The star of HBO’s ‘Ballers’ and Spike Lee’s ‘BlacKkKlansman,’ former Morehouse star running back and NFL player does things his way
John David Washington’s master plan was not football. Football was the escape. He fell in love with acting when he was 5 years old. He was watching his father pace as he was running through lines from Richard III for a Shakespeare in the Parkperformance. “When we were walking the streets,” said Washington, 34, “sometimes he would recite his lines. … I loved the language … loved those words.” And he loved the man who was bringing those words to life.
His father is celebrated actor Denzel Washington, and the elder Washington had collected his first Oscar win earlier that year for his performance as Pvt. Silas Trip in 1989’s Glory, the story of one of the first all-black military units of what became known as the U.S. Colored Troops of the Union Army — minus the officers, of course. “I knew then,” said Washington, “that I wanted to do it.” And in case you’re wondering? Washington still knows every line of Glory, his all-time favorite film.
Washington is the eldest of Denzel and Pauletta Washington’s four children. His parents met in 1977 while on the set of Denzel Washington’s first television role as Wilma Rudolph’s high school sweetheart in 1977’s Wilma. Pauletta Pearson portrayed champion sprinter Mae Faggs. The couple got married 35 years ago and are easily one of Hollywood’s most beloved pairings, well-known for their performances and for their outstanding humanitarian efforts.
“My mom was a tremendous artist as well before she got with my father,” said Washington, “and she [told] her stories … all the sacrifices she had to make. She used to sit down and just play piano. All the classical numbers … without even needing to read the score!”
But as much as he loved narratives, and music, Washington moved away from it. And instead of fine arts, he found football. Football was a move away from his famous lineage. No one would compare him to his father on the football field. Denzel Washington’s stint as a college athlete is rarely talked about — the Oscar-winning actor played two years for Fordham’s basketball team before deciding that he was a player and not, well, a player. But his son was a baller. At Morehouse. And good at it. And on the field, no one would be able to say he got there because of nepotism.
Plus, football was therapy. “I was able to express a lot of my frustrations,” he said. “My anxieties, my resentment [about] how I was treated or looked at, because of who I was related to. I hated the word nepotism. … I knew that if I did well on the field, they can’t say that my father did it. In a way, I just got into character, deep character, in football.”
He loved the sport. He did. But he loved what the sport gave him, more so than what he gave to it. “Because of my father’s ascension, and what was happening after Malcolm X, our life was changing. … People started treating us differently … and it could have gone a negative way … a whole other elitist brat way. I didn’t believe in that, because of my upbringing and my family. … They wouldn’t have that. ‘Where can I put this stuff?’ I put it in football,” he said. “And then I … started getting success on the field, and I saw how I was being treated. As an individual. And that I was like a drug. I needed hit after hit. I needed that validation of independence.”
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