Reporting David Elfin
When Bruce Allen became the Redskins’ general manager in December 2009, Washington’s roster included three players who had grown up in the area: guard Edwin Williams and cornerback Byron Westbrook (both DeMatha) and running back Marcus Mason (Georgetown Prep).
That trio represented about a fifth of the small number of homegrown players – headed by cornerback Shawn Springs (Springbrook) and receiver Leslie Shepherd (Forestville) — who wore the burgundy and gold during the franchise’s first 73 seasons in the nation’s capital.
But as the Redskins head into their preseason home opener, a whopping nine of their 90 players are from the Washington area with seven – receiver Josh Morgan, running backs Tim Hightower and Evan Royster, center Will Montgomery, cornerback Josh Wilson and safeties Tanard Jackson and Madieu Williams — likely to make the final 53-man roster. The others are rookie free agent running back Antwon Bailey (St. John’s) and first-year cornerback Travon Bellamy (Eleanor Roosevelt).
“It’s great that we have so many guys who understand what the Redskins mean to this community and I think it’s great for the community,” said the 26-year-old Hightower, who was acquired in a trade with Arizona last August. “But I don’t think they brought any of us here because we’re from the area. This is a business. They brought us here because we can play football.”
However, Allen, who attended Langley High School from 1971-74 while his late father George was the Redskins’ coach and general manager, said it’s no accident that so much homegrown talent now resides in the locker room.
“When you interview a player, whether it’s in free agency or prior to the draft, you try to get a feel for him,” Allen said in an exclusive interview for this column. “If you can feel his enthusiasm for the Redskins and the area, you lean towards that person. We’re evaluating the talent and the teammate we’re going put in the locker room. We’re proud to have London Fletcher as our captain and we want to surround him with people that want to be in our locker room.”
That’s not every NFL player. While almost everyone wants to play for the perpetual winners like New England and Pittsburgh, Washington made the playoffs in just three of the past 19 seasons and is only 17-39 since mid-season 2008.
“When you talk to Josh Morgan, you feel the love and the commitment that he has, not only to the Redskins, but to the city,” Allen said.
Indeed, Morgan likes to note that he’s the only of the current eight players from the area who’s actually from the District.
“I grew up three blocks from RFK Stadium,” said the 27-year-old Morgan, who signed as a free agent from San Francisco in March. “We could hear the stadium from my house. I wasn’t allowed to watch the games until I got my homework done, but I looked at the games like they were my second homework. Everyone’s excited about having me back home, playing for the Redskins.”
Wilson, 27, who signed with Washington as a free agent from Baltimore last July, is the consensus leader in the trash-talking that goes on about whose high school/neighborhood is better.
“DeMatha rules, but I’m six degrees of separation from so many guys,” Wilson said with a grin. “I played with Tim at DeMatha (before Hightower transferred to Episcopal). Tanard and I knew each other since high school. My very first play at Maryland, Madieu got an interception (that bounced) off my guy. He still owes me for that one.”
Wilson maintained that he’s the best homegrown Redskin, but Montgomery noted that he’s the only who predates Allen’s arrival.
“They’re all great ballplayers who just happen to be local,” said the 29-year-old Centreville High grad, whose alma mater lost to Royster’s (Westfield) last fall, prompting the latter to suggest they might attend this year’s rematch together.
“Northern Virginia is producing more top athletes all the time,” said the 24-year-old Royster, whom the Redskins chose in the sixth round of the 2011 draft. “I have to give Will crap every now and then. I’m gonna try to hype it up a little bit this year.”
That won’t happen between the safeties since the 27-year-old Jackson’s school (Bullis) and the 31-year-old Williams’ alma mater (DuVal) don’t face each other. However, both offseason signees are glad to be home.
“It’s definitely a good feeling to come back home and play in front of your friends and family,” said Williams, who was with the 49ers in 2011. “More important, it’s a privilege and honor to wear the burgundy and gold. I remember my first game at RFK. The stadium was rocking and I’m thinking it’s going to be an earthquake. But we’re looking to build our own memories at FedEx Field this upcoming season.”
Jackson and Morgan were AAU basketball teammates as teenagers. The former appeared at the latter’s football camp this summer.
“A lot of the young guys are familiar with our names because we’re from this area and that’s a great opportunity to give back to the community,” said Jackson, who was suspended for 20 games over the past three seasons in Tampa Bay after failing multiple drug tests. “I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself, but it is a great opportunity to redeem my career and play in my hometown.”
The latter is also true for all of Jackson’s homegrown teammates.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin