From the NFL to Hollywood, Washington goes for glory

'BlacKkKlansman' star John David Washington never saw himself following in his father's footsteps, until he started doing it

Adam Graham
The Detroit News

If it was up to him, John David Washington would be chasing Super Bowl rings, not Oscar trophies. 

But since his NFL dreams didn't pan out, Washington will have to settle for big-screen stardom, beginning with his starring role in Spike Lee's "BlacKkKlansman." 

John David Washington attends the premiere of "BlacKkKlansman"  at Samuel Goldwyn Theater on Wednesday in Beverly Hills, California.


Washington, son of two-time Oscar winner Denzel Washington, had a clear reason for pursuing gridiron glory. 

"My whole life I was trying to be independent of my name, my family and my father's name, and (the NFL) was the pinnacle," says Washington, in town last week to promote the film. 

"But, you know," he says with resignation, "it never quite happened." 

He came close. Washington, the oldest of four siblings, grew up in Los Angeles idolizing Randall Cunningham and Barry Sanders. He was a star running back at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he set the school's all-time rushing record, and after college he signed with the NFL's St. Louis Rams.

But after spending two years on the team's practice squad, working with special teams on the third-string unit, his dreams came crashing to a sudden halt. 

"I was playing well, and I thought they were going to bump me up," says Washington, who turned 34 last month. "And they brought in a running back one night, and the next day I show up to the locker room and another running back is there. He's dressed, and I was deactivated. That broke my heart." 

That's the business, says Washington, whose enunciation and mannerisms carry a distinct Denzel-ian flavor.   

He went on to play for four years in the United Football League before the league suddenly folded in 2012. He tried earning his way back into the NFL, but he was sidelined by injury.

"It was everything to me, and I felt like I never really made it," Washington says.  

At age 30, he faced a crossroads. He was encouraged to go the acting route by family friend and Hollywood power agent Andrew Finkelstein, who told him he needed to get used to the audition process and the sting of Hollywood rejection. (An 8-year-old Washington earned his first screen credit with a one-line role in Spike Lee's "Malcolm X," which starred his father.) 

Washington went after a role on the HBO series "Ballers" in which he'd play, you guessed it, a football player. After 10 auditions, he landed the role of hotheaded wide receiver Ricky Jerret and became the breakout star of the show, which kicks off its fourth season on Sunday.

When he received a text message from Spike Lee last year, Washington was in disbelief. He rang the director, who sent him a copy of "Black Klansman," the true story of a black officer with the Colorado Springs police department who infiltrated the Ku Klux Klan. Lee wanted Washington for the lead role. 

"I go crazy over it, and he says, 'OK, I'll see you this summer,' " Washington says. "That's how I got the job." 

Washington has several more roles in the can; he plays cops in Reinaldo Marcus Green's "Monsters and Men" and David Lowery's "The Old Man & the Gun," both due out next month. 

He's still a massive football fan, but says his Sundays are now filled with "prayers and pizza."

While he's no longer playing football, the lessons he learned on the field — preparation, discipline, consistency — follow through to his acting career. 

"Like the great Barry Sanders would do, sometimes you've got to ad-lib, go against the grain," he says. "He was the ultimate cutback artist. That's what you've gotta do in acting, too.

"Sometimes when the magic is happening, and you're suspended in that reality of the scene, you go with it," he says. "And that might mean you have to break left, cut back in the scene, but that's where you're supposed to go with it. That's the best way to get the touchdown."

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John David Washington in "BlacKkKlansman."


Rated R for language throughout, including racial epithets, and for disturbing/violent material and some sexual references

Running time: 135 minutes