STAMFORD, Texas — James Washington didn’t want to just run. He wanted to race.
The bus ride home from elementary school created an itch. The boy who played any sport available in Stamford could hardly sit still. As he hurried off the bus, a small park separated him from his mother, Chrysta, waiting on the porch.
“Mr. Bill,” Washington yelled to the bus driver, “I bet I can beat you to my house.”
The bus took off, and so did Washington. He sprinted past the four swings, the slide and the basketball court. At the edge of a grass field, a chain-link fence not much shorter than Washington stood in his way.
Chrysta realized the boy’s plot.
“Boy, don’t you dare jump that fence,” she yelled.
Washington didn’t hesitate. He wanted to win the race.
Chrysta shielded her eyes as her son’s foot left the ground. The image of the same foot catching the fence looped in her mind.
But she heard no smack of skin on dirt. She heard no cries of pain. She heard only the bus driving off to deliver the next child.
Her hand dropped from her face. Her jaw followed.
There stood Washington on the porch, with a smile as wide as Texas.
“I beat him, Mama,” he said.
The son Chrysta never believed she would have had hurdled the fence.
It was the leap that would someday turn him into the best Oklahoma State receiver since Justin Blackmon. The same jump that would make a town of 3,000 briefly forget its declining population and follow its football on Fridays with more on Saturdays. The same rise that convinced a collection of Stamford Bulldogs they wanted to be like James Washington.
Washington’s greatness was predicted before his birth, Chrysta said, but she never imagined her child would become Stamford’s brightest son.
A future unknown
On the border of Jones and Haskell counties, two water towers jut from the same plot of land, Bulldog blue paints the streets like a cloudless summer sky, and strangers receive a smile and a welcome before a glare. This town of 3,000 marks the origins of the best receiver in the Big 12.
It was in Stamford, 45 minutes north of Abilene, three hours west of Dallas and five hours southwest of Stillwater, that Washington began to etch his legend.
The town has not had an NFL player in almost 50 years. Bob Harrison played linebacker for the 49ers, Eagles and Steelers from 1959-1967 after a college career at Oklahoma. He spent his life in Stamford. He died in February at 78.
When Washington was in fifth grade, Harrison approached Chrysta. He had seen the boy jumping around, his energy flowing freely and a smile sprawling his face.
“Chrysta, if you keep your hands on him,” Harrison told her, “that kid’s gonna be something.”
Washington enters 2016 as the Big 12’s top receiver. His mother and sister put off college and never went. By going to OSU, Washington snapped a family curse. He can end Stamford’s NFL drought, too. He is a symbol of hope for people in desperate need of it.
Johnny Anders, the town’s mayor, has lived in Stamford for all of his 66 years. Those spent with Washington stand out.
“Honestly, James has probably got more talent than I’ve ever seen in one person in my life,” Anders said.
He might never see another fight for that title, at least not in Stamford.
Buildings marked "antiques" not only reflect what were once sold inside, but also what the structures themselves have become. Wood, brick and glass litters the ground nearby instead of serving as ingredients of the pieces once valued indoors. The town is old. The town is dying.
In 2005, Anders helped introduce “Reclaiming Stamford,” a program designed to reinvigorate the community. Like most rural small towns in West Texas, Stamford’s youth has left for the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Houston and Austin. They leave for an education, for work, for opportunities their parents never had.
“We send them off, and they don’t come back,” Anders said. “Small towns, 5,000 people down, they’re dying. Everywhere.”
Stamford’s population has dropped by more than 800 since 1990 and more than 600 since 2000. It saw a dip of 100 from 2011 to 2014.
Anders’ grandfather founded Anders Paint & Body in 1923. His father later ran the business until his death in 1994, when Anders took over. For 93 years, it has been a Stamford staple.
He prays it makes it to 100.
In meditation, Sharon Kerrington saw what her nephew was to become.
She saw his talent. She saw how he would bring her family overwhelming pride. She saw miles of success.
That nephew, though, did not exist.
Kerrington called her sister to tell of her vision.
“You will have a son,” she told Chrysta. “This son will be of you.”
