A tough road to travel

All Darnell Washington wanted to do was get away from it all for a few minutes as he waited to get the phone call during the second night of the NFL Draft.

The wait was getting a bit frustrating for the Georgia tight end, sitting there for hours watching names be announced on the television as he waited for his turn, and he needed an escape.

But it wasn't happening.

"I couldn't go anywhere because I was mic'd up for TV," said Washington. "I wanted to go play basketball and get my mind off the draft. I couldn't get away. Just sitting there, hearing other players' names get called and not mine, it is hard.

"It's a lot more waiting than I planned on. I thought I should have gone sooner. It all worked out. I have a plan now and I am just going to follow it."

That plan came courtesy of the Steelers, who selected him with their third-round pick, the 93rd overall pick. Getting the call from Coach Mike Tomlin made the wait worthwhile.

"When I got the call from Pittsburgh, it excited me," said Washington. "Two of my former Bulldogs are there with George Pickens and Broderick Jones getting drafted too. Those two guys are the funniest people. To have that again is always a plus. It's always a plus to see familiar faces in the locker room.

"And for it to be Coach Tomlin on the phone, it still didn't hit me yet. It's crazy. I am not an emotional dude, so I didn't cry or anything like that. But it was a dream come true. I know everybody says that, but that is the simplest way to put it. A dream come true.

"All the hard work we all did in college, the five a.m. workouts, the six a.m. workouts. It's starting to pay off. The journey has just begun. Now it's time to work."

Washington's excitement to come to Pittsburgh wasn't just because of having friends in the locker room, but also just the first impression he got when he made a Top 30 draft visit to the Steelers. Everything he saw on the first visit resonated with him and made Pittsburgh the perfect landing spot.

"I was thinking of how good the people are here," said Washington. "I had good conversations with the strength and conditioning people. The tight ends coach, Alfredo (Roberts), he is a great tight end coach and there is a good tight end group here. I bumped into Pat (Freiermuth) when I was there for my visit. We hit it off right away. We also hit it off when I met him at Penn State when I was coming out of high school. So, it all unfolds the way it should. It's a small world. I never knew I would have a chance to play with Pat and now we can build off each other and make each other better."

Washington is looking forward to bringing his game to Pittsburgh, and at 6-7, 270 pounds, and described by offensive coordinator Matt Canada as a 'huge human being,' he can be a real threat in the passing game and as a blocker.

"When I put it all together, I can be a mismatch," said Washington. "I can be anywhere on the field, whether that's running routes or if that's blocking. I need to put it all together. Once I do that, I will be a complete tight end. I am not complete yet. It takes time. Being with Coach Alfredo and working on our game will make it happen.

"I enjoy blocking. I enjoy every aspect of the game. Blocking, running routes, I have done it all. Back in my days I used to play left tackle and I blocked a whole season. I have played receiver. I have played running back. I have done it all on the field. I enjoy every aspect of the game.

"It means the world to get the opportunity to be at this level now. I am just trying to prove everybody that passed on me wrong and that is what I plan on doing."

Proving people wrong is something Washington has mastered.

He isn't someone who had an easy life. Nothing was handed to him. Quite the opposite.

His home situation was filled with ups and downs from the time he was only three years old, when he ended up in foster care for multiple years, going from home to home during his young life.

"It was when I was very young," recalled Washington, who doesn't have memories of what led to the situation. "I am not sure why it happened, what the situation was. I went into foster care around age three or four all the way up to third grade when I was about eight or nine years old.

"The time when I was in foster care, I was able to bounce around homes with one of my brothers, my older brother Ezekiel, who is now in the Marines. I have seven siblings, and they were in different homes, I guess. My brother and I just stuck together. It's hard to have all eight together."

After he left foster care he went to live with his mother, but it wasn't easy.

"There were times during my life when we were homeless, where I didn't have anywhere to go," shared Washington. "The most recent one was my freshman year in high school. Our best friend let us stay with them, then the school year ended, and they were moving. My mom threw all of our stuff in a U-Haul, and we went to the Walmart parking lot, and we were there for days and things like that until we were able to get a room at a motel. Not a hotel, a motel.

"From there we found some type of apartment that was lower end. I ended up getting a job, it was my sophomore or junior year of high school. I worked at Kohls and did that along with school and sports. I did that to help keep us stable. I did that throughout that year of high school until we were able to get help."

Along with homelessness, which happened on multiple occasions including when Washington was playing youth football, came hunger. Without the means to even have a real roof over their head, food was a luxury. School meals were the main source of food, but that could only sustain a growing boy for so long.

"School lunch would only last with you for so long," recalled Washington. "We would get fed at noon in elementary and middle school and football practice would run from 6-8 p.m. I would be hungry going to practice.

"In high school practice would start at 3 p.m. I would deal with the hunger easier at that point. To this day people will say to me, you need to eat something, or you are going to throw up and get sick. But that is how I grew up and my body is used to it. I can do a full workout without eating if I have to. It's not what I want to do. But if I don't get a chance to eat, it's fine but not ideal for me."

Times certainly have changed for Washington. He doesn't have to worry about where his next meal is going to come from, or if he is going to have a roof over his head. And he doesn't take it for granted, knowing if he does things the right way, he has a path to provide for his own family moving forward.

"It's a blessing," said Washington. "At the end of the day, it's a blessing and more motivation for me to stay in this league as long as possible. My goal is to be in this league for double digit number of years. I don't know what God has in store for me, but I am going to work for it as long as possible."

Motivation is something that doesn't lack for Washington. He is mature beyond his 21 years having dealt with what he has in life. He also grew up fast when he had his first daughter, who is now four years old. He never let his challenges stand in the way of his dream to play in the NFL and isn't about to let anything stop him now.

"Dealing with what I did, at first it was something I had to adapt to," said Washington. "I feel like that is where the maturity level comes in. I feel like I am a mature human being. In high school you don't always plan on having to get a job and having to worry about where the next meal is coming from. At that time, I had my first daughter. I was mature in everything I did. I am mature for my age. It's something I had to adjust to.

"Without everything I went through, I don't know if I would still be the same mature man I am today. I experienced it and it motivates me more to continue on the right path and do everything right and to the best of my ability.

"I am getting to do what I always wanted to. Football was always my dream. It might have been on an empty stomach. I might not have had the proper equipment. I always made it work. I always went to football practice. I never let anything stop me."

Steelers' rookies take the field for rookie minicamp