Doug Williams wasn’t looking for anything special when he drove an hour to Winnfield, Louisiana, that Friday night in the fall of 2001. Then the coach at Grambling State, his alma mater, Williams enjoyed everything about recruiting the local high schools — and it was nights like these, when something caught his eye, that led him to love it even more.
Williams had earlier taken note of a 6-foot-5, 230-pound wide receiver on the visiting team, finding it curious that a high school senior with that type of frame remained a virtual unknown to the Tigers’ coaching staff so late in the season. Then Jason Hatcher, running a 10-yard out route, made a one-handed grab while tip-toeing the sideline, sending Williams, from his standard position in the end zone, into internal euphoria.
“I’m thinking, ‘Hell yeah, I’m going to get a big receiver,’” Williams recalled, “not knowing that I was going to get a monster on my hands.”
It took some time for Hatcher to make that transformation — first at Grambling, where he had a breakout year as a senior following a move to defensive end, and then with the Dallas Cowboys, who drafted him in 2006 and let him simmer for five years before he claimed a starting role.
There has been no such delay in Washington, where Hatcher signed as a free agent in March. He has been a vital part of the Redskins’ pass rush, tallying three sacks through the first seven weeks of the season, and as he returns to Dallas as a visitor for the first time on Monday, the 32-year-old will only acknowledge his past by focusing on the present.
“I don’t think about it at all,” Hatcher said. “I’m a Redskin at heart. This is my team. This is my organization. I love them to death.”
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For Hatcher, a sense of belonging has always been fleeting. The second-youngest of 12 children, Hatcher’s father, Jase, left the family when Hatcher was 11, and his mother, Jean, died of congestive heart failure when he was 16.
When Williams first met Hatcher, he was struck by the player’s maturity. Hatcher and his wife, Natasha, had their first child when they were juniors at Jena High School, and Williams was able to win Hatcher over during the recruiting period by promising to take care of them.
Though he was academically ineligible as a freshman, Hatcher tried to balance his roles as a student, an athlete, a boyfriend and a father. Natasha, who also enrolled at Grambling, graduated in three years. In Hatcher’s senior season, he led the conference and finished seventh in what was then known as Division I-AA with 11 sacks.
“Jason has always been a guy you never have to worry about working,” said Williams, now working for the Redskins’ personnel department. “He was always a guy that was serious about what he was trying to do.”
The Cowboys used a third-round pick on Hatcher in 2006 — a decision that was questioned at the time. Though Hatcher had added nearly 50 pounds during his college years and still measured as one of the more athletic defensive linemen at the NFL combine that February, his one year as a starter in college raised concerns that Hatcher may not be able to handle that role professionally.
He languished in Dallas until 2011, when he captured a starting role after Stephen Bowen left the Cowboys for the Redskins during free agency, yet it wasn’t until last season that Hatcher truly broke out. He finished with 11 sacks — five shy of his previous career total — when Dallas overhauled its defense, installed a 4-3 scheme and moved Hatcher inside to defensive tackle.
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It was clear, though, despite the production, that Hatcher’s time with the Cowboys was coming to an end. Hatcher knew Dallas, with its salary cap situation, was going to be unable to match the price he could command as a free agent. When the signing period began in March, Hatcher first flew to Seattle to meet with the Seahawks before Williams, a month into his tenure with the Redskins, placed a phone call.
“He said, ‘Coach, just tell them to call my agent. If everything is right, I’m there,’” Williams said.
Hatcher signed a four-year, $27.5 million contract with the Redskins on March 14 — a deal that included a $9 million signing bonus and guaranteed only that and his first-year, $1.5 million base salary.
He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right knee in June, keeping him out of much of training camp and the preseason, and has been hampered by minor ankle and hamstring injuries this season.
Otherwise, Hatcher has been the presence the Redskins envisioned, despite a move back to defensive end in their 3-4 defensive scheme. He’s routinely drawn double-teams from blockers, occasionally lined up in different areas along the defensive line and has been a staple in the team’s nickel defense, giving him a better chance at collapsing the inside of the pocket and breaking into the defensive backfield.
“He’s always been a natural pass-rusher, and just affecting the quarterback, he’s always been good at that,” Bowen said.
In the locker room, Hatcher has tried to use his eight years of experience to his advantage, acknowledging this week that he’s attempted to take more of a leadership role on the defense as he grows more familiar with his new teammates.
A few weeks ago, Hatcher stopped by Williams’ office at Redskins Park to chat with his former coach. Williams, who thinks of Hatcher as a son, spoke about Hatcher’s commitment to his family — which now includes four children, all of whom will be among the 30 to 40 people he is expecting at AT&T Stadium on Monday.
“I respect what he did, and it speaks volumes to his character and his family standpoint, because he didn’t grow up in the best of circumstances,” Williams said. “To see him do what he does, it gives me hope that a lot of these young guys need to follow Jason Hatcher.”
NOTE: The Redskins announced Sunday they have signed strong safety Akeem Davis off their practice squad and released strong safety Jamarca Sanford. Davis has appeared in four games this season, while Sanford, signed on Sept. 29, played in three but did not play a single snap on defense.