'He Will Be the Zion Williamson of College Football'

CFB coaches have called Darnell Washington "the best-looking high school football player they've ever seen." But for this 17-year-old on the verge of his dream, football isn't just hype. It's a way out.
photo of Adam KramerAdam Kramer@kegsneggsNational College Football Lead WriterLAS VEGASMay 14, 2019

He never wanted to be the next Gronk. Darnell Washington might look the part. At 6'8" and nearly 260 pounds, the 17-year-old tight end superprospect is actually already two inches taller than Rob Gronkowski. But Gronk was never his guy.

"He's LeBron," says David Hill, an assistant football coach at Desert Pines High and Washington's mentor. "He has that athletic ability. He has that canvas." Indeed, Washington has a build seemingly constructed for the NBA, complementing his height and weight with an 85-inch wingspan—roughly the same as LeBron James. But LeBron wasn't his guy either.

He used to want to be the next Julio Jones. That is, until Washington outgrew the 6'3" Atlanta Falcons receiver, around the time he started high school.

Wearing a red sweatshirt and black Georgia Bulldogs shorts, Washington shifts his weight, trying to get comfortable on a couch inside his coach's office at Desert Pines. He seems to have outgrown most furniture, too.

All these big-name comparisons, all this hype surrounding Washington—it all used to seem like a dream, an escape.

In a world defined by lack of money and other basic resources, he can let go of everything when he plays.

Now the dream is approaching reality.

"I've told him before that he will be the Zion Williamson of college football," Hill says.

Photo courtesy of David Hill
Photo courtesy of David HillDavid Hill and Darnell Washington

That is, he can choose his own path. He's the best high school tight end prospect in a decade, he's the No. 14 overall player in the football recruiting class of 2020 (according to 247Sports' composite rankings), and he has scholarship offers from more than 40 football programs, including Alabama, Clemson, Georgia and Ohio State.

The struggles his family has endured—the evictions and myriad moves, nights sleeping on tile floors and unfamiliar couches, often on an empty stomach—aren't behind him. But the breakthrough is closer each day.

The electronic symphony of slot machines and the glare from LED billboards the size of swimming pools are absent here. From the parking lot of Desert Pines, 10 miles from the Strip, the lone reminder of Sin City is the top of the Wynn casino and hotel, barely visible over tall trees that surround the school.

Like many Vegas residents, Desert Pines head football coach Tico Rodriguez didn't expect to be here long. Originally from Miami, he traveled west with the intention of partying for one year and then returning home. Almost two decades later, he has become one of the most accomplished high school football coaches in the state.

It is not uncommon for FBS coaches to visit Desert Pines. Having been to three 3A state championships in the past five years, winning two of those games, the high school has produced its fair share of coveted football prospects. But Rodriguez has never seen anything like the interest in Washington.

"When college coaches have come in, they've told me this is the best-looking high school football player they've ever seen," Rodriguez says. "Physically, they believe he's an NBA player that happens to love and play football."

Washington's path to football stardom did not come naturally, despite his natural gifts. He didn't play organized football until the age of 11 because of the cost. Instead, his older brother, Ezekiel, who is a senior at Desert Pines and also on the football team, used to look up drills on the internet for the two to practice, oftentimes late at night.

Over time, Washington's body grew, and his abilities evolved. When he transferred from Basic Academy in Henderson, Nevada, to Desert Pines as a sophomore, Rodriguez saw his potential as a tight end at a passing camp, where he was playing slot receiver at 240 pounds.

Still, even in his junior season, he posted modest numbers—largely, his coaches say, because the team has struggled to find ways to use such a unique talent. With a new offensive coordinator heading into next fall, Rodriguez believes his tight end's numbers will skyrocket.

And interest has only blossomed.

"This type of guy is usually playing basketball," 247Sports recruiting analyst Blair Angulo says. "When you see an athlete of his caliber, with his size and his skill set on the football field, it really catches your attention. You would expect him to maybe be a little clunky or not as fluid as other players, but he moves seamlessly. I think that's what's most impressive."

While most college coaches envision him at tight end—and Washington has made it clear that this is the position he wants to play—his size has prompted many to imagine what he would look like at other positions. He also plays defensive end and had nine tackles for loss as a junior, so a handful of schools have recruited him to play defense. The possibility of beefing him up to play left tackle has also surfaced on occasion. And some have told him that he could play both ways.

"I personally think he's a tight end, because he's unusual with the ball in the air," Rodriguez says. "I watch guys like Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham, and they're hard to defend. And I see that vision of him. He's a modern-day weapon on the football field."

He can also punt, something he did for his team last year. Away from the football field, Washington was dominant for the varsity basketball team that made it to the state quarterfinals this past year after winning it all the year prior, averaging a double-double.

Washington thought about picking up golf, too, and after only 20 minutes of swinging a club was hitting the ball comfortably over 300 yards, but he ultimately decided on track instead. He threw the shot put his sophomore year and became the Class 3A state champion. He then retired.

"In one year, he won a football state championship, a basketball state championship, and he was the shot put state champion," Rodriguez says. "Think about that. That's one heck of a year."

Inside their 900-square-foot apartment, above the front door and to the left of photos of Darnell and Ezekiel, is artwork of a giant oak tree with the word "BELIEVE" etched underneath.

For Katrina Graves, the mother of Darnell and Ezekiel, the youngest of eight siblings, believing has been difficult at times.

Wiping away tears while sitting on the couch in the family room, she describes the physical pain and anxiety she deals with every day. "I am not supposed to be here," she says, recounting how a car accident a few years back left her in a coma for nearly a day and left Darnell and Ezekiel mostly on their own for three months while she recovered in a physical-rehabilitation facility.

