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BY JEFF FALK

Most Photos Courtesy of Southern Mississippi University

It’s 1,062 miles from Lebanon to Hattiesburg, Mississippi. Even farther to Dodge City, Kansas.

When it comes to getting an education, Khalique Washington has gone the distance. But you could also say that he’s come a long, long way.

Washington, a 2017 graduate of Lebanon High School, is a senior offensive lineman on the Division One Southern Mississippi football team, who’s on the downside of his college career. Yet in some ways, his life is just beginning.

To this point, it’s been a somewhat uncharted journey for Washington, one that ended up in Hattiesburg, started in Lebanon and included a key stop in Dodge City along the way.

When he departed Lebanon, Washington did so to play football, to get an education, to find himself. But the result – intentional or otherwise – was that Washington grew into an adult.

He became a man.

“I feel like I’ve really grown spiritually,” said Washington. “My relationship with God is more important. But I’ve also grown mentally, physically and emotionally. Just becoming more level-headed. As a man, you’ve got to stay even-keeled all the time.

“As a man, everything I do is for someone else,” continued Washington. “I don’t do it for me. As a football player, I will do anything to win, and to be successful in life.”

With a team-first approach, the 6-5, 339-pound Washington has found individual success on a Southern Miss squad that is currently 2-6 on the season. After appearing in 13 games for the Golden Eagles last year as a junior – eight of which were starts – Washington has played in all eight of Southern Mississippi’s games this season, evolving into one of the key members and leaders of the offensive line.

“At the beginning of the season, I really wanted to work on the little things,” said Washington. “On the Division One level, everybody can do everything. It’s about honing your skills and distinguishing yourself. We spent countless hours in the off-season on the field grinding.

“It’s been a season full of adversity,” Washington continued. “But we’ve got a bunch of resilient guys. I’ve got some great coaches, and they’re putting me in positions to do some things that are geared towards my strengths. On the offensive line, I feel like we’re playing good. The work we put in is showing.”

Washington’s maturity has manifested itself especially in his versatility and flexibility.

Last year, he worked almost exclusively at right tackle. But this season, Washington has been moved to left tackle, one of the most important positions along the offensive line.

But the way he sees it, no offensive line position is any more important than another.

“There was an opening there,” said Washington. “A great guy graduated, so I wasn’t shocked at all. I pride myself on being an offensive lineman – guard, tackle, wherever they need me.

“The biggest difference between right tackle and left tackle is the handedness of your quarterback,” added Washington. “You’ve got to be a pretty good pass blocker to be protecting the blind side of your quarterback. On the offensive line, we pride ourselves on ‘next man up’. “

Within the game of football, selflessness isn’t a luxury for an offensive lineman, it’s a requirement. Washington can derive satisfaction from opening a hole for a teammate or experiencing his protected quarterback throwing a touchdown pass.

It’s an approach that seems to fit his personality well.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” said Washington, of the under-appreciated nature of the position he plays. “It’s about growing and being a man. I’m not looking for recognition or a pat on the back. I just want to go out and win the game.

“It’s (his improvement as a football player) been leaps and bounds,” added Washington. “I can’t even bring it to words. I’ve grown as a man, and with football, you’re going to get better over time. But I feel like I’ve grown a lot.”

From the outside looking in, Washington was somewhat of a gentle giant growing up in Lebanon, laid back and fun-loving. He also competed in track and field for the Cedars, and at one time preferred basketball over football.

But somewhere between Lebanon, Pennsylvania and Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Washington became much more serious.

“It started off in Lebanon with Coach (Gerry) Yonchiuk and Coach (Bob) Norman,” said Washington, who competed in the prestigious Big 33 all-star football game as a senior. “They got me an (junior college) opportunity in Dodge City, where I was fortunate enough to work with another great coaching staff. Nothing I do is me. It’s always someone helping me. It helped me grow as a man. It helped me become a good football player and an even better man.

“It wasn’t my decision. It was called upon me,” Washington added. “I love Coach Norman very much. He was able to see my potential as a big guy who could play college football. He kind of almost forced me to play. And here we are.”

While hindsight may be 20-20, it’s difficult to imagine things working out much better for Washington. Through hard work, responsibility and persistence, he’s enjoyed a solid college football career, and become the man he was destined to be.

“That’s tough to say,” said Washington, when asked to evaluate the type of career he’s enjoyed to this point. “I let other people talk about things like that. I focus on the most important game, and that’s the next one.

“I always say that everything happens for a reason,” continued Washington. “Whether that’s through the intervention of a higher being or something I can’t see. But I’d say it’s turned out pretty good.”

Right now, Washington is focused on the present and the Golden Eagles’ four remaining games this season. The future is something that will only require his consideration at the beginning of next year or in May.

“My goal for the rest of the season is to win,” said Washington. “That’s it. By any means. I don’t care if it’s by my play or someone else’s play. We want to finish the season strong.”

When it comes to continuing his football playing career, Washington’s only desire is a shot, an opportunity. But completing his degree in criminal justice and corrections will provide him with a solid back-up plan.

“I’d love to get a shot at the NFL,” said Washington. “Any opportunity in the NFL would be my first priority. You can only play football for so long, and I want to play as long as I can. But you’ve always got to have a plan ‘B’. I want to get into the work force. I’ve made a lot of good connections in Lebanon, at Southern Miss and at Dodge City.

“I feel like everyone has something to work on – football IQ, strength, speed,” Washington continued. “I just need an opportunity. I’ll just do whatever I need to do with it.”

Because when the journey’s been long, a few more steps doesn’t seem too far to go.

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