VALPARAISO – Robert Washington has run for more than 400 yards in his first four games in a Valparaiso uniform.
The path that the former four-star recruit took to get to Northwest Indiana has been far longer.
There was a time when the 23-year-old held offers from almost every major college program in the country. Ohio State, Alabama, Notre Dame, Florida and Michigan all wanted Washington when he was in high school.
The North Carolina native seemingly wanted a lot of colleges, as well. Washington originally committed to Mississippi State when he was a freshman in high school before decommitting the following summer. He then committed to Syracuse in the spring of his junior year before decommitting four months later. According to 247sports.com, Washington then visited Alabama following his senior season, only to commit to Charlotte five days later.
“It was cool traveling the country (during recruiting), meeting Urban Meyer and Nick Saban,” Washington said. “I met Ezekiel Elliott. It was all a blessing, but I wanted to do something different. I wanted to pick a school that I liked and that I wanted to go to.”
Washington got immediate playing time with Charlotte, rushing for 120 yards in his third career game. He finished the season with 489 rushing yards and five touchdowns. He played the first three games of his sophomore season before he decided to leave the football team.
“It’s just a good decision for me,” Washington told The Gaston Gazette in 2017. “I don’t think I got anything wrong. Hundreds of players transfer every year. I’ll be one of those hundreds now.”
Washington’s recruitment took a winding road as he left Charlotte in October of 2017 and was out of football until August of 2019 when he arrived on Old Dominion’s campus. During that hiatus, he was linked to Liberty and was even added to the online roster before the Liberty athletic department said he was mistakenly added.
Washington played in all 12 games for the Monarchs, rushing for 135 yards and two touchdowns. When head coach Bobby Wilder resigned after the season, Washington was suddenly in limbo.
“The previous staff had said they’d put me on scholarship after the season ended and when the new staff came in, they told me they couldn’t honor what (Wilder) had said,” Washington said. “There were unforeseen circumstances that led me to leaving (Charlotte and Old Dominion). It wasn’t playing time.”
Washington’s name ended up in the transfer portal and it didn’t take long for Valparaiso running backs coach Cory Colder to make a phone call. Colder had just finished up a playing career at East Tennessee State when he was hired by then first-year Valparaiso coach Landon Fox in 2019. Colder was aware of Washington’s backstory and he decided to reach out to the running back.
“Just being a young coach, I figured that the sky was the limit,” Colder said. “I knew that we were graduating three seniors and we had to revamp the running back room. I decided to give Robert a call and I figured I’d keep calling him until he stopped picking up. We talked every week (for six months).”
While Colder was anxious to attain Washington, Fox needed some convincing from his young assistant.
“There’s a lot of good players out there, but that doesn’t mean they’re all the right fit,” Fox said. “Coach Colder was recruiting him for a long time, but because of the back story, while I didn’t say no, I was extremely hesitant. You see him bouncing from a couple different schools and you want to know what’s going on. The thing is, Robert kept following through with everything we asked of him. The application, the financial aid (and) the transcripts. He followed through at every turn to the point where I knew I needed to talk to him and see what he was all about.”
Washington and Fox finally connected on the phone and the rest has been history. Washington arrived on Valparaiso’s campus last fall and he has become a fast leader for the rest of the team. While his role was kept quiet to the outside world, as Washington wasn’t even listed on the depth chart for the season opener against Butler, Fox knew the special talent that had walked in the door.
“Day one,” Fox said when asked when he knew Washington would make an impact. “I kept it kind of quiet, but as soon as he stepped on the practice field, he was different. Our guys knew right away.”
Everyone who has been around Washington for the last year has a story, from the running back peppering Valparaiso athletic director Mark LaBarbera about the history of the Butler rivalry after rushing for 199 yards in the season opener to him going out of his way to thank Fox for the opportunity.
“He just ran the ball 40 times for 200 yards and he’s thanking me,” Fox asked. “That’s the kind of man he is. That’s the story that resonates with me.”
For Washington’s part, he’s done thinking about the past and he’s focused on the future. While he didn’t know much about Butler or the Pioneer Football League or Valparaiso, he’s embracing every aspect of the journey that has led him to rediscover his love for football once again. The psychology major has spent a lot of the last year analyzing his place in the game and football’s place in life.
“I don’t ever despise small beginnings,” Washington said. “I love being part of this program where we can come together and make history. Everyone here comes from different backgrounds and I love learning about all of it. It’s what has led me to this path.”