It's almost July, and Mike McDaniel is about to join an impromptu Zoom meeting. The NFL is completely in flux due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, and Kyle Shanahan, head coach of the San Francisco 49ers, wants to update his staff on what he's hearing from the league. As the run game coordinator for one of the best rushing teams in football, McDaniel needs to be there.
But he insists he'll call back.
Right in the middle of maybe the most uncertain time of his NFL coaching career, the 37-year-old has welcomed the chance to talk about a player who hasn't seen the field, for a real game, in eight years. A player who, officially, has never taken a single NFL snap.
McDaniel has every reason to pass on the request; his team fell 12 points short of a Super Bowl victory in February, and now he has a shortened offseason to ready them for a rebound.
This player, though, the one he's going to talk about? This player is different.
"I've been waiting years for someone to call me about John David," he says. "I've been waiting a long time."
Like father, like son
In 1992, Denzel Washington earned the first Best Actor Oscar nomination of his career (after two previous Supporting Actor nominations) for his performance in the title role of "Malcolm X." In one scene, a Harlem classroom pays tribute to the polarizing human rights activist. Ten different Black students take turns standing at their desks, loudly declaring their solitude with an African-American legend.
"I am Malcolm X."
"I'm Malcolm X!"
"I am Malcolm X!"
The first student to stand is a little boy wearing a yellow turtleneck. His high-pitched line is his only one in the movie. It lasts for less than two full seconds and kicks off the montage. Like the other kids in the sequence, he's not there to be recognized by name. He's just one part of a bigger cause.
But he does have a name. It's John David Washington. And he's Denzel's son, even if you wouldn't know it.
Twenty-eight years later, the younger Washington is on the verge of mainstream movie stardom. He just turned 36, which is almost exactly how old his dad was when "Malcolm X" hit theaters. America's latest reckoning with racism has rekindled praise for his award-nominated turn in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman" (2018), a true story about a cop who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan.
Washington is also the front man in "Tenet," arguably the most anticipated movie of this year -- an action thriller that not only serves as the latest entry from one of Hollywood's top directors in Christopher Nolan ("Inception," "The Dark Knight") but as the blockbuster that may very well reopen a theater business completely shut down by the pandemic.
Yet whenever people finally see Washington's latest act on the big screen, many of them will ask the same questions:
Who is this guy? How did I not realize this was Denzel's son? How am I only hearing of him now?
Truth is, people have been asking these questions for years. And there might not be any greater example of Washington's covert ascent to the spotlight than the time he played professional football. The time he was just another wannabe NFL running back.
A quiet NFL entrance
In an industry sometimes fueled by tabloid gossip as much as on-screen drama, Denzel Washington has kept a remarkably private life away from his very public roles. (He's often credited his family's behind-the-scenes success to Pauletta, his wife of nearly 40 years.) John David, the first of the couple's four children, followed his dad around as Denzel rehearsed for parts, but he himself only made such an early screen debut because Spike Lee asked the Washingtons if he could put their then-7-year-old son in "Malcolm X."
It's no surprise, then, that even after another brief cameo -- "Devil in a Blue Dress" (1995) -- John David all but fell off the celebrity map. While his dad was raking in praise for some of his most memorable hits -- "Remember the Titans" (2000), "Training Day" (2001), "John Q." (2002), "Antwone Fisher" (2002) -- John David was traversing the classrooms and athletic fields of Campbell Hall, an Episcopal day school in Los Angeles. Enrolling at Morehouse College, a private, historically Black university in Atlanta, maintained his anonymity despite its impressive list of alumni, including Martin Luther King Jr. and his father's movie colleagues Spike Lee and Samuel L. Jackson.
That's in part because John David wasn't at Morehouse to act. He was there on a scholarship to play football.
At little B.T. Harvey Stadium, where only one sideline has bleachers, Washington ran for a school-record 3,699 yards from 2002-05. He wasn't physically imposing, but in small-school Division II, few are. Besides, the production spoke for itself. Washington scored 13 touchdowns as a sophomore, breaking a Morehouse record at the time while also setting the program's all-time mark for single-game rushing yards (242). As a senior, he approached 1,200 yards on the ground, averaging 5.6 per carry and eliciting just enough interest from regional scouts.
