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Original Issue

Smoke through a keyhole

That's Joe Washington of Oklahoma—just here, now there, hit hard, still moving—a runner who Sooner fans insist is the best in the country

The door of the visitors' dressing room at the Orange Bowl flew open and Barry Switzer stomped out, a paper cup of ice rattling in his fingers, his voice rising to a howl that would make a fireman start looking for his hat. "Get me out of Miami!" Switzer yelled. That is the cry of pain one usually hears when the check is presented at one of those joints with purple lights and palm trees on the beach. What Switzer really wants is to return to Florida on New Year's Day—but for the Orange Bowl game, not for another meeting with the University of Miami. After barely beating the 35-point underdog Hurricanes 20-17 last Friday night, Switzer's Oklahoma Sooners can testify that the rumors about Miami dropping football are premature.

Inside the dressing room the Oklahoma players ambled about, pulling clothes on over rug burns and bruised bodies. Senior All-America Halfback Joe Washington tenderly probed a lump on his right forearm and glanced down at raw pink patches where skin had been scraped off his left leg. Washington had gained only 54 yards in 14 carries against Miami (a 41-yard run was nullified because of clipping). It was the second time in three games this season that Washington, who has been enthusiastically promoted as a Heisman Trophy candidate, was held to a mediocre output. But Little Joe was grinning, even breaking into song now and then, as if delighted to have run into the Hurricanes for the last time in his career.

"Those guys are always tough on us," Washington said, scrubbing at the yard-line paint that glittered like sequins on his arms. "They holler at us, cuss us, try to smash us. This is a terrible field to play on. I hate an artificial surface, anyhow, and this one [Poly-Turf] is worn out and slippery and hard to do a sharp cut on. That's no excuse, it's just a fact. But we won, and I don't see any reason why the score should affect our No. 1 ranking."

A couple of weeks ago, after Oklahoma crushed Oregon 62-7 in the Sooners' opener, Washington was not in such an amiable humor, nor was Switzer doing the call of the wild. The star halfback and the undefeated coach were in contrasting moods then, too, and the reason was clear. The Sooners had rolled for 544 yards on the ground against Oregon, but Washington had picked up only 57 of them and had been allowed to run with the ball but 12 times—hardly what he wanted in his drive for Steve Owens' Oklahoma rushing record of 3,867 yards. (Washington needed 743 when the season began.)

After the Oregon game, Washington had dressed quickly and left the stadium in a heavy funk, feeling he had been slighted. "Joe's not gonna win the Heisman Trophy playing against Oregon," said Switzer that night. "It's what he does against teams like Nebraska and Texas that counts."

Switzer described Washington as "a Houdini type of runner. He's probably the fastest man in the world for 15 yards. Then he stops and sort of shakes himself and, bam, he's off again for 15 of the fastest yards you ever saw. His style is not at all like Greg Pruitt's. You could see Pruitt ignite, see an afterburner go off in his tail, and he'd keep moving faster and faster. Darrell Royal [who failed to get the Texas-born halfback] says Washington can go through a keyhole like smoke, which is a good way to put it. Pruitt once said if he had to tackle Washington in an open field, he would give up on the first shot and hope he could grab Joe from behind."

These opinions of his ability were repeated to Joe Washington the next morning. He sat in his small room in the campus athletic dorm, Washington House (named for George, though someone has printed Joe's name on the sign). A pair of Washington's spray-and brush-painted silver and red football shoes stood on the window ledge behind him. He had just switched off his reel-to-reel stereo tape machine, and he studied the floor. Inside the black boot on his right foot were a taped ankle and a bruised toe—the ankle a mysterious injury he says he got by stepping sideways off a board on a construction job last summer, the toe an equally vague mishap that he says he played on last season. Washington seemed to think the discussions on his style of running were somehow a reflection on his speed.