The message sent Chrysta into a haze. It had been almost 16 years since she and her husband, James, had their daughter, Tenisha. About eight years later, the couple tried to adopt another child, but their efforts fell through.
Chrysta believed she was incapable of having another child.
When Kerrington spoke of a biological child, Chrysta was shocked. She figured her vision was meant for another woman. The sisters didn’t speak for three months.
“I didn’t want to have nothing to do with her,” Chrysta said. “It had to be somebody else she was talking about. Not me.”
Chrysta continued to disbelieve. Kerrington was prepared for what was coming. When Chrysta called her, Kerrington knew the reason.
Chrysta, in her early 40s, was pregnant.
“You will have a son,” Kerrington said, repeating her earlier premonition. “But you must name him James. That means ‘sent one.’ He’s sent from God.”
When that son was born, Chrysta followed her sister’s instructions. Kerrington promised greatness.
“Just watch the signs of how he will be doing things that a normal baby can’t do,” Kerrington said.
Within his infancy, Washington again proved her correct. Gates in doorways were pointless as the boy climbed over them, surprisingly tugging at Chrysta’s dress in the kitchen. On many occasions, Chrysta found Washington on the tops of cabinets and working his way up dressers. He wrapped his toes around the structures’ nooks as his curiosity soared to their peaks.
“Everything’s more exciting up high,” Chrysta said.
The success that followed was foreseen. Kerrington saw it before Washington’s birth. Harrison saw it in his youth. His coaches saw it on the football field.
“They always told me, ‘You just don’t know how good you are,’” Washington said. “I kind of feel like I’m beginning to see.”
The first time Bo Wimberly saw Washington play football, he couldn’t contain his laughter.
With the temperature above 100 degrees and rising, Washington headed out to the Stamford grass in a turtleneck and leggings.
He had an allergy to grass, he told Wimberly, and had to avoid getting it on his skin.
It was on those grass fields, though, that Wimberly and Washington strengthened a friendship that continues with phone calls every Saturday.
Wimberly was Washington’s quarterback from seventh through ninth grade before spending two years with him as a receiver, the latter ending in a state championship. As seniors, with Wimberly back at quarterback and Washington at receiver, they reunited to guide Stamford to a second straight title in 2013.
A banner marking the championships still hung on Stamford’s city hall this summer.
Wimberly and Washington had no time to get in trouble, their schedules occupied with playing sports or running around. In Stamford, there was little else to do.
On the field, Wimberly never saw anyone outwork Washington. He would make his best effort, though.
“I could chase the best,” Wimberly said.
Before their senior year, Wimberly’s father, Gary, died. Gary took the boys on hunting trips and was their taekwondo instructor. Washington had to quit because his head hit the ceiling whenever he did a jumpkick.
Washington was the one friend Gary let Wimberly stay out late with.
“If I told him I was with James, I wouldn’t get in trouble,” Wimberly said. “He was there at the hospital when my dad died. My dad used to call James his son.”
Wimberly spent a year playing football at Mary Hardin-Baylor before quitting to focus on his criminal justice degree and work. At his house, he keeps OSU’s schedule at the top of the stairs. He marks whether the Cowboys won and how many touchdowns Washington had.
He tries to call Washington after every game. Wimberly generally avoids talking about football, knowing Washington hears enough about that already.
Wimberly wants to ensure Washington is ready for life beyond football. The on-the-field tasks don’t need to be worried about.
“I have big plans for him, playing on Sundays,” Wimberly said. “I have no doubt about that.”
Pigeons and plight
More cows than signs flank the roads into Stamford. More pigeons than people patrol its streets.
The birds rule the marquee of the Grand Theatre, which is grand only in title. A restoration project is underway to try to reopen the theater in spring 2017, but on a summer day, a pigeon trapped in the ticket booth bangs against the glass.
Even it does not want inside.
Cowpokes, a restaurant where Washington worked and even bussed the table OSU receivers coach Kasey Dunn sat at while recruiting him, is closed, reduced to a red shed.
“It kinda hurts your heart sometimes,” Washington said. “Businesses being in a small town, in general, it’s kind of hard for them to stay open ’cause they can’t make the money that they want.”