The day after the 2006 NFL Draft, during which 255 players -- none of which were Washington -- officially joined the pros, John David joined the St. Louis Rams. Only the most ardent of NFL fans do more than skim lists of rookie free agents, so Washington's entry was quiet enough. On top of that, his name and resume were generic enough that they barely registered even inside the Rams' building.
"He came in, initially, we knew him as 'J.D.,'" says Wayne Moses, the Rams' RBs coach at the time. "So I didn't know. I heard of him being a Southern California high school player, but I hadn't even heard of him in college. He was just a guy that got signed. 'J.D. Washington' is what he went by."
Marshall Faulk, the longtime star of the Rams' RB room, had just undergone double knee surgery and was about to miss the final season of his Hall of Fame career. Former first-round pick Steven Jackson was already an All-Pro in the making, but the team was on the lookout for developmental depth at the position. Moses didn't realize, at least initially, that one of the Rams' potential solutions was also the firstborn of Denzel Washington.
"I didn't find out his pedigree until after the fact," he recalls. "You would've never known by the way he carried himself. He was just a guy trying to make the team, that was about it. That was kind of special, in that sense. He didn't want anything other than an opportunity. The rookies had to go get the veteran guys breakfast, and he didn't sweat it or complain about it. Initially, he's like a rookie, just quiet."
Until it came time for his presentation.
"I do remember all the coaches were coming downstairs for a team meeting, and J.D. was kind of holding court in there," Moses says. "He had got up in front of the team -- you know, as rookies, they make you do something -- and he got up and basically did a scene from 'Training Day,' and it sounded just like his dad. It was amazing."
Football as a 'shield'
Such began the duality of Washington's football journey. On one hand, almost no one realized they were coaching, playing, sweating, bleeding, eating, joking, living alongside the guy with that dad. On the other hand, as soon as Washington gave the slightest inclination of his upbringing and dared to flex his parents' genes, no one could mistake the truth: He definitely had that dad.
"You just kind of knew, at some point in time," Moses explains. "You didn't know if it'd be in front of the camera, behind the camera, producing, directing ... but you knew, at some point, once he got done playing, he was gonna be involved in the family business."
That unspoken reality, however, is exactly what Washington fought to bury as he kicked off his NFL career.
The young man wasn't ashamed of his performing parents or his affinity for acting; quite the opposite. (As an Esquire profile revealed, he would watch movies weekly with teammate Steven Jackson, and as a kid, he memorized every one of his dad's lines from "Glory," the Oscar-winning 1989 drama about an African-American regiment in the Civil War. After Denzel had his Union Army uniform re-cut to fit his son, John David "almost never took it off.")
What he did want to avoid was any notion that his parents' success was the only reason for his own accomplishment.
"It was a constant inner conversation my whole life," Washington later said in a ESPN "SportsCenter" interview. "I always wanted to (act), but my reluctance stemmed from the nepotism, people thinking I was just gonna get it handed to me. So football served as that shield ... And (my dad) couldn't help me in that business."
Turns out, Washington was also good at football. Because not everyone can choose to pave their own path by, you know, becoming an NFL running back.
At about 5-foot-9 and just over 200 pounds, Washington modeled himself after Darren Sproles, the small but shifty Kansas State product who would go on to set records in a lengthy career with the Chargers, Saints and Eagles. Washington was among the Rams' final roster cuts in 2006, but days later, he signed to the team's practice squad, where he spent his entire first season learning alongside Pro Bowlers like Steven Jackson, Marc Bulger and Torry Holt. The following offseason, St. Louis allocated Washington to NFL Europa, the now-defunct international league, to gain more experience with the Hamburg Sea Devils in Germany.