"There's three people in the world know how fast I can run," he said. "I know, my father [Big Joe, head football coach at Lincoln High School in Port Arthur, Texas] knows, and Coach Wendell Mosley [once a high school coaching opponent of Big Joe, now coach of OU running backs and recruiter of Joe Washington] knows. People say I run the 40 in 4.5, or whatever they say. The time you run the 40 against the clock doesn't matter that much when you're playing a game. I've seen 5.5 tackles grab 4.4 backs from behind. Oklahoma has a tradition of good running backs. It started way before I got here, and there's been seven or eight good running backs every year I've been here. If you can't move, you won't make it here."

That is indeed true—this current group of backs may be the best Oklahoma has ever rounded up—and that makes it even more special that as a freshman Washington entered the lineup often enough to gain 630 yards. He has been a starter since he was in the ninth grade on a top-class Texas high school team coached by his father. Joe's younger brother Ken, a sophomore, is the starting quarterback for North Texas State. On the first weekend of last season Joe and Ken both made Associated Press Back of the Week—Joe against Baylor and Ken against Southern Methodist.

("We actually did Ken a favor by not recruiting him," Switzer says. "If we had needed a pure drop-back passing quarterback, I'd have gone for Ken in a minute. But Ken only weighs about 165 pounds, and our wishbone quarterbacks have to be more like running backs.")

"I would have liked to have played college football on the same team as my little brother," Washington said. "But I got to see three of his games last year, and my folks saw most of his and several of mine."

Although Joe Washington is noted as an outside runner who can become almost invisible when returning punts and kickoffs, Oklahoma coaches are not reluctant to order his 5'10", 184-pound body into the middle of the line. Against Texas last season, Washington ran the halfback counter—a simple play designed to hit over guard—15 times and got 75 of his 124-yard total out of it. Darrell Royal says, "We figure if a really good back ran that play at us 15 times he might get 30 yards, not 75. But we never knew where Washington was going. He would start toward right guard and pop up disappearing around left end."

"Sometimes I do things that surprise me when I see them on film," said Washington. "In the Kansas game last year a guy reached for me and I just took his hand and moved it away, like that wasn't a polite thing to do. But it's not usually that easy. People get mad and bite me, twist my legs, stick their fingers in my mask and try to claw my eyes." He laughed at the thought of it. "In the Baylor game I was lying on the ground and a guy walked over and kicked me. I looked up at him and couldn't believe it."

Washington admitted he had played a bit uncertainly against Oregon. Partly that was because of the rain-sloshed artificial turf (Washington says artificial turf takes much of the "boyish feeling" out of the game) and partly because Switzer holds Washington and several other regulars out of scrimmages.

"Not scrimmaging is a good way to keep from getting hurt," Washington said. "But I hadn't had any real contact since the Oklahoma State game last year, and it took me a while to settle down. I was used as a blocker on most of our first 30 plays. I like to block, but I like to run with the ball more than 12 times. I average 17 or 18 carries a game, which is a big transition from high school, where I carried it 30 or 40 times a game."

On the Oklahoma campus, Washington keeps pretty much to himself after classes and practice. "Maybe I get with one or two of my friends," he said. "I listen to music. I like everything except country and Western. But I haven't been to a single party this season. I think I went to one last season, two the season before, a few as a freshman. I don't see myself as much of a dancer. I'm not antisocial, but I like some quiet times. I can roam around the campus and nobody recognizes me. Or if they do, they don't say anything."

Washington is a public-relations major, a fairly good photographer, drives a Plymouth, rides a 10-speed bike, is a classy dresser and feels not the slightest ping of conscience at having left Texas to play football north of the Red River. "Naw, man, that would never enter my mind," he said. "I visited 25 schools before I came to Oklahoma. I came here because my father and Coach Mosley thought it was the best. I don't regret it."

True to his promise that he was not trying to keep the ball away from Washington, Switzer let Little Joe have it 23 times in Oklahoma's second game of the season. Washington responded by gaining 166 yards against Pittsburgh (60 more were called back because of penalties). So Washington felt wanted again, his attitude brightened and a week later he was able to shrug off his showing against Miami. Colorado was coming up, then Texas and, later, Missouri and Nebraska. Joe Washington will see his share of action. And chances are, glory.