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THE SUNDAY PROFILE : The Good Fight : When he was growing up, James Washington had a reputation for talking with his fists. Now the football powerhouse helps those in his old Watts neighborhood find a better way to survive.

September 11, 1994|BOB OATES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

James Washington of Watts, Whittier and the Dallas Cowboys, the fierce hitter who is known in pro football as "Drive By," acknowledges at least two other interests: making it as a businessman and helping people in the old neighborhood.

Friends from UCLA still remember the night of the first Phi Beta Sigma dance of Washington's freshman year there. All evening, instead of dancing, he stood by the entrance to the frat-sponsored community fund-raiser. Around midnight, Sigma brother Vinson Boyce recalls finding him there. "I haven't seen you on the floor," Boyce scolded. "What are you doing?"

"Counting the house," Washington said. "Nobody's going to get in here free."

Washington had gotten into the habit of looking out for himself, even when there was no one to look after him. Before age 10, living alone at times, he would sometimes steal a few bucks to share with less resourceful friends.

"I've been on my own, more or less, since the day my father skipped town," he says. "He's out there some place, if he's still alive."

His mother liked to drink.

"She had two choices, and she chose alcohol over me," Washington says. "Those are all bad memories. Let's talk about something else."

He would have never survived, he says, without his maternal grandfather, his first football coach, two Jordan High classmates and his wife, Dana.

Of his high school friends, he says:

"It's a tragedy what happened (to my family), but when I knew them, no kid was ever luckier than me. Keith Solomon kept me going to class. Richard Green kept me off drugs."

Green has since dropped out of sight, and Solomon is dead. As he emerged from a fast-food restaurant one day six years ago, a neighborhood bully senselessly shot him.

Mourning his boyhood friends, Washington says:

"So many are dead."

*

\o7 James as a boy was on the bubble, as they say in sports. He could have gone either way: street chemist or football champion.\f7

--Dana Washington

*

In each of the last two years, "Drive By" Washington, a defensive back who stands 6 feet, 1 inch tall and weighs 210 pounds, has helped bring the Super Bowl championship to Dallas.

But to get to the title game last year, the Cowboys first had to beat San Francisco. On one memorable play, the 49ers sent their best receiver--record-setter Jerry Rice, 6-2, 200 pounds--cruising into Washington's territory.

Washington smashed him flat.

And as Rice tried to get up, Drive By lifted an arm in triumph.

In the locker room, a reporter asked Washington: "How did that feel?"

"It felt great," he replied. "I think I readjusted the guy's vertebrae."

On the field, Washington can be like that--unsmiling, brutal. But he isn't always like that. In a more civilized setting, he can be sunny, merry, attentive.

One who knows nothing but Washington's softer side is Sweet Alice Harris, a living saint who founded the Parents of Watts. She operates nine shelters for homeless parolees, pregnant women, the mentally ill and others, and in the off-season Washington helps out, giving those who pass through someone to look up to.

Says Sweet Alice: "You can't imagine how wonderful it is having James around."

His opponents in pro football don't put it quite that way.

"The two biggest hitters of the '90s are (former) Bruins," says veteran NFL coach Sid Gillman, "Ronnie Lott (of the New York Jets) and James Washington."

Hitting, Washington says, is a skill he has been perfecting since high school. While classmates Solomon and Green were struggling for his soul, Washington was getting into fights--in hallways, alleys, anywhere.

"I used to go down that avenue to solve \o7 all \f7 my problems," he says, "except I've never hit a woman."

His last fight in Watts came on what turned out to be his last day at Jordan. After completing his course work for graduation at midyear, he had been anticipating one last, easy semester. As he headed for the basketball floor one afternoon, a friend approached him, crying. She said she had been sexually abused by a security guard.

As Washington tells it now, he went looking for the man, found him in an office and picked a fight, knocking him down and out the door.

"You're suspended," the school authorities told Washington.

"You can't suspend me," he said airily. "I'm leaving."

That very week he enrolled at UCLA, returning to Jordan only once, on graduation day in June.

At 18, he fathered a child, a daughter named Shanel, whom he helps support.

"She's wonderful," he says. "She lives with her mother. I love my little daughter."

*

\o7 No matter how bright you are, you can't make it out of Watts without two things: role models and exposure. Somebody has to introduce you to the real world.\f7

--Anthony George, Washington's business partner

*

It isn't easy to get from where Washington was to where he is.

For one thing, rising above a boyhood in a tough neighborhood means, he says, "you've got to lose your friends--leave them behind. If you don't, they'll eventually let you down. What you see and what they see are totally different."

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