By this point, those who were aware of Washington's background wanted to seize his spotlight. (A fan day in Germany threatened to create a "media frenzy for J.D.," the Sea Devils coach told CBS News at the time, so "we're trying to protect him.") Others just tried to get in his head. ("After I would score a touchdown: 'Good run, and your dad, he's the man.' It was very confusing," Washington once told ESPN. "Like, was that supposed to anger me? It was an interesting trash-talking experience for me.")
Regardless, he kept his nose to the gridiron, playing out the NFL Europa campaign with Düsseldorf's Rhein Fire and then returning to the Rams' practice squad for his second NFL season. Assigned mostly to special teams work, according to Sports Illustrated, he practiced through a sports hernia for much of the year in an effort to avoid injured reserve.
In 2008, the NFL dreams were put on hold. As Washington battled a growing list of physical ailments -- broken ribs and multiple concussions among them -- the Rams said goodbye, cutting their inexplicably anonymous big name. Soon after, as Men's Journal reported, a workout with the Houston Texans ended with then-general manager Rick Smith telling Washington he'd never make it back to the NFL.
If ever there were a time for John David to play his "Get Out of Jail Free" card, it was then. One phone call to Dad could've been an easy pass back into Hollywood.
Instead, like any athlete with true ambitions and a good underdog story, he did something else. He doubled down on football.
Hidden in the UFL
In between NFL jobs, Mike McDaniel was pegged as the RBs coach for the California Redwoods in the upstart United Football League. In preparation for the inaugural 2009 UFL Draft, he and head coach Dennis Green, the former longtime Minnesota Vikings coach, were in agreement: Their top target was Cory Ross, a recent Nebraska standout and Baltimore Ravens prospect.
Green, however, didn't stop there.
"I have another running back," he told McDaniel.
Acquainted with Denzel Washington, Green had caught wind of a scrappy 25-year-old who spent time with the Rams. The UFL would fold no more than three years later, with players earning a tiny fraction of the money they may have found in the NFL. But even if the Dennis Green connection could be considered an unfair advantage for Washington's diminished chances of football stardom, Washington refused to let that idea survive.
"I went to Yale University, so in my formative years, I was surrounded by a ton of people that were very quick to let you know who their father was," McDaniel says. "John David, here you had the son of the most famous actor in the world arguably, and he wanted absolutely nothing to do with that. Football for him was his rite of passage to say, 'OK, I'm choosing this because I want to.' He could've had layup roles.
"I went in with preconceived notions of who Denzel Washington's kid would be," McDaniel continues. "But he had no interest in talking about that. He was the most attentive, locked-in player. He was an athlete that deserved to be there, but he also maxed out and outperformed his skill set because he invested in the game."
McDaniel is quick to compare Washington to Kyle Shanahan, his current boss with the 49ers. (Shanahan, of course, is another guy with a famous father, the three-time Super Bowl champion Mike Shanahan. For years, Kyle refused to work as an offensive coordinator under his dad until he earned the same title elsewhere.) Both men, McDaniel explains, were "very perceptive to the reality" of their situations. Washington "knew eyes were on him" but was naturally "unassuming" and just knew "how to be quiet," which is why his own RBs coach didn't realize until a week after meeting him that he was Denzel's kid.
Cory Ross, the Redwoods' No. 1 RB, found out earlier. Before arriving, he and some other teammates read an article about Washington's celebrity ties. But it didn't change their relationship, or the way Washington introduced himself.
"There was four of us, and we were tight," Ross recalls. "Once we first met, it was pretty funny -- J.D., you could tell he was a character. He had a great big smile. Just always willing to learn. He was asking questions, just mesmerized."
On the field, Ross was learning things about how to play the position from Washington, who started sparingly, only when Ross was injured. But John David never once pushed back on lineup decisions. He was the backup. And that was that.
"I knew what kind of league this was," Ross says. "Everybody's trying to get an opportunity. But J.D. was one of my favorite supporters ... He didn't have to do it. He probably could've done whatever he wanted to do because he had that kind of charisma. He was a breath of fresh air."
The most astounding thing about John David Washington, at this point in his career, wasn't just his modesty. It was the backdrop for it.
