned it around and made a success out of his life," Berlin said.
“His story is only in the early chapters – his book shouldn’t be closed prematurely as though it has to have an unhappy ending.”
The next chapter in Tony Washington’s life will be written the third week in April in New York City at the NFL Draft.