There was an easy solution: Royal just texted former high school teammate Evan Royster, a running back with the Redskins. Just like that he had 13 extra tickets for friends and family. Sometimes it’s nice to go home.
Royal and Royster grew up together in Fairfax County. They helped Westfield High to a Group AAA, Division 6 state championship in 2003 and both went on to college success at Virginia Tech and Penn State, respectively. But this week will be just Royal’s third game in his hometown. He played here for the Denver Broncos in a 27-17 loss on Nov. 15, 2009 and for Virginia Tech in his college debut against USC in 2004.
“For me, I’ve just got to treat it like another game,” Royal said. “It’ll be good to play in front of friends and family. But at the end of the day I’ve got to focus and go out there and do my job.”
So far he’s been doing that well for the surprising 4-3 Chargers, who are hanging in the playoff picture in the brutal AFC West with Denver and Kansas City. Royal has 22 receptions in seven games for 285 yards and a career-high six touchdowns already. Royal is San Diego’s fourth-leading receiver on a team that ranks sixth in the NFL in passing yards per game (294).
“He’s done a great job of buying into the system and the changes and he knew a lot of things that, whether they had come from Denver, that I had run or some things we had kept from the previous system,” said Chargers coach Mike McCoy, who was the offensive coordinator with the Denver Broncos during three of Royal’s seasons there. “He’s done a great job of filling his role.”
It’s production Washington could probably use at the wide receiver position and the Redskins did make a run at Royal when he was a free agent after the 2011 season. In the end, Royal decided he was a better fit in San Diego. But Washington coach Mike Shanahan was the man in charge when Denver drafted Royal in 2008. His best season came in 2008 as a rookie when Royal caught 91 passes for 980 yards and five touchdowns.
“I was real close. It would have been a good deal being able to play at home and play for [Shanahan], who drafted me,” Royal said. “It was an opportunity for me to make all that happen. … But I’m happy with my decision. I’ve got a lot of respect for the Redskins. That was my favorite team growing up. So it was hard to say no to those guys.”
Royal was once a special teams star with three touchdowns in his career for the Broncos. That’s changed in San Diego. Royal has yet to return a kickoff this season — he had 1,221 yards in his first two seasons in the league — and has fielded just six punts in 2013 for 29 yards.
But returning home means memories come flooding back. Royal, Royster and former Virginia Tech quarterback Sean Glennon fueled a powerhouse team at Westfield in 2003 that went undefeated after surviving a state semifinal classic against Hylton High.
Royster played with Hylton defensive back-wide receiver Deon Butler at Penn State. Butler, who himself spent three years in the NFL with Seattle, used to rag Royster for running him down on a screen pass in that state semifinal. For his part, Royster blames Royal for missing the block that would have sprung him. The two still work out together occasionally in the offseason and laugh about the play.
“I think Eddie’s one of the best slot receivers in the country,” Royster said. “I might be biased, but I think he is. I think he can be. I just think he needs to stay healthy because he’s plagued by injuries over the first couple of years of his career.”
Indeed, Royal’s production fell off his final year in Denver in 2011 when he played in 12 games. His first year in San Diego he appeared in just 10. Even in the midst of a renaissance, Royal didn’t practice on Wednesday because of a toe injury first suffered in an Oct. 14 win at Indianapolis. He recovered with four catches for 69 yards in another victory over Jacksonville and has no plans on missing out on his homecoming.
“[Washington is] always going to be home for me,” Royal said. “I love the area. I’m a Virginia Tech guy also so I tried to stay as close to home as I could. It’s probably somewhere I’ll look to live when I’m done playing.”