Former pro-football player James Washington has done what most sports fans (and many professional athletes) can only dream of: He’s played in the Super Bowl not once, but twice.
While Washington played on the Los Angeles Rams and the Washington Redskins, he’s most famous for his role as a safety for the Dallas Cowboys from 1990 through 1994. The team won two consecutive Super Bowls during that time.
Though it took years of personal work — grueling practices, workouts and study sessions to master plays — Washington recognizes that it wasn’t only his own work that led him to success.
“I can’t tell you how important mentors are,” he tells CNBC.
Having your own personal team of people who support you is key to succeeding, whether in sports or your career, Washington says.
As a student at David Starr Jordan High School in Los Angeles, Washington was a self-described “knucklehead” who got into trouble, including a run in with the police. On the advice of his parole officer, he joined the school’s football team. His coach, Henry Washington (no relation), would become a lifelong mentor.
“He gave me all the tools off the field to be successful,” the former pro-athlete says.
Through football Washington says he learned discipline and respect.
When he would miss practice or arrive late, the coach would exclude him from activities. It taught the young athlete that he had to change his habits in order to contribute to the team the way he wanted to.
“He didn’t give up on me, but he also set boundaries.”
By Washington’s senior year of high school, it was clear he had incredible potential. Having his pick of colleges to attend, he enrolled at UCLA, where he was a key defensive back. He finished as a four-year starter, with 15 interceptions and 339 tackles.
After a noteworthy career as a college athlete, Washington was set to be a first round pick for the NFL, but a bad knee injury nearly derailed his career. He was eventually drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the fifth round. He was devastated.
“I kind of lost the desire to play,” Washington says.
Again, his support system helped him turn his life around. His girlfriend Dana Footman, who he would later marry, urged him not to give up, as did his coaches and school counselors. A number of long conversations later, the athlete made up his mind. He decided he would take the time to let his knee heal and then keep playing.
“It takes a big community,” Washington says.
Two years later, Washington joined the Cowboys as a free agent. He quickly became a star player on the team, making an interception in the first quarter of Super Bowl XXVII that led to a touchdown against the Buffalo Bills.
One year later, the man who almost gave up played in Super Bowl XXVIII, where he recorded a fumble return for a touchdown.
Today, Washington is a high school football coach at Bishop Alemany High School in Los Angeles, where he mentors several young men and tries to teach them the value of persistence and a strong work ethic.
His winning strategy is to continue trying to improve on and off the field, with the help of a strong support system.
“I had the right people in my life.”