Last Saturday, as soon as Buffalo tailback Michael Washington reached the end zone on a 92-yard touchdown run at Buffalo Green, his mother was exulting on her Twitter account:
“Flashback flashback!” Patricia Washington posted. “Phenomenal run.”
Washington’s TD dash, the second-longest rush in FBS this season, was indeed reminiscent of runs from his past. Three years ago, he had broken three long touchdown runs in Syracuse-North Cicero’s 28-25 win over Utica Proctor in the sectional finals — 59, 73 and 55 yards.
His mother said that game had special significance because Mike was born and raised in Utica, and had played against many of the kids on that Proctor squad as a little boy.
“Three weeks prior to that game, they played Proctor and lost,” Patricia recalled, “and he was just devastated. He was extremely upset. But they were able to make it to the sectional finals, and that play he ran last Saturday was nothing but flashbacks.
“We had been dying and waiting to see that happen, because that is a signature run for Michael.”
Yes, it had been a long time since Washington put his signature on a football game in such a dramatic fashion. The Covid-19 pandemic hit four months after that sectional game in 2019. There was no high school football in New York in the fall of 2020. Rather than play a truncated senior season at North Cicero in the spring of 2021, he decided to enroll early at UB that January.
In 2021, Washington played in three games for the Bulls. He did score one touchdown — against Bowling Green. Because he played in only three games, under NCAA rules he was able to return this season as a redshirt freshman, with three years of eligibility remaining.
Washington, who is 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, began the year as the nominal backup to senior Ron Cook Jr. He leads the Bulls, who play at UMass on Saturday, in rushing with 417 yards and six TDs. He has five touchdowns in UB’s 3-0 start in the MAC. He had a career-high 155 yards at Bowling Green, looking like the guy who was one of the top players in the state three years ago.
“I feel like I’m where I want to be,” Washington said after practice this week. “I feel like God has blessed me in many ways, in ways that I can’t even describe. I feel like He’s led me all the way up to this point, and He has more in store for me. You talk about having a feeling. I have that feeling that God has something bigger in store.”
That doesn’t mean he’s clamoring for more touches. Washington says everyone has personal goals, but all the Bulls running backs share in each other’s success.
“We have one goal, and that’s to get to Detroit. Everybody in that room is willing to do whatever they can to help the team get there,” he said.
“It’s pleasing to know he understands it’s all about the team,” said UB running backs coach Greg Knox. “Some games he may get touches, some games he may not get as many as he wants. Nobody ever gets as many as he wants. But we share in the glory of each other.”
Knox said the backs operate like a family, which is something head coach Mo Linguist has tried to instill in his young team. Linguist said Washington is rapidly maturing as a college player and understands it’s about winning, and that “the rising tide raises all ships.”
Of course, it takes a mature young man to walk onto a college campus at 17 years old and begin the life of a student-athlete. But Mike was well-grounded, a religious kid from a strong family, one of seven children. His father, Mike Sr., is an investigator for the Utica Police Department.
Patricia, who has a doctorate in psychology, is an account executive for Grand Canyon University in Arizona (working remotely) and an administrative program director for Catholic Charities.
Mike was recruited by at least 17 colleges, including UConn, Colorado State, Army, Villanova, Coastal Carolina and UMass (this week’s opponent). As an educator, Patricia liked West Point. Mike only visited two campuses because of the pandemic, including UB. He loved the coaching staff, the recent tradition (three straight bowl appearances) and the fact it was close to home.
“We trust Mike,” Patricia said. “He is very responsible, very mature for his age. The kid was born nine pounds, five ounces. He has always been a big kid. He grew up really fast. He was the biggest kid in kindergarten, had the biggest hands. We always knew he would be doing something with those hands.
“Yeah, he is very mature for his age. He knows what he wants, and he’s a likable kid, a lovable child, just easy-going. We call him the perfect child.”
Washington was recruited by head coach Lance Leipold’s staff. Leipold left for Kansas in April of 2021, three months after Mike showed up on campus. Mike was disappointed, as any recruit would have been. But after speaking with Linguist, he knew he wanted to stay.
“Coach Mo came in and he made me feel like it was home again,” he said. “So, that was a big reason why I stayed. He’s definitely a persuasive guy, but he’s also 100. When he does anything, it’s 100. He’ll tell you what it is for what it is.”
Patricia said her son has always been one to give 100%. He’s hard-working, a serious student, someone who says “Yes, sir and No, sir” to his elders. His mom was worried when Mike went to UB at at 17, wondering if he would handle the transition, and if a year of junior college might have helped. He got a 3.0 grade-point in his first semester
“I’m like, ‘Michael, I didn’t even have that when I started college!” she said. “There are challenging courses he’s dealing with, but that’s something you will deal with as a student and athlete and trying to manage your personal life.
“He’s his best advocate. I told him college isn’t meant to be easy. You don’t want anything to be handed to you. Fight for it and walk across that stage with pride.”
Washington doesn’t take his education for granted. He’s studying exercise science and nutrition, and might switch to public health. His dream as a little boy was to play Division I football, but also to go to college. He says that’s what truly matters.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “My parents were very heavy on my academics. Before they talked about football, it was, ‘Were you getting your school work done?’ If not, I couldn’t work out, and I was a person who worked out on a daily basis when I was in high school.”
The Washingtons lived in a rough section of Utica when their children were younger. Patricia said they moved to a better section of the city when Mike was 4. They put their kids in charters schools. Mike played his sophomore year at Utica Notre Dame. But his folks wanted a school with more challenging academics and extracurricular programs for him and his younger siblings.
“We looked into Syracuse and found Cicero-North Syracuse,” she said. “They had very successful academic and sports program. We made that transition about four and a half year ago.”
Cicero is about 50 miles west of Utica, north of Syracuse and south of Lake Oneida. Mike Sr. commutes to his job with the Utica police. Evidently, the move was well worth it.
“My mom and dad have given me great advice,” Washington said. “They’ve been my number one supporters since Day One. They’ve been very supportive.”
Mike never loses sight of how fortunate he is, and how his parents have sacrificed so he could go farther than so many others in their family. Patricia talks of the “fallen stars” in their extended families, talented people who could have gone far in sports and other endeavors, but were held back by impoverished circumstances and the temptations of street life.
That included Patricia’s parents, who struggled with drugs and alcohol and died young. Three years ago, she started the Patty-Roy Foundation, which was named for her parents. It helps to transition people who were homeless or institutionalized back into the community.
“One of the reasons we stressed the importance of education,” she said, “is because so many of our family members had an opportunity and they didn’t follow through. We created an environment for Michael and his siblings to be able to be successful, which is very difficult.”
Mike knows about the fallen stars in his family. He knows that many of the kids he grew up with in Utica didn’t make it out of difficult circumstances, that some didn’t graduate from high school and got swallowed up in the street life. His mother said he knows there are people who look up to him, who see him as proof of what a young person can accomplish. What we call a role model.
“Yes, sir,” he said. “It’s going back home and seeing my family members, my nieces and nephews get a big smile on their face when they see me. It’s one of those things, me coming home and seeing that, ‘OK, I’ve got to set the way for them’.
“I’m showing them that playing college football and going to college, graduating from high school, you could do more than that. You could do that and more.”
You never know how far you could go. Keep working, look for the opening, and you might just go all the way.
Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.