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How Oklahoma St. WR James Washington forged competitive edge through tennis

Oklahoma State receiver James Washington says he's out to show everyone he can compete -- at most any sport. AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

STILLWATER, Okla. -- Initially, Oklahoma State wasn't completely sold on recruiting James Washington.

His tape showed him dominating the competition. But the competition was Division 1A, Texas high school football's smallest classification.

Cowboys wide receiver coach Kasey Dunn watched him unleash NBA highlight-level dunks for Stamford High's basketball team. Yet that didn't prove Washington could make the jump to the Big 12.

But then Oklahoma State discovered that, on top of also being a track star, Washington played tennis.

Played it well, too.

The Cowboys needed no more convincing.

"He was at a small school, so nobody was really recruiting him," coach Mike Gundy said. "But we thought, this guy really is a big-time athlete."

A few years ago, Oklahoma State uncovered a big-time athlete flying under the recruiting radar in Justin Blackmon, who went on to break every major receiving record in Stillwater. The Cowboys have unearthed another hidden gem in Washington, who, after starting as a true freshman last season, has already emerged as one of the Big 12's top wideouts.

"He's got a really high vertical, he's one of the fastest guys on the team and he's really smart," said senior cornerback Kevin Peterson, who goes head-to-head against Washington in practice. "Anytime you put all three of those in a receiver --

it's deadly."

Washington has been deadly catching passes from the moment he joined the team. Despite making the monumental jump from tiny Stamford -- a town of about 3,000 tucked between Lubbock and Fort Worth -- Washington led the Pokes last season with six touchdown catches.

"He's got great hands, his football IQ is tremendous," said quarterback Mason Rudolph. "He sees things that I'll see as a quarterback."

Washington didn't specialize in football until he arrived on campus. Far from it, in fact.

"But one sport carried into the next," Washington said. "When I played tennis, it helped me with my agility. Track got me faster. Basketball helped my jumping ability and timing. It all worked into one."

All of them also honed Washington's competitive drive. No sport more than tennis.

"That's how he became a very good tennis player," said Ronnie Casey, his high school tennis coach. "He's so competitive. He hates to lose."

Washington's tennis career began his freshman year. The tennis team got to travel. And his mom had been a pretty good tennis player in her day.

Early on, Washington wasn't good. But failing only made him want to practice more.

"I remember times that first year I'd hit [the ball] over the fence in a match," Washington said. "People would be watching, it would be embarrassing. But being embarrassed gave me the drive to get better and better at it."

Washington would go to the courts after track practice, often not getting home until dark. Sometimes he should stay on the court well after the team had left to work on getting the right amount of spin on his kick serve.

"Once he tried [tennis], he liked it," said his mother, Chrysta Washington. "But once he started getting the spike down, he loved it."

Eventually, all that practice paid off. His junior year, Washington and his doubles partner made the regional final. His senior year, he made state -- even if he would be quickly eliminated by the uptick in competition.

"That was the craziest thing ever," said Washington, who won state track titles in the 200 meters and triple jump the same week. "I saw the other guys warming up, and I [told my doubles partner], 'Man, we're gonna need to pull something crazy out.'"

By that point, though, Washington was gearing up to head to Stillwater. Despite leading Stamford to back-to-back state football titles, Washington's only other scholarship offer until the month before signing day was from Texas State. Other Big 12 schools tried to get in on Washington late. But he wasn't going to abandon the school that believed in him first.

"I came here with a chip on my shoulder," Washington said. "Coming from a small school, I wanted to show everyone I could compete with them."

Washington has been more than just that. Last season he took over in the starting lineup by October before notching his first 100-yard receiving game at Baylor in Rudolph's debut start.

"You see similarities out there with Blackmon," Gundy said. "He's explosive, competitive, great practice player. Blackmon was that way.

"James will go get the deep ball, he has the ability to accelerate and run through the ball. Some kids don't have that and never get it. He's in a different class when it comes to that."

Washington going up and getting the deep ball simply comes down to "who wants it more." Something he picked up from his small town, everywhere from the gridiron on over to the tennis courts.