Nate Washington, center, signs autographs for Khilen Parnell, right, as Khilen's mom, Lena Parnell, and sister, MiLena Hampton, left, urge the boy forward at a reception at St. James Church. Next to Mr. Washington is his mother, Lisha Washington.
Into the church they streamed by the dozen, bringing objects to receive a special kind of benediction.
Terrible Towels, magnets, magazines, school notebooks. Unblemished footballs snug in cardboard boxes. Well-worn jerseys and backpacks. Each received hands-on treatment from the young hero who penned his swooping signature over and again.
For Pittsburgh Steeler fans, friends, and fellow church-goers, Saturday was an opportunity to celebrate Toledoan Nate Washington, 25, who played on the winning team in Super Bowl XLIII on Feb. 1.
He's a hero to people such as Tyrese Hampton, 14, an eighth grader at Springfield Middle School and a quarterback on a youth football team. Mr. Washington signed Tyrese's book bag. His sister, MiLena Hampton, 13, will add her new autograph to her richly decorated scrapbook. And their younger sister, Shidan Parnell, 8, will ensconce the autograph she received in her Tinkerbell book.
Preceding the autograph session in the lobby of the 3,000-seat St. James Church on Nebraska Avenue, Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner made liberal use of heavenly vernacular in remarks about the wide receiver.
"The Lord has gifted him. The Lord has blessed him," Mr. Finkbeiner intoned. "Most important is being a good man."
Mr. Finkbeiner pledged to help Mr. Washington find good work in Toledo when his professional football career is over, starting by introducing Mr. Washington to local chief executive officers at a March 6 breakfast meeting.
He added that Toledo will host a Nate Washington parade in the spring, between downtown and Scott High School, from which the athlete graduated in 2001.
The church's senior pastor, the Rev. William James, initiated yesterday's celebration for Mr. Washington, who has worshiped there with his mother since he was a teenager.
"We believe God has positioned you to do great things not just on the field but off the field," Mr. James said.
From his physique, you might not guess Mr. Washington plays in the big leagues.
Soft-spoken, he shoved his hands in the pockets of his down vest while the mayor spoke.
Prayers by his church have gotten him through the "crazy ride" from his rookie year in the National Football League to the present.
"It's because of your prayers and I really appreciate it," Mr. Washington said. "My church home has always had my back."
He hasn't received his new Super Bowl championship ring yet, but wears the massive sparkler he won in 2005 on his right hand. This year's win was far more meaningful for him than the win in his rookie year. "It feels a lot better. I've been more a part of the team."
Plans are in the works for a sports camp in Toledo this spring for youngsters to which he'll invite some of his teammates, he said. He added that he wants to set up a children's charity fund.
With new-found fame, he's been challenged to learn how to study people and discern who's genuine and who wants something from him, he said. "It's tough. But it is what it is and you take it as it comes."
He said he no longer feels pressured by the talk about his setting an example for youngsters.
"I've heard it so much, I know what's expected of me. I know how to carry myself as a young man," he told The Blade after his speech. "You've just got to know that every action has a consequence. It's all about the consequences you want to deal with."
He added: "You've got to look at these things and evaluate them, and learn how to deal with them even if you make a mistake."
Mr. Washington is a free agent.
"We've been hearing a lot from about 15 teams," he said, noting that he believes he's got untapped potential.
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