Washington’s rise to Division I sent waves of hope through the community, especially in the town’s children.
With that hope came a greater desire to leave.
“There’s kind of a catch-22 there,” said Jeremy West, Stamford’s offensive coordinator.
The people of Stamford aren’t trying to stop bettering their children. They will continue sending them off, hoping their children’s futures will be brighter than the town’s.
Washington considers a future in Stamford. An agribusiness major with an option in farm and ranch management, he plans to pursue a farming career, depending on whether he finds success in the NFL.
He doesn’t mind coming back to Stamford. He’ll look around Austin, too.
Others, like Wimberly, aren’t coming back for work. The industry they want isn’t there.
“I love my town,” Wimberly said. “I kind of want to go off and create my own family maybe somewhere else. I wouldn’t mind going back, maybe when I want to retire.”
Wimberly isn’t the only one with that mindset. Stamford’s median age is in the mid-40s. For Texas as a whole, it’s about 30.
Stamford used to have great appeal. Chrysta and James Washington Sr. said it’s still a great place to raise a family. Children can ride their bikes without fear. There are few distractions, little opportunities for children to get in trouble.
Oil fields and farming, Stamford’s economic roots, were strong job industries once. They represented reasons to live in Stamford.
“But as it is now,” Chrysta said, “there’s not much.”
Sitting in their living room, Chrysta and James Sr. labored to think of something their son struggled with.
“He had that algebra class,” James Sr. said, leaning forward in his comforter. “But he picked that up pretty quick.”
Washington hurried other students in school, craving the next lesson. He loved playing catcher in baseball, where he was always involved despite the rising dust burning his asthmatic lungs. As an 8-year-old goalie, he ferociously kicked a soccer ball the length of the field and into the goal on the other end.
Come high school, he was the best football player because he was the best practice player. He played defensive back and returned kicks. He was the place kicker.
His freshman year, Stamford got a new basketball gym, an investment into the town’s youth. While playing in a junior varsity game, Washington christened the gym with a dunk.
He was moved to varsity the next week.
To this day, Wayne Hutchinson, Washington’s football coach, can rattle off his track numbers.
A 200-meter dash of 21.4 seconds. A triple jump of 46-feet-10-inches. Back-to-back 800-meter relay state titles.
“You don’t forget times a kid like that can run,” Hutchinson said. “They don’t come around at small schools like that very often.”
Despite no experience, he became one of Stamford’s best tennis players.
“I think the only thing he didn’t letter in was tiddlywinks,” said Anders, the mayor. “And we didn’t go to state in that.”
Washington, with greater dreams of the NBA than the NFL, had as much of a basketball reel as a football one.
Both lacked quality.
That didn’t stop Dunn, OSU’s receivers coach, from seeing the athleticism and taking a chance on a kid from a 1A school.
“For every James Washington,” West said, “there’s probably nine small-school guys that don’t pan out.”
As a 6-foot post, Washington’s future in basketball was questionable. Dunn and the Cowboys are better off because of it.
West and other Bulldog coaches fed Dunn information about Washington, each review more positive than the previous.
“He made his mark truly with what he did and not what he said he was going to do,” Dunn said. “There’s no flash about the kid at all. You talk about people having swag and all. He had zero swag. I mean, none. His swag was definitely after the snap of the ball.”
When the Washingtons first trekked to Stillwater, the family got lost in Oklahoma City. Dunn told them they still had another hour to go, and when they arrived, Chrysta was wide-eyed. Washington, though, felt at home, Stillwater’s small-town feel reminiscent of Stamford.
“Stamford’s just how Stillwater is in the summer,” Washington said. “No one really knows where it’s at. It’s quiet.
“Not much really going on besides football games.”
Both towns come alive under the lights.
Flags in the wind
Friday nights, Bulldog blue flags hanging in town square drift in the wind. It is the only noticeable movement. This part of Stamford is a temporary ghost town.
