STAMFORD, Texas — His jersey hangs on the wall inside the Kinney-Underwood Funeral Home, just off Ferguson Street. It is all white, although the collar shows signs of wear. The No. 28 is a vibrant orange, and the Allstate Sugar Bowl patch on the left shoulder almost seems to pulsate behind the protective glass. James Washington's signature on the right shoulder brings it all together.
It's an unusual place for a college football jersey to be on display, inside a room generally associated with death and grieving. But here in Stamford, Texas—a town of 3,000 or so people, a town of great pride and spirit—it feels somehow appropriate. In many ways, this jersey—his jersey—stands for something more.
James Washington isn't just here. His presence is felt everywhere you go. To this town, he is more than Oklahoma State's star wide receiver—the latest in its long line of gifted pass-catchers—and the best deep threat in college football. He is a living legacy.
He has put his town on the map without demanding attention. Unlike so many who play wide receiver, Washington doesn't make his many moments about himself. Unlike his idol, former Oklahoma State great Dez Bryant, Washington's flash comes solely from his play. He is a break from the classic "diva" mold—a player who has managed to grab the spotlight without asking for it.
"Let it come to you," Washington says. "And if and when it comes, then share it with the people around you. Never draw attention to yourself. When you do that, you show your character."
For Washington, it has never been about him. And it never will be either. Not in Stamford or at Oklahoma State or in the NFL, where he is ranked by some as the top receiver and projected to be a high draft pick next spring.
As he approaches the twilight of his college career—one that has seen him surpass his idol in terms of receptions, receiving yards and now touchdowns—the son of Stamford is bringing those who made this possible along for the ride.
When he speaks, his voice is quiet and measured. His answers are short and reserved—yet still thoughtful and honest. The conversation, whenever possible, turns away from the player himself.
When he plays, he is a violent ballerina. His body control is extraordinary, and he couples it with a 39-inch vertical jump and a 40-yard dash around 4.4 seconds. Although he is only 6'0", he gives off the impression that he is so much larger.
His former high school coaches still joke at just how long his legs are compared to the rest of his body, and they aren't wrong. They marvel at the fact that the 170-pound athlete they coached is now a 220-pound machine.
He wears No. 28, which takes some getting used to on a wide receiver. But like everything else, it just seems to fit him. He isn't the NFL prototype—this is for certain—and yet he is precisely what an NFL team needs.
"I was here with Rashaun Woods, and he was a great player," Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy says of Washington. "Dez Bryant was a great player. Justin Blackmon was a great player. We've had Josh Stewart and others. And Washington is in this category. They each have their own gift, and James' ability to catch the deep ball and score is unbelievable. His talent level is there with those guys who have been first-round picks."
By the age of 12, Washington knew he wanted to play like Dez Bryant. It was the Sundays after church, eating barbeque on his couch in front of the TV, watching his favorite wideout throw his body around without an ounce of concern of where or how it would land. He knew that's what he wanted to do.
In some ways, this is one of the few moments when a team sport is individualized: when a wideout and a defensive back fight over one football. Once the ball is released, nothing else matters. Both teams and millions of eyeballs tuned in wait to see what happens next.
"I know on the 50-50 balls, the ones that decide games, that there's a good chance he's going to come down with it," Oklahoma State quarterback Mason Rudolph says. "If I put it anywhere close to where it's supposed to be, I have faith that he'll do the rest."
While Washington wins many of these moments, they end when the play ends. He hands the ball to the official and moves on.
He doesn't sulk when other wideouts are getting more receptions. He is the same player and person, no matter the situation.
"I can't stress how enjoyable it is to coach a kid like this," Gundy says. "He doesn't worry about what is being said about him. He just goes out and loves Oklahoma State."
As a junior last season, Washington finished with 1,380 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns. Many assumed he would dart to the NFL after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons. But rather declare for the 2017 draft, Washington returned to Oklahoma State for his senior year.
To outsiders, this came as a shock: someone willing to pass up millions of guaranteed dollars to come back to college. But to Washington and those around him, this was more of a formality.
"I wanted to be the first in my family to get a college degree," Washington says. "It's a promise I made to my mom a long time ago, back when I was in middle school. It really wasn't hard to come back. This is something I wanted to do."
The town of Stamford is essentially made up of four one-way streets, each a few hundred feet in length. These pathways create a square through the downtown. As soon as you enter, you're already on your way out. If you catch the town's top stoplights just right, you can be in and out in less than 30 seconds.
Many of the buildings are weathered and unoccupied—something that has become far more common over the past 10 years, according to those who still call this place home. Cowpokes Country Store, the restaurant where Washington waited tables his senior year of high school and his favorite place to eat, was one of many businesses that have since shut their doors.
