Dwayne Haskins’s legacy extended beyond his football career

Dwayne Haskins’s smile was one of the first things that came to mind on the day he died. There was something inviting about the way happiness spread across his face, filling his cheeks and lighting his eyes. The smile was real. It was gentle, inviting, at times almost playful.

And it showed the innocence of a young man trying hard to find himself in the unforgiving, zero-sum world of professional football. It’s always sad when bright, talented people die in their early 20s, but Haskins’s death in the middle of a Fort Lauderdale, Fla., freeway seems especially cruel because it was such an abrupt and brutal end to a life that held so much promise and appeared to be heading in the right direction.

Haskins’s biography is packed with more chapters than that of nearly anyone else just weeks short of turning 25. It’s a complicated and often confusing story, told most vividly in numbers — both with his jaw-dropping touchdown totals at Ohio State and the disappointing statistical line from his short time with Washington. But his legacy is not a quarterback rating, and his memory is bigger than a football career. He was warm, he was sweet, and there always seemed a hope that he was about to find his vast potential.

Death of Dwayne Haskins ‘just devastating’ to former teammates and coaches

Those who knew Haskins best — both after his move as a teenager from New Jersey to Maryland’s Montgomery County, where he attended Bullis School, and later at Ohio State — have always described someone gifted with a brilliant mind as well as the ability to throw a football as hard and as far as he wanted. One told a story of a throwing contest with several top quarterbacks his age in which Haskins sprawled on the side of the practice field as each of the passers struggled to hit the intended target before at last rising to his feet, picking up the ball and nailing the target with his first heave.

They said he was a quick learner. They said he was a natural. They said he was special. And yet it hadn’t worked out in the NFL, and no one seemed to have a good reason as to why.

The easy explanation is that Haskins never should have gone to Washington with the 15th pick in 2019. It was too close to home; he needed to get away from where he grew up. Complicating things is that several people familiar with the team’s pre-draft deliberations said owner Daniel Snyder forced team executives to pick Haskins over the objections of coaches and then-president Bruce Allen. It meant Haskins had to begin his career playing for a coaching staff that didn’t want him.

The best young quarterbacks are supported well by their teams, but the dysfunction in Washington, with two coaching changes in two years, did little to help him. And yet, with Haskins there also was something else, something deeper, something everyone struggled to put into words and led to his release late in a 2020 season that was going to be the one in which he established himself as a starter.

While Haskins did not play well in Washington, he was anything but a bad person. He committed no crimes. He was never rude. He appeared to be trying. Sometimes it appeared he was trying too hard. After news of his death broke, some pointed to the fact that he was training with his Pittsburgh Steelers teammates in Florida as evidence that he was making a commitment to football, but he always had worked with teammates in the offseason. He worked hard with trainers. Those familiar with his practice habits away from NFL facilities say he studied the plays.

His biggest problem seemed to be that he was still looking to figure out who he was, a kid at 21 and 22 who was more unsure of himself and didn’t always know how to act. One friend described him as “an awkward prep school kid” who didn’t have the same background as most of his teammates. He worked hard to fit in. It struck many who knew him that he was playing the role of what an NFL quarterback should be rather than doing so naturally. The coaches who came off the most angry about him were fixated on what he wasn’t rather than trying to figure out whom he could someday become.

Dwayne Haskins, former Washington quarterback, dies at 24

Haskins certainly made his mistakes in the NFL. He kept blowing chances by breaking team rules after inviting family members to the team hotel in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic and partying after a game in violation of the league’s pandemic protocols. At the end of his time in Washington he looked lost, playing worse than he did at the start.

But the football portrayal of Haskins never matched that of the man. The kindness described in tributes about him was genuine. He did interviews even when he didn’t have time to do them. When people asked him for things, he tried to help. Friends described him as a “pleaser.” He appeared to be trying to make everyone happy, which is hard to do when you’re young and famous and wealthy and still learning who you are.

His death is as perplexing as his football life. How could he be running across an interstate at 6:30 a.m.? He was smart and gifted, and when he smiled he made others around him happy as well. He had a future. He had hope. The past year spent with the Steelers was supposed to be a reclamation. He had a fresh start.

Instead, there will be a funeral, a casket, a grave with a tombstone marking a brilliant life ended too soon. It makes no sense. He was still at the beginning, a kid becoming a man. And in the hours after Dwayne Haskins died at 24, that was the saddest thing of all.

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