Let's repaint the scene: This was a man entering maybe the prime years of his young-adult life, with multi-millionaire icons for parents, but content -- no, eager -- to be a second-string running back in a fledgling football league. There are worse ways to make a living, but this was no luxurious lifestyle: Washington shared hotel rooms for months at a time while his team, renamed the Sacramento Mountain Lions in 2010, turned small towns into makeshift headquarters. Even when some would go out for drinks, he preferred to stay back and read books. His idea of a wild time often came within the hotel walls, like when he and Ross would fill trash cans with water, lean them against the doors of their neighboring coaches or teammates and then knock.
"I've coached for 15 years," McDaniel says, "and since then, I've probably had one special relationship a season, if that ... J.D. Washington is in that group of people that when you're telling your story of coaching, he's one of the reasons you did it."
The failure that flipped the switch
So why didn't football work out? Why is John David Washington today known as a blossoming actor and not a well-known Sunday superstar?
"One thing at that level that's hard to overcome is the pounding that you take," explains Moses. "He wasn't the biggest guy in the world in terms of size. We used to say, if you got 60 plays, that's 60 train wrecks. And I don't think people realize how physical the game is. They're trying to kill each other. He couldn't control how big he was."
In today's NFL, size may not have been the defining issue. Austin Ekeler, Devin Singletary, Phillip Lindsay and Tarik Cohen are all prominently featured backs who are no bigger than Washington. But even 10 years ago, if you were a RB, you were probably expected to be a grinder more than a role player. And that took its toll.
"We used to mess with him a lot," says Ross, who was much stockier at 5-foot-6 and 200 pounds. "If he got tackled or, say, we'd have a non-contact period and he would run and somebody would hit him ... Boy would fall so hard, and we'd be like, 'J.D., you know he ain't hit you that hard! That's that actor in you!' ... If he put on a little more weight, J.D., he had it. He wasn't nowhere near the athlete that some of these pros are, but he had a big heart."
Washington's official bow out of football didn't come until 2013, after four years in the UFL. While training for a pending workout with the New York Giants, he blew out his Achilles tendon, signaling the physical end to an overlooked journey. His failure to crack a consistent job in the NFL wasn't for lack of trying, though, especially considering what else he could've been doing.
"He grew those few years more than any player," McDaniel says. "He was very similar to a guy I had in Washington, Evan Royster. His testing was low, he was a similar runner, but the thing that J.D. had was fearlessness. These guys didn't jump off the bus and exude fear or intimidation, but then they would just exceed expectations every time. You were always trying to get people to beat him out, and you can't."
'He's an actor'
Washington's first legitimate acting role couldn't have been more fitting. When HBO debuted "Ballers" in summer 2015, featuring Dwayne Johnson as a retired NFL player-turned-financial manager, Washington was unofficially the top-billed star of the show outside of "The Rock." The series' casting director apparently wasn't impressed with the more than 1,000 who auditioned for the part of Ricky Jerret, a likable but troubled Green Bay Packers wide receiver, so she began scouting actual former players for the role. John David ultimately got a tryout, and the director realized Washington had "clearly ... inherited the acting gene."
Washington's character is a far cry from his real-life football self. (Early in the show, Ricky Jerret is booted from the Packers for a nightclub fight. He's also prone to emotional outbursts, like the time he explodes on elite party guests after they belittle NFL protests: "You're damn right I'd kneel!" But Washington's very presence on "Ballers" was like a nod to his amusing, unusual career. Heck, the defining moment of his character's debut might be his sit-down with real-life NFL reporter Jay Glazer, when Washington darn near mirrors Denzel's voice as he opens up about Ricky Jerret's tense relationship with his dad.
Anyone who watched Washington at the time, giving his fake interview in an HBO dramedy, knew this guy was bound for a bigger screen. Now just imagine all of his real teammates, who knew it years earlier.
