HAMMOND — When Jamari Washington was a lad, he loved playing video games. Still does.

But the 6-foot-1, 195-pound running back and linebacker at Gavit made a decision a long time ago, helped by his parents, which has opened many doors for him.

"I do not play video games (weekdays), just on the weekend," Washington said. "I can't let them get in the way of my homework, academics and other important things.

"I listen to my parents and I agree with them."

He owns a 3.4 grade-point average and is a member of the National Honor Society. He's also in the Key Club and is vice president of his class. He's a student leader, too. He's a member of the Principal's Committee, where students work with the administration to help make positive changes in the school.

He also worked with other students from Hammond in the Spirit Summit Group last summer, finding ways to teach safety for youngsters in walking across streets, not jaywalking and keep eyes open when cars are around.

And, of course, Washington is a standout football player for the Gladiators, catching two touchdown passes in last week's 32-12 win over Calumet.

"He's our team captain and rightfully so," Gavit coach Robert Robinson said after Tuesday's practice. "He works with police officers in helping to get a better relationship between our students and them. He does it all.

"He's even a lifeguard in the summer at a local pool."

Washington started playing football at the age of 8 with the Northlake Patriots Pop Warner program. Watching Randy Moss play wide receiver and Reggie Bush run the ball were inspirations.

But in the eighth grade he started wrestling, going 17-1 without much training or experience. He wrestled junior varsity as a freshman at Gavit, still learning and growing.

As a sophomore he went 29-11 at 170, winning a sectional championship and advancing to the semistate. As a junior, he went 33-5 at the same weight, winning sectionals again and getting one win from advancing to the state finals.

"After my freshman year, I did some club wrestling and got out of this area and I got whooped. Those guys were legit," Washington said with a smile. "I kept working, learning and getting better."

In July, he went with the Elite Athletic Club out of Portage to a national championship in New Jersey. At 187, the kid from Hammond went 7-0 and was named a co-MVP and All-American at the event.

"And our team won the national championship," Washington said. "That was pretty cool. Some college coaches have been contacting my coach and I'm hoping to wrestle in college."

He started grappling to get better at football. Now, football is secondary to the mat, but his devotion to his team is still No. 1.

Gavit is coming off a 5-4 season, the program's first winning campaign since 2003. The Gladiators beat Morton for the first time since 2000 and Hammond for the first time since 2002.

In the game against the Wildcats, Washington rushed for 152 yards and two touchdowns.

Tonight, Gavit travels to Bloom Township for a tough game in Illinois.

"We've got 80 guys playing right now. Our future is bright," Robinson said. "The kids are excited to be playing and last year had a lot to do with that. Jamari is doing a great job leading all of our younger kids."

Gavit sent four seniors last year to college ball — Kyle Heard is at Navy, Malcolm Lang is at Wabash, Curtis Nugin is at North Central and Bryant Figures is at Aurora.

"We're starting to play good football here and college coaches are starting to notice," Robinson said.

Washington plans to wrestle at the next level, then he wants to join the Navy and become a SEAL. He appears to have the mind and body for such a move.

"We don't want the Gavit name to die after last year," Washington said. "The guys last year took us to a new place and we want to stay here. I'm telling all of our guys we're all here to make each other better.

"That's what we do every day in practice."

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Steve has won awards during two different stints at The Times. In addition to being the Prep Beat columnist, he covers football, boys basketball and boys track. He is a long-suffering Cubs fan.