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DeAndre Washington owes his NFL future to a torn ACL

Washington credits a knee injury during his freshman year at Texas Tech for instilling the kind of mentality that could make him the next great late round NFL running back.

NCAA Football: Texas Bowl-Louisiana State vs Texas Tech Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

DeAndre Washington is undersized but powerful. Confident but humble. He could have let a torn ACL derail his career but worked hard as hell to maximize his potential and rush for nearly 2,600 yards in his last two seasons in an Air Raid offense. Texas Tech hadn't had a 1,000-yard rusher in 16 years when Washington did it in 2014.

Washington says he works harder than anyone. But how do you know?

"I think the biggest deal is, is the work you do when nobody's watching," Washington says. "It's kind of easy to work hard when everybody's watching you, when there's a coach behind you or somebody with you. I think it's the work that goes on in the dark that goes unnoticed that really shines through the light once the season comes around."

Washington is on the verge of being repaid for his efforts. He may slip to the later rounds over concerns about his frame, but he is certain to land on a roster somewhere, putting him in the familiar position of having to fight for notice and reps. The day he suits up for his first NFL game will be a long-coming realization. As a high school kid, he worked as a vendor, shuffling up and down the aisles during Texans games selling popcorn or sno-cones, looking down at the action on the field whenever he could. On Sundays, he'll be stealing glances towards the stands.

Thinking ahead

Washington is an easy player to root for. Unfortunately, he is still subject to the same cruel and indiscriminate forces that govern football. The average length of an NFL career is always declining. In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that running backs last just 2.5 years in the NFL on average, which is the second-shortest amount of time for any position except for wide receivers at 2.25 years. More now than at perhaps any other time in history, it behooves rookies to enter the NFL with an exit strategy. Washington is no exception.

"It's crazy you asked," Washington said. "I was just talking to one of my buddies about it last night. The life span of an NFL player, especially a running back, is very short. Like I said, any given moment it could be your last play. So I'm always thinking about what I would like to do when it's all said and done. So, it's definitely something I ponder about a lot."

What exactly his plans are, Washington won't quite say. His primary goals are football-focused: Improve his draft stock, survive training camp and play. The discussion of Life After stays within his tight circle, but he has asked the question. His buddy has come out the other side and told Washington what it's like. That's good.

"He played football pretty much his whole life. Due to unfortunate circumstances, he's no longer able to play any more," Washington said. "He's working now, so he was kind of just telling me it's different once he had to hang those cleats up.

"We grew up with each as kids, so talking about some things that we wanted to do when it was all said and done, a few years down the road. It's definitely something that we think about a lot, but as far as right now I'm definitely trying to make the most of this opportunity."

"The business will take care of itself"

Washington would hardly be the first running back to thrive after being made a late-round pick. Lately, it seems late rounders have been almost as successful as first rounders, from Karlos Williams last season, to Zac Stacy and Andre Ellington in 2013, to Alfred Morris in 2012.

Conversely, Michael Smith and Edwin Baker were in Morris' class, too, and we may never see the former seventh-rounders play again. Both sat on free agency last season.

To Washington, success is only a matter of will.

"You've got to figure out how far do you want to take it," Washington said. "I think it's kind of a mind set-type of deal. I'm determined to be the best running back for whichever team gives me the opportunity."

Washington will soon learn how far his mind set can take him. He will have a harder time standing out in an even more talented pool of players, many of whom made it to the NFL with the same spit and determination that made Washington one of the greatest rushers in Texas Tech history. In other words, he'll be running up against other DeAndre Washingtons -- even more people with exceptional work ethic now trying to somehow trump themselves.

Washington is in the dark, which is a place where has comfortably operated in the past. He has a strong support system to survive the lows. If his career hits rough patches, well, he's been through those -- he tore his ACL late in a breakout freshman season and says he allowed himself to feel down for one day before throwing himself at rehabilitation with the same effort as if he was playing. It's the same effort he says he brings to draft prep, though there are no games yet.

Coming to light may mean finding a way to somehow outwork himself, which seems inconceivable from an outside perspective. Lots of words have been written and said about Washington over the last five years, and almost all of them concern his attitude and work ethic. Late last year, he told Red Raider Sports that he was glad he tore his ACL.

"It definitely helped build me mentally," he said. "The injury happened, and I wouldn’t change it for nothing. If I could go back and do it, I wouldn’t redo it at all."

Washington may be one of the few people in the world who can see that with a straight face, the rare breed for whom hard work isn't a means to a reward, but a reward in itself. In his world, there is no such thing as wasted effort. If you try, all things turn out for the better, even if you have to resort to Plan B sooner than you'd like.

"You really don't have time to kind of feel bad for yourself," he said. "At the end of the day, if you do what you're supposed to do, on the field and off the field, the business will take care of itself."