|It should come as no surprise that Dante Washington has flourished since returning to Columbus, Ohio, one of the smallest and friendliest stops on the Major League Soccer circuit.
The soccer star also flourished at Radford University, a place he describes in similar terms to his new Columbus home. A 1992 graduate, the Radford Hall of Fame charter member is carving a niche as the Highlanders’ most successful professional athlete. He finished sixth in the league in scoring with 15 goals and earned his second All-Star berth this year. Playing in front of the hometown fans in Columbus in July, Washington registered a goal and an assist for the victorious East squad in the MLS All-Star game.
“It was unbelievable,” said Washington. “To be injured the last two seasons and come back this season, it was something I really wanted to do. A lot of people asked why Columbus would trade for me. People thought I was old, washed up and injury prone.”
Old at 29 is just one of the pitfalls of professional sports. Another is injuries, the kind that make a young athlete sound like a geriatric running down a shopping list of aches and pains.
Washington injured a knee in 1999, and missed six weeks in 1998 with a sprained ankle. He’s undergoing surgery this fall for bone spurs in his big toe but the way critics made it sound, they fully expected the “aged” Washington to fall and break a hip this season.
Instead he broke goalkeepers’ spirits.
Washington led The Crew and was ninth in the league with 1.38 points per game, and he was second on his team with nine assists. Nothing new for the high-scoring Washington, who was happy to land back with the Columbus Crew, his original MLS team in 1996, after the Dallas Burn traded him on draft day.
“I actually wanted to be traded but they had told me there wasn’t much chance,” said Washington, who had seen his playing time dwindle in Dallas because of injuries and personnel issues. “Then I get to Dallas this year and they tell me they’re trading me. Columbus was the second city where I wanted to go.”
Washington, D.C. was Washington’s first choice but only because it’s a metro stop or two from his hometown of Columbia, Md., where his mother and his brother still live. Washington jokes that Columbus is “only six-and-a-half hours” from Columbia, so he can see the family more often and they can see him in action more, too.
“Six-and-a-half hours is nothing for a person who has driven from Dallas to Maryland and Maryland back to Dallas four or five times,” explained Washington.
It was at Columbia’s Oakland Mills High School where Dante first became acquainted with Radford University and vice versa. Don Staley, then the Highlander soccer coach, became convinced Washington was just the player to take the Radford soccer program to new heights.
Staley was right.
In his freshman season in 1988, Washington led the nation in scoring with 27 goals and 22 assists, and the Highlanders captured their first Big South Conference soccer crown. After coming back from a broken ankle, he again led the nation in scoring as a redshirt sophomore in 1990, tallying 23 goals and 18 assists.
Washington finished his career with school record totals of 82 goals and an NCAA record of 66 assists. He twice earned All-America honors, landed a spot on the 1992 U.S. Olympic Team, and he has played all over the world with the U.S. National Team.
Maybe even more remarkably, Washington posted a 4.0 grade point average in the spring of 1992, while touring with the Olympic team. He did his class work mostly by fax, and went on to earn Academic All-America honors in the fall of 1992.
“One of the things I most remember about Radford is the way the professors worked with me,” he said. “They were understanding that I was going to miss classes for soccer but as long as I put forth the effort to get the notes and do the work, they would help me along.”
A political science major, Washington said he was particularly grateful to Sidney Pearson and Nicholas Pappas in that department. “I had the most contact with them in my major,” he said. “My Spanish teacher, though, Senora (Leonor) Ulloa had a big influence on me, too. To this day, I’m still speaking Spanish. I’ve learned a lot more but those three semesters with her were very intensive and very valuable for me.”
Washington values his entire Radford experience though there were times he wondered what would have happened had he gone to a bigger school or a better-known soccer powerhouse. He recalls conversations with Staley, now a soccer coach at the University of Alabama, where the coach said he would support Dante even if the star player decided to transfer.
“That was the attitude at Radford,” Washington said. “Coach always told me he wanted what was best for me. If I had transferred to a bigger school, maybe I would have just been another number.”
“Now I look back and the Radford days are a huge part of who I am now. I had such a great time and since I’ve graduated it seems like all my friends from school are off and doing well. I’ve got friends in coaching (Stephen Barber ’92, at Radford, and Chris Hawkins ’92, at SUNY-Buffalo), a friend on Wall Street with Smith-Barney (Brian Robinson ’93) and a friend running his own computer consulting and networking company (Sean Peay ’91). Doesn’t that say something about Radford?”
So does a graduate like Dante Washington winning fans with his dynamic athletic ability and warm, natural interpersonal skills. Washington hopes to parlay those talents into a post-playing career in broadcasting. He has a leg-up on rivals after interning with NBC at the 1996 Summer Olympics.
“Broadcasting is one option but I’m not ready to retire yet,” he said. “I still want to win an MLS title, and I wanted to win the scoring title this year. I came close. But there are still things I can do to improve.”
That’s the attitude that made Washington an All-American on and off the field at Radford and that make him an all-star today in professional soccer and in life.