By 5 p.m., businesses are closed. That includes The Stamford Star, one of the town’s weekly newspapers, its front window painted with a bulldog and eight blue paw prints, the supposedly unbiased realm of journalism unable to escape the shadow of Friday night football. Meanwhile, at the cafeteria shared between the middle and high schools, a weekly fundraising dinner is ongoing for a local civic club.
Soon, the Bulldogs will take the field at Bill Anderson Stadium. The stands are packed.
For Stamford, that is always the case, home or road. This is their getaway, where people can come to forget about their town’s descent. Under the gleam of Friday night lights, Stamford’s future appears as bright as any.
Chrysta and James Sr. are among those in the crowd. They are not the only ones there without a child to root for. They go to the games because that is what they did before Washington was on the field. They continue to do so after.
They are peppered with questions about what they’re doing there. OSU plays the next day. Everyone wants to know about Washington.
“I’m trying to support my Dogs first,” Chrysta says. “Then I’m going up for them Cowboys.”
They do not attend every OSU game. They pass on the opportunity to allow other family to see Washington. Plus, Chrysta prefers the view from home, where she can sit instead of stand and watch with food she made herself.
She is not alone. Stamford’s TV sets comfortably switch to Cowboy games. The town is best known as the site of the Texas Cowboy Reunion, an annual rodeo and festival. But the boy who shied from the spotlight became Stamford’s brightest star.
“Before James started playin’ college, nobody watched college football,” James Sr. said. “But everybody here now is sittin’ watching college football.
“A lot of them saying James bringing this little town on the map.”
‘See who you can touch’
When Washington returns to Stamford, most people in town start making appointments.
Meals are fought over. People beg for his free time.
But Washington wants to lie in bed or go hunting.
Chrysta and James Sr. know how popular their son is. They ask for only an hour. It is often spent with Chrysta looking at him, saying little, only admiring.
"He's just an amazing kid," James Sr. said, echoing himself from minutes before, his son a shining star in his mind and his town.
Washington visits the Stamford football team, instructing them on the importance of lifting and teaching them about OSU weight routines.
He goes to the basketball court in the same park he used to race through, and in minutes, a swarm of children surrounds him, begging to play.
The small town’s children are inspired to do what Washington has done. He paved the path.
His parents emphasize a simple message: “Try to see who you can touch.”
It’s Washington’s way of giving back to Stamford.
“I feel like I owe who I am to Stamford,” Washington said, “because they made me the guy I am today.”
Ronnie Casey was among Washington’s biggest influencers. An assistant coach when Washington played, Casey took over for Hutchinson as football coach and athletic director when the latter left for Monterey High School, a 5A school in Lubbock, after Washington’s senior year. Casey was also Washington’s basketball coach, tennis coach and anatomy teacher.
He runs the town’s pool, too.
“I’m very proud of him; I know the town of Stamford is,” Casey said. “He knows that God’s blessed him, and he’s very humble about it.
“He’s just a blessing to our whole community.”
Washington is still climbing.
A season ago, he scored 10 touchdowns while averaging 20.5 yards per reception. Another year of an OSU offense headed by quarterback Mason Rudolph and Washington could lead to more prolific results.
Although Washington is gone from Stamford, he carries the town with him. He has a buck head mounted above his bed in Stillwater. He shot the deer back home the day before he flew to Arizona for the Cactus Bowl in 2014.
Every time he looks up at the deer, he remembers that day, and he remembers Stamford.
And Stamford remembers him.
“What you see is what you get with James,” said West, Stamford’s offensive coordinator. “It’s not an act. He acts that way every day. He did it when he was in middle school. He did it when he was in high school, before he ever caught a touchdown pass. That’s the kind of kid James Washington is, and 10 years from now, he’s still gonna be that same guy.
“He was a role model for our guys even before he left.”
Washington is the mold of how parents want their Bulldog to be. But the days for another Washington to rise from Stamford are numbered. While Stamford’s future dims, Washington’s becomes brighter.
Kerrington offered another prediction.
“The best is yet to come,” she said. “Eyes have not seen nor ears heard what the Lord is about to do in James Washington Jr.’s life.”
The people of Stamford, as their children leave, their businesses close and their town slowly dies, will watch.
And what they see won’t surprise them.
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