The path that led Walter Washington to Temple University was about as brutal as it gets. Emotional twists and traumatic turns came with every step, every movement in this heartfelt journey.
You might not know it by looking at the jovial, 22-year-old record-setting quarterback for the hard-luck Owls, but throbbing pain has encapsulated his powerful body from the moment he was born.
Let's start there -- the moment he was born. His mother, Jesse, was rushed out of jail in Daytona Beach and taken to a hospital to give birth to her oldest son.
She delivered a healthy boy, then she was delivered back to jail to complete her prison term for drugs. Little Walter would never have a full-fledged relationship with the woman who brought him into this world.
But what about his father? Where was he? Forget about it. There was no father. Walter's grandmother, Georgia Washington, became mom and dad, guardian and advisor.
"She saved my life," said Walter, considered by many to be the most electric player in the Big East conference. He will be on display Saturday against 12th-ranked West Virginia in Morgantown to improve on his league-best 10 rushing touchdowns. "My grandmother was my world."
Georgia Washington was already dealing with tough times of her own. She was a mother of seven, and some of those children still needed her care. But she never flinched. She accepted Walter and, later, his younger brother Travon (who is now incarcerated) like they were her own. It was not easy.
"Sometimes, we didn't have water or lights," said Washington, who occasionally speaks to his mother, who's been released from prison. "It was just me, my little brother, grandma and my auntie, who would help out. We didn't have much. The neighborhood was tough. All I really had was football and school. I would go home and take care of my grandmother and just try to do the right thing. It was a struggle, because I was a kid and I wanted to know why. Why didn't I have a mother? Why didn't I have a biological father? Why did all my friends have those things? I guess, in the end, it built character in me."
Washington paused, briefly.
"It made me a man," he said.
Washington grew into a powerful young man and ultimately carved a path on the football field. He developed into an All-Florida pick after playing seven different positions at Mainland High School.
He decided to play at Dodge City (Kan.) Community College to improve his grades after high school, but just when things started getting better, they got worse. Again.
Georgia Washington died. Her one and only kidney, which doctors predicted would fail her years earlier, shut down. Walter entertained the thought of leaving school and abandoning football, but he remembered something crucial: Grandma was no quitter.
How could he become one?
"When she was 81, she developed three blood clots and they said she had no less than a week to live," Washington said. "She lived until she was 84. She wouldn't let herself die because she was afraid that me and my brother couldn't live alone. I couldn't quit."
Instead, he excelled. He was a junior college All-American at Dodge City and the offers started pouring in. Nebraska wanted him. Kansas State wanted him. So did many others. But he turned them away for a chance to play at Temple.
It was a shocking development, but when you hear Washington tell it, it makes a whole lot of sense.
"I compare myself to Temple -- a place that's been through struggles and tough times and all those difficult things," said Washington, who's received support from his godfamily, the Carwises of Daytona Beach. "I was never given anything in my life. So, I chose to play against the schools that already had it all. I wanted to help Temple be like those other places."
No dice, at least so far. The 6-foot-2, 240-pound junior has been a phenom, but not much else has gone well during his career at Temple.
The Owls are 2-18 during his tenure. Moreover, they're on their way out of the Big East with no prospects of a new conference.
There is even speculation that the program could drop to Division I-AA or lower. He is a star in a darkened universe -- the greatest quarterback nobody's ever heard of.
"These are tough times around here," Washington said. "A lot of guys are down and we're not playing together. It's hard when you're putting up good numbers but you can't get the Ws.'"
Washington, though, keeps pressing on. He's accounted for 27 touchdowns (16 rushing, 11 passing) the past 13 games, dating to last season, and currently ranks 20th nationally in total offense at 262.8 yards per game.
The last time he faced WVU, he put on a clinic, running for four touchdowns and putting a scare into the Mountaineers in a 45-28 loss. He was virtually impossible to tackle on that day, which is not surprising given the fact he can bench press 475 pounds.
"He's so big and strong that it's scary," said Pitt coach Walt Harris, who watched Washington throw for 314 yards and run for 82 in nearly leading an upset of his Panthers a couple weeks back. "He's almost impossible to stop."
"He scares people," WVU coach Rich Rodriguez said. "That's a big man."
By the time Washington is done at Temple, he'll have rewritten most of the school's records. He has 2,102 yards of total offense this season (1,588 rushing; 514 rushing), which ranks fifth for a single-season behind Henry Burris' 2,577 set in 1994. And, in just two seasons, Washington is already seventh in total offense with 3,946 yards. His 10 rushing TDs are five shy of Paul Palmer's 1986 mark.
While Washington keeps getting better, the program keeps getting worse. He could yell and complain, but what good would it do?
"Not his style," said star linebacker Rian Wallace, who's gone through difficult times himself. "I can see in his eyes and I know what he's going through. He's thankful to be here, thankful to be a part of this. It might not be the greatest thing in the world -- but it could be a whole lot worse."
Joe Bendel covers the Big East for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.