Freshman Robert Washington often thinks about the journey that eventually brought him to play for the Charlotte 49ers.
Washington could be playing for any number of major-college football programs – even some national championship contenders.
He could’ve gone to Alabama.
He could’ve gone to Michigan.
He could’ve gone to Ohio State.
Florida, LSU, Miami, Nebraska, Notre Dame, Stanford, Tennessee, UCLA, Southern Cal – more than 40 offers came Washington’s way.
But when it was time to add his signature on the National Letter of Intent, the East Gaston High graduate chose the 49ers – a decision Washington said he doesn’t regret.
“I think about what actually brought me here. I think about it every day,” said Washington, a 5-foot-10, 220-pound running back.
“This is a great place, and I’m happy I made the decision to come here. But I do think about the journey that brought me here.”
On recruiters’ radar
Washington was on college recruiters’ radar even before his freshman year at Huntersville’s SouthLake Christian Academy.
That attention seemed justified by Washington’s on-field performance and the Eagles’ success.
As a freshman, he ran for 1,017 yards and 11 touchdowns as SouthLake finished 11-2 and advanced to the N.C. Independent Schools Athletic Association’s (NCISAA) Division III state championship game.
Those numbers doubled the next two seasons, both championship-winning ones for the Eagles.
Washington rushed for 2,512 yards and 28 touchdowns as a sophomore, including the only score in a 7-0 win again Victory Christian in the NCISAA Division III state title game.
The next season, he added 2,233 rushing yards and 27 touchdowns, and the Eagles added another state title, rallying for a 21-14 overtime win against Davidson Day in the NCISAA Division II championship game.
Heading into his senior year, Washington was considered a four-star recruit, the No. 4 overall prospect in North Carolina and No. 13 among running backs nationally by ESPN.
Though Washington verbally committed to Mississippi State his freshman year at SouthLake, the attention from major colleges didn’t stop – and neither did the offers.
“It definitely was a blessing, that’s first and foremost,” Washington said. “Just being able to have an opportunity to be recruited by Alabama, USC (Southern Cal), anybody in the country, really.
“I don’t shake my head at it. I just thanked God for the opportunity to do something not everybody can do – playing Division I football.”
Switching high schools
But there were changes coming in Washington’s life before he began his final year of high school football.
He changed schools, transferring from SouthLake Christian to East Gaston – the nearest school to his home in Mount Holly – before the 2014-2015 school year was over.
Washington would not elaborate on the decision to transfer, saying it was over “family issues,” but that he made the decision after the Eagles’ state championship win against Davidson Day.
“I don’t talk about it much,” Washington said. “It was just family issues that brought me to actually transfer to East Gaston.”
Washington sat out the Warriors’ first six games, because of Gaston County Schools’ transfer rules. But once he took the field, he made an immediate impact.
In seven games, Washington rushed for 841 yards, second-best behind Tyler Spurling’s 975 yards, and a team-high 11 touchdowns. That helped East Gaston finish 7-5, its first winning season since 2006.
Before the transfer, there was also uncertainty over Washington’s college football future.
He’d narrowed his choices from more than 40 schools to six in late April 2015 – Alabama, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Syracuse and Texas Christian – with Syracuse winning out.
Yet a few months later, he decommitted from Syracuse – the second time Washington had changed his mind over a college choice. He’d also backed out from his Mississippi State commitment during his sophomore year at SouthLake.
The winner – Charlotte, which remained in contact with Washington even as college football’s heavyweights began making their interest known.
“We always make it a point to stay in touch with the local players, even if they decide to go somewhere else,” 49ers coach Brad Lambert said. “That way, if things don’t work out they know we’re still here and still interested.”
49ers land four-star prize
Washington is the first four-star prospect to sign with Charlotte out of high school, and the second overall to join the 49ers’ football program (quarterback Kevin Olsen was the first).
“When I thought about the recruiting process … it was more of me saying, ‘What is the best decision for myself?’ ” Washington said. “Where do I want to surround myself with the best people – the best staff, the best players?
“Yeah, I had offers from Alabama and all those guys, but I wasn’t looking at the name or how big the school was, I was looking at the best decision for Robert Washington. There’s just something special about this place.”
He’s also had an impact in Charlotte’s first two games.
Washington had a team-best 33 rushing yards (on five carries) in the 49ers’ season-opening loss to then-No. 19 Louisville, then added 43 yards and his first two college touchdowns – on runs of 1 and 4 yards – in last week’s win against Elon.
“It didn’t hit me until after I scored, and they’re saying my name,” Washington said. “Geno (offensive lineman Eugene German) yanked me off the ground and I thought, ‘I just scored!’ ”
With starting running back Kalif Phillips’ status for Saturday’s game against Eastern Michigan still undetermined because of a pulled hamstring, Charlotte might lean more on Washington and freshman Benny LeMay for its running game.
“Robert’s done a really good job - really both freshmen have done a good job,” Lambert said. “They’ve got to continue to grow and study and get better, because they are freshmen. They haven’t really been thrust in there yet, like they could be this Saturday.”
Washington said he’s ready for the challenge – and ready to play a role in growing the four-year-old football program.
“Coach Lambert said, ‘Somebody’s going to have to do something special, somebody’s going to come here that’s going to kick-start this program,’ ” Washington said.
“I’m not saying it’s going to be me, but it’s going to be a domino effect. One person is going to come here, then it’s a great class, then it’s another and another. Doing something special at a place like this really got to my heart.”