The injury that set everything in motion started with a violent pop. To demonstrate the noise, John David Washington juts his two front teeth toward his iPad and balances the screen with one hand. He scrapes the bottom of his teeth with the nail of his thumb. Fliiiiick.
I’ve spent the past week talking with a dozen or so of the actor’s family members, friends, and colleagues. Under normal circumstances, I would spend many hours with Washington, over the course of days, soaking up as much as possible about this thirty-five-year-old who’s gone from NFL running-back hopeful to the world’s next great action star in just seven years. Because we’re both stuck inside weeks into the COVID-19 quarantine, we talk over Zoom. And I didn’t think I could tell the complete story of a man after just a couple video chats, so I reached out to everyone I could to help me understand him. But no one has told me this story yet. The story of the tendon.
It was 2013, and he was training outside L.A., getting ready for a workout with the New York Giants. After two years on the practice team for the St. Louis Rams and a stint in Germany with the NFL European league during the off-season, he was in the U. S. doing explosion drills when he felt that pop. He looked down to see something resembling a worm wriggling beneath the thin skin of his calf.
He knew it was his Achilles. And he knew his football days were over.
He’d worked so hard, through so many injuries, and now he was terrified about what would come next. As a kid, he’d harbored dreams of acting, and despite his dogged pursuit of a football career, the idea of becoming an actor was always in the background. It was a constant push and pull. Now that he could no longer play professionally, there was nothing stopping him.
“A part of me felt like it got shot and killed, it got assassinated. All of that was fear based, of not knowing if what I thought was my destiny, if I’m even worthy enough to claim it,” he says. “It was time to go up onstage.”
Those early years in a career are raw and painful and embarrassing and thrilling and magical as we begin to figure out what we’re good at. We fail and falter, and then, if we’re lucky, we start to succeed. But if you’re going into the family business, the success comes with second-guessing and constant comparisons—there’s an imaginary bar set before you even get started. Most of us would run like hell to avoid the shadow of our parents—and most of us don’t have Denzel Washington as a father. Or Pauletta Washington, actress, singer, and pianist, as our mom.