David Hill, Katrina Graves, Darnell Washington and Ezekiel Washington
David Hill, Katrina Graves, Darnell Washington and Ezekiel WashingtonPhoto courtesy of David Hill

The apartment's kitchen, a few feet away from the family room, also serves as a makeshift trophy case. It is blanketed with ribbons, certificates, newspaper clippings and trophies that her children have won over the years. While they have moved more times than she can count, these artifacts have always come with.

Walk farther into the apartment, and you'll run into the bedroom Darnell and Ezekiel share, a room that features one bed and one mattress laid on the floor. Plastered on the wall are more trophies and items that have been mailed to Darnell from college football programs over the past few years.

Katrina has her own room but many nights ends up in here with the boys. Her anxiety can be overpowering at times, and their presence is one of the few things that comforts her.

The process of moving still isn't comfortable for Darnell, despite the frequency with which his family has done it. With each relocation came a new school. Eventually, he stopped even trying to meet new people, though now that he's finally been in the same school for multiple years, he's slowly begun opening up again to friends, teammates and coaches.

"We'd move around … never really stable," Darnell says. "We'd get kicked out of one area because we couldn't pay rent, find another apartment, get kicked out of that one, and the cycle would start again."

There was one four-month stretch when Darnell had to sleep on his sister's tiled floors—waking up most mornings with a sore back.

There was the month when Darnell and Ezekiel slept on a friend's couch while Katrina slept in her Crown Victoria parked outside.

There was the night their power was turned off and all the food in the fridge spoiled—leaving them with only noodles that they ate straight from the package.

There were the many weekends they went without eating, living off the nutrition from breakfast and lunch provided by school during the week.

But no days were harder to stomach than when both boys came home from school, wherever home might have been at that time, to a bright orange eviction notice posted on the door with the locks already changed.

When Katrina searched for new places to live, she looked for apartments that were carpeted, knowing her children would likely sleep on the floor. It wasn't until the middle of his freshman year in high school that Darnell slept in his own bed.

Talking through some of their darkest moments has not come easy for Darnell or Ezekiel, though they can manage it now as long as they're together.

"We're all we got," Ezekiel says. "We never had a father figure in our lives, so we basically helped raise each other and help each other keep it together. We've had to look out for each other.

"We had major setbacks, although that never stopped us from doing what we do. I wouldn't regret anything in our past, because I know it will help me later in life. Our family has been through it all."

Aside from Ezekiel and Katrina, no one knows Darnell as well as Hill, his coach at Desert Pines and much more than that. He is a resource. A friend. A disciplinarian. He is also Darnell's companion on all of his recruiting visits.

Like his star tight end, Hill's upbringing was turbulent. His mother had him when she was just 13 years old, and he grew up in a single-parent household. But he has shared his inspiration and motivation with Darnell often over the past few years.

"Going to college changed my life, and it's something I remind him of daily," says Hill, who played football at the University of Arizona. "You wanna get out of poverty? You want consistency? Go to college."

Early on, before Darnell grew into a 5-star tight end with offers from dozens of programs, he and Ezekiel adopted a mindset that education could change their lives. And through the many moves, whatever else has changed, this has not.

While his football career might not have the same sparkle as his younger brother's, Ezekiel sports a GPA close to 4.0. Darnell, meanwhile, has grades that will allow him to continue his educational and football careers at the college of his choosing.

"No matter what," Darnell says. "I manage to find my way to school and try to get that perfect attendance."

Hill has also encouraged Darnell to be open about his past and present. In Las Vegas and even the recruiting world, Darnell's story has started to gain some traction. And slowly but surely, he's allowed himself to open up to people far more freely than he ever did—embracing where he comes from in a way that he could never have imagined before.

"I tell him all the time, this is your story," Hill says. "Don't be ashamed of who you are. Tell your story because people are going to be motivated by it. You can change people's lives."

For the first time in a long time, Washington's life feels stable. The family recently renewed its one-year lease at the small apartment that is the closest thing they've known to a home. They plan to stay here perhaps until Darnell heads off to college.

When that happens, it will carry significance beyond earning a free education and a chance to grow his football career. Once he is embedded in his new football program, all of Washington's meals will be provided. The ritual of living on food stamps and creating larger meals that can be consumed throughout the week will give way to a luxury that some take for granted. But not him.

"To me, getting to college is a finish line," he says.

Photos of Darnell Washington and David Hill from the recruiting/jersey-swap trail.
Photos of Darnell Washington and David Hill from the recruiting/jersey-swap trail.Photos courtesy of David Hill

In recent months, Washington finally got his first cellphone, largely to navigate the deluge of recruiting interest. After visiting Alabama, Georgia, Florida and other schools in recent months, the hope is to explore the Midwest and narrow his list to a top 10 or lucky 13 sometime in June. Many high schoolers update their recruiting status on a weekly or monthly basis, but Washington has been content to take his time. He has long hoped to announce his college decision during the Under Armour All-America Game around New Year's Day, and he plans to hold off on making his decision until then.

The task of picking where he will live the next four years of his life pales in comparison to having the option to begin with. And his vision of what the next stage of his life will look like is about more than college.

"I want to go far with football," Washington says. "I don't just want to just play in the NFL. I want to find greatness in the NFL."

The potential is there, whether it's as the next Gronk, a supersized Julio or the NFL version of LeBron or Zion. "He's definitely got first-round upside," says 247's Angulo. "If he were to go to the right place, and they're able to use him correctly and all that, I have no question, I mean no doubt, that he could be a guy that gets his name called the first day."

Over the years, he has dreamed about what this moment feels like—the euphoria and relief of cementing this next chapter. The idea of putting the struggles he and his family still face a little further behind.

For the longest time, these were only dreams. But never have they felt more real.


Adam Kramer covers college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @KegsnEggs.