But still, there is charm here amid the emptiness. And beyond charm, this is a town that celebrates its existence and its people.
"If you want to settle down and enjoy life, it's a good place to be," Washington says. "The hole-in-the-wall cafes have amazing food. It's picture-perfect. I wouldn't trade anything about it."
What's left are a handful of small businesses hanging on, a Dollar General and the Cowboy Country Museum that has documented the town's history through photos and artifacts.
Although he is still just a senior in college, Washington has his own exhibit inside the museum that explores his connection with Stamford. There are photos of him playing football and running track. There are photos of him as a young boy riding a dog like a horse. His life has been captured here.
One of headline from a laminated newspaper clipping
s reads, The Stamford Star: James Washington, the brightest son…
Each resident has their own favorite Washington story, but no one has more than Chico Underwood, the owner of the Kinney-Underwood Funeral Home, near the town's entrance.
"Most of the times you're burying a friend, but I wouldn't want to do anything else," Underwood says from his leather chair inside his office. "I mean this from the bottom of my heart, if everybody in the world worked for free, I would want to be the funeral director in Stamford, Texas."
The jersey that hangs near the entrance was a Christmas gift. Not far from where he sits, Underwood has an old pair of Washington's blue track shoes from high school—a keepsake from his former employee. The bottom of the right shoe has a gash in the sole and a story to go with it. Every object in here has a story to be told, especially if it involves Washington.
Growing up, Washington cut grass and swept sidewalks for Underwood, who also had other business around town. "Great hands," Underwood says of Washington. "And honest hands."
When Washington graduated from Stamford High, Underwood and his wife, Rochie, attended every Oklahoma State home game in Stillwater—a drive of more than five hours each way. When Washington's roommate left prior to this current semester, Underwood offered to take his room so he and his wife would have a place to stay during home games. They are now technically roommates.
After home games, Washington returns to his apartment where a feast usually awaits. Underwood often mans the grill, while his wife makes potato casserole, Washington's favorite.
"I tell him all the time about these two words: healthy and humble," Underwood says. "If you can stay both, they will want you on their team. James is a good athlete and football player, but he's a better person."
After catching six passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns in the team's opener against Tulsa, Washington didn't go out to a bar, where his game would be celebrated on a grander scale. Instead, he stayed up past 2 in the morning in his apartment, playing board games with the Underwoods and his roommates.
A water pipe burst early in the morning, shutting down much of Stamford on this damp Friday in October. School has been canceled. Even the gas station's bathrooms are out of order. Inside Ronnie Casey's office, however, sitting just off Stamford High School in a red brick building, Casey is hard at work five hours before kickoff.
The head coach of Stamford's varsity football team adds another name to a whiteboard that is now seven names too long—a list of injuries his team has dealt with this season, the latest being a dislocated elbow. With only 28 varsity football players on the current roster, every injury is noteworthy.
Casey is by no means new to this exercise. He's coached football, basketball, baseball and tennis at Stamford. He coached Washington in all of these sports as the head coach or an assistant.
Washington's first love was basketball. He was the first player to dunk in Stamford's new gymnasium—caught in a photo widely displayed in homes and business around town.
When he stopped growing, though, he gravitated toward football. He played wide receiver and defensive back. He was on the punt team and was the punt returner and field-goal kicker. While he managed in every position, wide receiver was where he shone brightest.
"He can go after the long ball better than anybody I've ever seen," former Stamford head football coach Wayne Hutchinson says. "If there was a jump ball, he was going to come down with it."
Despite Washington's production during his junior and senior seasons, his recruitment was mild. He attended camps around Texas and tried to get noticed, but it rarely happened.
When Oklahoma State showed interest, Washington, then a Texas State commit, paid a visit to Stillwater. While it was larger than Stamford, it had the same small-town feel. When he committed, others eventually looked him over.
Oklahoma, TCU and Texas Tech checked in, although Washington was comfortable in his decision. And in truth, he loved the idea of following in his idol's footsteps.
Even when he left Stamford, Washington didn't go far. He makes it a point to check in with his former coaches and current players when he comes home, which he does as often as he can. He shares his stories with players in the weight room or around town, helping the next batch of athletes and students grow.
"The majority of our elementary, junior high and high school kids here watch everything he does," Casey says. "What he eats, what he writes, what he says and what he does on the football field. He's their leader.
"You see a lot of kids get egotistical with fame and lose track of where they come from. He's never been like that, and a lot has to do with how he was raised."
They have gathered to share stories about Washington, inside a modest home in the shadow of the Stamford water tower.
