Long before he joined the Dodgers, family ties almost led Jason Heyward to UCLA

There are two Kenny Washingtons in the UCLA Athletic Hall of Fame.

Most famously a barrier breaker, he was a trailblazer in three sports. He was a baseball teammate of Jackie Robinson in the late 1930s, the first All-American in the history of the football program, and in 1946, one of four black players to reinstate the National Football League.

The other left his memorable Bruins legacy decades later.

In the 1960s, that Washington was on the first two of John Wooden’s 10 national basketball championship teams. He had a legendary 26-point performance in the 1964 title game.

After a brief pro career, Washington returned to UCLA in the 1970s as head coach of the women’s basketball team.

And, in 2005, he was inducted into the school’s sports Hall of Fame, in a ceremony on campus attended by numerous other Bruins icons, and a precocious member of his family.

Long before Jason Heyward was a first-round pick of the Atlanta Braves, an MLB All-Star and World Series champion, or a veteran outfielder now playing first base for the Dodgers, he was a standout baseball player. From Georgia, eager to follow in his great uncle’s footsteps to the other side of the country.

Heyward’s father, Eugene, is Washington’s nephew. After spending his childhood in South Carolina, Eugene lived with his uncle in Los Angeles as a teenager, where he finished high school before attending Dartmouth University to play basketball (where he met Heyward’s mother, Laura).

Although Heyward’s parents eventually settled in Georgia, where he attended high school south of Atlanta, Heyward made occasional trips to L.A. while his father was growing up, especially before the start of Heyward’s junior baseball season for the Hall of Fame induction in Washington. . .

Heyward, a tall, athletic outside linebacker, was already a big name, drawing interest from schools like Clemson and Georgia Tech, but that 2005 trip moved UCLA to the top of his list.

Jason Heyward by Willson Contreras St. Louis Cardinals catcher avoids a tag as he slides into home during a May 21 game.

(Jeff Roberson/Associated Press)

And if it weren’t for a perfect set of professional circumstances — when he was drafted 14th by his home state’s Braves in 2007 — he might have been a standout UCLA student in his family.

“It seemed like a good environment,” Heyward said. “A good atmosphere to grow.”

Back in Atlanta this week, where the Dodgers took two of the Braves’ three games, Heyward reflected on those early days, recalling the process that nearly led the Georgia native to enroll at UCLA.

A year after being inducted into the Great Uncle’s Hall of Fame, Heyward returned to campus for an official visit.

He was impressed by coach John Savage, who was fresh off a decorated 19th season. He connected with host Brandon Crawford, a freshman on that Bruins team, now in his 13th MLB season with the San Francisco Giants. He was also impressed by the atmosphere at the Rose Bowl, after attending a UCLA football game.

“Getting out there, meeting Coach Savage, getting a tour, seeing the campus, it was obviously cool,” Heyward said.

So at the start of his senior year of high school, he gave the Bruins a college commitment.

The more Heyward wowed MLB suitors before the draft, the more complicated his decision became.

There were several franchises with first-round picks expressing interest in Heyward, from the Kansas City Royals at No. 2 to the Florida Marlins at No. 12. But Heyward also knew there was a chance he could escape the draft board by keeping his UCLA. hostage in his back pocket just in case.

The only destination that made sense was the Braves, who were lingering at No. 14.

“If this happens,” Heyward told himself, “I don’t think there’s any reason to go to school.”

Atlanta Braves rookie Jason Heyward during the team's opening day game against the Chicago Cubs.

Atlanta Braves shortstop Jason Heyward during the home opener against the Chicago Cubs at Turner Field on April 5, 2010 in Atlanta.

(Rich Addicks/Associated Press)

Lo and behold, his last choice was easy. The Braves selected Heyward and signed him to a $1.7 million contract. Although committed to UCLA, he waived college eligibility while still 17 years old.

“It wasn’t like I had to weigh a lot,” Heyward recalled.

Even Savage, who detailed the process in a 2010 interview, couldn’t agree more.

“He was going to be a nice little player, no doubt,” the coach said then, of Heyward’s first MLB season. But, Savage added, “That’s an example of a guy who made the right decision.”

The rest was history.

Heyward finished second in Rookie of the Year voting while earning All-Star honors in 2010, and flourished as a Gold Glove right fielder for the Braves in the postseason.

In 2016, he not only won a World Series with the Chicago Cubs, but also delivered his famous Game 7 speech that helped end that club’s 108-year title drought.

This year, after coming to the Dodgers on a minor league deal in the offseason, the 33-year-old has rekindled his game, batting .228 with five home runs, 11 RBIs and a league average of .807. -plus-slugging percentage.

It’s finally the LA baseball moment he once dreamed of; only, it will be 16 years since his plans to continue his family ties to UCLA took a different path.

Asked this week what might have happened if he bounced past the Braves and landed with another team that didn’t suit up, Heyward weighed in on what would have happened, thinking back to the days when he seemed destined to be a Bruin.

“I don’t know,” he said. “It would have been difficult to give up the first round at that time. A lot of work was coming. Playing high school games from California against Florida guys, you see a lot of good ball players. And you don’t know if you’ll get this chance again.”

But, he added, with at least some blue and gold still getting into his heart, “it seemed like a nice option.”

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