To understand Southern Cal freshman running back Delon Washington, you must know something about his older brother Benny, the fourth of five Washington brothers and an individual enthralled by football. When Benny was 11, he bruised his nose playing football and was disappointed that he hadn't broken it, the way his hero, the diminutive Mel Gray, had done as a St. Louis Cardinal. Topping out at 5'5" in high school, Benny wasn't big enough to fulfill his football dreams, which included a college scholarship and an NFL career. But he saw in his baby brother, who was nine years younger, the size that he himself lacked. Benny would say, "God sent Delon's body for me."
So, once Delon started sixth grade, Benny became his teacher, coach, publicist and haberdasher. He taught Delon how to explode out of his stance, how to run with the ball—"You can't run clumsy," Benny would say—and how to keep cool and focused under stadium lights. He picked out Delon's clothes. And as often as Benny's job as a telemarketer allowed, he attended Delon's practices at Kimball High in Dallas. "Benny just took over," says their mother, Delores. "He fussed over Delon like a coach who got paid to do it."
"Think of me as your agent." Benny would tell Delon.
Delon, however, thought of Benny as his oracle. By the end of his senior season at Kimball High, Delon had accomplished much of what Benny had predicted for him. He had rushed for 5,450 yards and scored 55 touchdowns. He owned a handful of All-America honors and was one of the most-sought-after running backs in the country.
On Jan. 27 Delon was on the brink of making a college commitment, having weighed the merits of Colorado, USC and Michigan. He told Benny he was leaning toward USC, the school Benny had dreamed of attending and hoped Delon would choose. Benny couldn't wait to orchestrate the press conference. He never got the chance. Soon after he spoke with Delon, Benny and another brother, Roy, stopped at a car wash in Dallas to make an oil change. While Benny was holding up the hood of his car, someone drove up and shot him. Benny died instantly. The alleged gunman, whose trial is to begin on Oct. 10, apparently was angry with Benny over a woman Benny had once dated.
Just hours alter the shooting, Delon called USC to say that he would be joining the Trojans. "Benny's death has been very hard, but it really committed me," says Delon, who has also lost an uncle, three cousins and three friends in shooting incidents. "He was my main motivator."
Touched by more tragedy than most people his age, Delon seems older than his 18 years, an illusion that is enhanced by his beard, a straw hat he wears to keep cool and his preference for the sweet soulfulness of R&B over the harsh thump of rap. "People always tell me, 'Man, you look old, you listen to old music,' " says Delon, an admitted homebody who says he goes to a party once "in a blue moon."
Yet a few things betray his youth: the retainer he wears in his mouth, the beeper he carries so his mom can contact him, his knack for slipping around defenders with a lithe flick of his hips. "Delon has an ability to glide," says one USC coach. "When he runs, it looks as if everyone else is cautiously picking his way across ice and he's the only one on skates."
Delon hopes to slide by defenses this fall wearing number 29, in honor of Benny's birthday, Aug. 29. "Benny had lots of dreams for me and made predictions that came true," says Delon. "He also said I'd win the Heisman, get a degree, play in the NFL. It's up to me to accomplish those things."