There is James Washington Sr., who says little over the course of an hour, sitting in the family room closest to the door. He smiles and nods and listens as others talk about his son, although his presence is felt.
Recently retired, Washington Sr. was a farmer. It was here on the ranch that his son fell in love with the outdoors. It was here that he learned how to hunt and ride horses.
While most promising young football players dream of one day being able to buy a home or a nice car with an NFL salary, Washington has another vision. He wants to fly to New Zealand to hunt trophy red stag—an animal that's fascinated him since childhood.
Back home, he wants to open up a ranch—a place to ride horses and hunt and explore the outdoors. While he lives out his dream of playing in the NFL, his hope is that his father will run it for him.
"I've talked to a few people about it, and I've been to a few just to see how they operate it," Washington says. "That is something I've wanted to do for a while. I fell in love with it at an early age."
There is Chrysta Washington, Washington's mother, who still works in the school cafeteria. Like her husband, Chrysta carries a presence inside the room without saying much, a gift that has been passed on to Washington.
Chrysta, who played tennis for much of her life, decided her son would play the sport, too, when he was a freshman in high school and the school's team needed players.
While No. 1 wideouts are not typically recognized for their ability to serve and volley, Washington, with his mom's tutelage, made regionals as a junior and the state tournament as a senior in doubles.
Even as football started to take off, Washington tried to play as many sports as he could. "We told him that if he got into something, he wasn't going to quit," Chrysta says. "You finish what you start."
There is Tenisha, Washington's older sister, who was once the next great athlete to come from Stamford—a basketball star with WNBA aspirations. Now, Tenisha gets her competitive kicks vicariously through her brother.
"I call him my champ," Tenisha says. "He can go anywhere he wants to go. I see myself in him."
There are Washington's older cousins, Rich Johnson, Teretta Downs and Titania McGee, all of whom still look at J.J.—their nickname for Washington—the exact same way they did growing up.
They talk about the many photos James took as child while on successful sports teams and the fact that he never stood in front despite always being the star. In many ways, this was where he was more comfortable.
They talk about the time he still spends at the church and with the elderly, bringing them Christmas gifts when he gets a few moments away from his football life.
"He doesn't like making a big deal out of it," Titania says. "But it's something he's always done."
And finally, there is Washington's younger cousin, Eurtis Downs, who is a freshman at Cisco College, not far from their Stamford home.
Eurtis doesn't play football. He is in the band and studying to become an athletic trainer. Although he has taken a different path than his cousin to this point, Eurtis has tried to model himself after Washington in every way imaginable.
"He's influenced so many people here," Eurtis says. "You hear people talk about legends—the next Michael Jordan and the next LeBron James. The people here want to be the next James Washington. He left a spark in this town. It's because of him I work so hard at everything I do."
It takes less than four minutes for Washington to score a touchdown the following day—a 14-yard connection from Rudolph on a quick pass over the middle, a throw the two have practiced thousands of times over the last four years. Washington lifts his body off the ground, briefly embraces his teammates and jogs off the field.
Playing in Lubbock, Texas, just 150 miles west of Washington's hometown, a few dozen Stamford residents have made the drive to watch Oklahoma State play Texas Tech. While the majority of the stadium wears all black to celebrate the night game, a small contingent of Stamford blue manages to stand out in Jones AT&T Stadium.
Washington finishes the night with nine catches for 127 yards—his fourth 100-yard receiving performance in the first five weeks. One week after passing Bryant in touchdown receptions (granted, in his 42nd game to Bryant's 28), he separates further as Oklahoma State slips past Texas Tech 41-34, keeping its College Football Playoff and Big 12 championship aspirations alive.
Once the game ends, Washington waits outside the locker room. He wears an all-black Oklahoma State tracksuit. Black headphones dangle around his neck. After answering questions for five minutes, he walks up the tunnel toward the bus.
When asked about the local support, he doesn't hold back. "I don't know how many were here, but it means the world to me."
As he walks up the tunnel toward the team bus, a sea of blue greets him. Family and friends applaud and yell for their star. Although many of these people weren't Oklahoma State fans four years ago, things are different now.
His mother and his father wait their turns, encouraging their son to spend as much time as possible with the many more who have made the trip. His cousin Titania takes in the whole scene—the joy of this small-town gathering far away from home.
"I'm just so proud of that boy," she says, wiping away tears.
For the next 10 minutes, Washington is swarmed with love. He is embraced by people who loved him long before he was a star—who will love him no matter what happens next.
A police officer eventually comes to grab Washington, meaning it is time to go. He has a plane to catch and is the last one to board the team bus. As he steps inside, he waves one last time to a group that suddenly feels much larger than it's ever been.
Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.