NORMAN — There was a point in Oklahoma's football game against Texas Tech when senior defensive end R.J. Washington was just gassed. He could barely catch his breath before the defense was back on the field.
Washington took a quick, tired glance at senior defensive tackle Jamarkus McFarland, who began to shout encouragement at him.
“This is why you play. Right here. This is for your family. This is for your uncle.”
Washington nodded his head twice. This one was for his great-uncle Kelly, for the man who died from cancer three days before Oklahoma's game in Lubbock. This one was for the man who meant so much to Washington that for the first time around his defensive line, instead of smiling, he cried.
Kelly R. Marzett was a Bearden, OK, native who received a Purple Heart for his service in the Vietnam War. He was a star baseball while stationed in Europe and remained a country boy at heart as a steer wrestler. He died Oct. 3.
Washington missed practices during OU-Texas week to attend his great uncle's funeral, where he remembered just how country his family is and just how much his uncle meant to him.
“I wish I could be 10 percent the man he was,” Washington said of his great uncle who was a horse lover and known as a gifted cook.
Marzett left a lasting legacy upon those whose lives he touched.
That legacy impacted the Oklahoma football team more than two weeks ago in ways only the Sooners defensive line knew. But then the nation saw it.
Around the locker room, Washington, a Fort Worth native, is known as the storyteller, the pep talker, the player who loves to joke with media. Defensive tackle Casey Walker said Washington is also known as the guy who will give somebody who is struggling a word of encouragement.
Walker has seen it, experienced it. Earlier this season, Walker took time off due to personal reasons. During that time, Washington and the rest of the defensive line stopped at Walker's house a couple times for support.
“That's my blood brother,” Walker said. “Having them put their arms around you. That's what you need.”
When Washington walked into the Friday meeting before the team left for Lubbock, he was hurting. He found out Thursday night, after a bad practice, that his Uncle Kelly had died. During the Friday meeting, defensive ends coach Bobby Jack Wright was yelling about the practice the night before.
“Not now,” Washington said. “He looked at me and said, ‘What did you say?' I said, ‘Please not now.' And he said, ‘Get out of this meeting.'
“I walked out of the room, and I lost it. I broke down in the hallway.”
Walker said as far as Washington's sense of emotions, he's seen him angry many times. But sad? That was the first time.
“I put my arm around him and helped him as much as I could,” Walker said. “I tried to give him the same encouragement he gave me.”
Then he told him to focus on the game. Maybe it would help.
Defensive coordinator Mike Stoops called the last two games — against Texas Tech then Texas — the best football Washington's played at Oklahoma. Cornerback Aaron Colvin saw Washington step up as more of an impact player, but Colvin's eyes widened when asked if he thought Washington's improved performance was a tribute to the loss of his uncle.
“He did?” Colvin asked. “Wow, I got way more respect for him now that I know that. He's been playing great these past couple of weeks.”
Washington was unsure of the type of cancer his great uncle battled. The obituary was published in The Dallas Morning News, and the last line read: “In lieu of flowers, donations may be made to the Legacy Brain Foundation….” The Legacy Brain Foundation, based in Dallas, fights brain cancer.
The type of cancer didn't matter to Washington. The type of man did.
As Washington glanced across the line at Texas Tech, he knew what McFarland said was right. He could feel it.
“It was like a spurt of energy,” Washington said.
During that game, Washington said his Uncle Kelly was on his mind. Washington said he thinks in some way it has changed how he played the game.
“If I could be more like him,” Washington said, “more patient and more caring, I'd be a better man.”