"We're like, 'Dude, you have to act,'" says McDaniel, Washington's UFL RBs coach. "I remember him saying once, 'I always say no, because that's what people expect, but I feel like I might have a talent for it.' We would ask him all the time -- because he's got a cadence in his voice that sounds like his dad -- and he'd be, 'Nah, I'm a football player.' But one day the team was kind of down, so he just stood up and started doing his dad's movie lines, on point. Like, it was the same voice, same tempo, same speech. He did the one hospital rant from 'John Q.' This dude wouldn't talk about it, but then all of a sudden he breaks out these impressions."
UFL teammates made him re-enact a scene before every stretch right before practice -- "Training Day" was still the popular one -- and plenty of them could tell deep down he was enjoying himself.
Jerrod Johnson remembers. Now on staff with the Indianapolis Colts, he was a quarterback for Sacramento during Washington's last season in the UFL. He didn't realize until about two weeks before the entire league folded that John David was Denzel's son (sound familiar?), but he never forgot his ex-teammate's natural ability to draw a crowd.
"I vividly remember seeing him on TV, and it kind of jogged my memory," Johnson says. "I remember his personality, to want to be just one of the guys. But there was also just a coolness about him that was real. Being cool is something that people are born with sometimes. Being in movies and stuff, that's exactly what he should be doing."
Fellow QB Josh Johnson, who was in between a dozen stops as an NFL backup during his 2012 UFL stint, shares the same memories.
"He was cool as hell," Johnson says. "He was a pro. Really laid back. Just the whole family, how they carried they self. I'm happy to see his growth. I first started watching him in 'Ballers,' but it'll be dope to see him in more. He's an actor."
A Washington, above all
Now something like 20 pounds lighter than his football days, Washington told Esquire this spring that the fitness required for his action-hero role in "Tenet" specifically reminded him of training in the NFL. This story, you see, will always come full circle.
And here's the best part: You simply can't tell it without those family ties. And as much as Washington's dedication to sports stemmed from unshackling his legacy from that of his parents, his trademark humility -- the reason so, so many have been slow to learn his true identity -- may have been the most accurate reflection of his family.
"His mom and dad would come to a game in Sacramento," recalls McDaniel. "Denzel would be in his all-black hat on the sidelines with his wife, and fans would come up to him, and he would say, 'Sorry, no pictures. This is family time.' And he was locked into his son. It was a cool exposure to a family that has had so many lenses on them but found a way to have these moments. With any of them, you don't get entitlement."
Moses, who coached Washington with the Rams, says whenever Denzel would show up to training camp to check on John David, he "came as a spectator. There were no grand appearances."
Ross, meanwhile, remembers Washington's mother, Pauletta, coming to every one of their UFL games. ("The funny thing is, everybody wanted to talk to him about his dad, but his first conversation with me was about his mom. She was the No. 1 thing in his life. He had so much to say about her.") Ross held the entire group in high regard.
"I felt like they were my family," Ross says. "His dad gave me this big old hug after one of my touchdown runs. We had dinner together at the hotel restaurant. It was everything you'd want a family to look like."
It seems, then, that while John David both avoided his parents' shadow and then returned to follow in their footsteps, he was always, above all, a Washington. That has always been his most consistent role. He may be a movie star now -- a bright but distant celebrity most people will never see beyond their TVs and theaters. But if not for his fleeting run at the NFL -- his noble endeavor to make a life of his own -- his lasting impact would not nearly have been the same.
McDaniel considers John David one of the most virtuous friends he's encountered. When he got married in 2014 while coaching for the Cleveland Browns, one of his invitations went to a certain former Sacramento Mountain Lions running back. To this day, McDaniel strives to stroll sidelines with logo-less all-black hats, in honor of the Washingtons. ("I think of Denzel all the time," he says. "And of course, John David.")
Ross hasn't spoken to John David for a while, and most of the teammates he does keep in touch with haven't made pro sports headlines for years. In fact, most fans wouldn't recognize their names at all. But John David was one of them, and they don't forget it.
"We talk all the time, like, 'Man, you see J.D. on TV?!'" Ross says.
He laughs, no doubt as he recalls their days in the hotel rooms -- just a couple of 20-something wannabe football players in the middle of nowhere. And then he sighs with appreciation.
"I'm so proud of him."