Since its creation in 2020, the Browns' Bill Willis Diversity Coaching Fellowship has helped two aspiring pro football coaches establish careers in the NFL.
Ashton Grant, the Browns' offensive assistant/quarterbacks, became an offensive quality control coach after he spent two years as a fellow in 2020 and 2021. Israel Woolfork held the fellowship in 2022 before becoming the Cardinals' QB coach in February.
Nyema "Nemo" Washington wants to follow in their footsteps after an interesting — and initially unexpected — beginning to his coaching career.
Formerly holding three jobs at once as the assistant coach, offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Wheeling University, Washington has been named the Browns' next Bill Willis Diversity Coaching Fellow and will take his expertise to Cleveland to assist in coaching the skill positions. He'll provide aid in the quarterback, wide receiver, running back and tight end rooms in 2023.
The fellowship was named after Willis, who, along with Browns teammate and legend Marion Motley, became one of the first two African-American professional football players in the modern era. Willis played with the Browns from 1946-53 and was enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1977.
As Washington settles into his first few days in the role, he's looking at Woolfork and Grant, whom he shares an office with, as inspiration for what can happen when the hard work ahead of him is done well.
"It's definitely inspiring and it gives you hope," Washington said. "Right now, I'm just trying to learn from Ashton and create my own path by just working first. I don't want to think about what they've got. It's the saying, 'Be where your feet are,' and right now my feet are in the fellow part. It's inspiring for sure, but I've just got to stay focused on what I'm doing now."
That approach is how Washington managed to start a coaching career in football after his playing days came to an abrupt end.
Washington, a native of Seat Pleasant, Maryland, attended Bowie State with aspirations of playing quarterback in his first year with the program in 2012, but he learned that year he had developed a cholesterol granuloma cyst on his brain.
The symptoms of the noncancerous cyst weren't life-threatening — but still alarming — for Washington before he knew what the problem was. While in practice his first year at Bowie State, he felt dizzy and the need to blink a lot even though quarterbacks never took hits in practice. The symptoms puzzled him, and he initially thought they stemmed from three concussions he suffered playing in high school.
Washington saw a doctor for testing, which revealed the rare bump. The cyst could be contained and the symptoms would be minimized through various treatment methods, but he needed to temporarily step away from playing football.
"It was scary — really scary," he said. "I was in and out of the hospital, but I only stayed one night. They told us how to deal with it, how to control it. I had to diet for a bit, take some medicine. It never got real bad with the headaches, and I just had to go in. So I was dealing with that and trying to get it under control for two years."
During his time without wearing a helmet and pads, Washington was offered a chance by his head coach, Damon Wilson, to put on a headset. He accepted and helped the coaching staff create scout cards and compile tape — his first time ever doing coaching work — but he still wanted to return as a player if he had another chance.
That chance arrived in 2015.
The cyst, which remains present to this day but is still contained, had been minimized to a level small enough that made it possible for Washington to return in the middle of his third year at Bowie State. He played five games and completed 73 of 121 pass attempts (60 percent) for 992 yards, 12 touchdowns and six interceptions, and his success helped the Bulldogs advance to the CIAA Championship Game.
But another unfortunate ailment hit Washington during a practice before the next season. He suffered a severe knee injury and would have to miss more time, and he ultimately decided he needed to stop playing the game for good.
"I'm a Christian, and I truly feel like God was trying to get my attention," he said. "I think at the time, I was making football more of my God. Everybody says, 'You put God first,' but then your actions say something else. For me, I guess my actions said that football was first.
"God was saying, 'Hey, I'll allow you to do some things with football, but it won't be the path you think it is,' and I just had to finally accept it."
The path was coaching.
He went to work on the sideline again, holding a student assistant role with Bowie State from 2016-17. He then joined West Virginia State at the end of 2017 as a graduate assistant and returned to Bowie State in 2019 as a receivers coach, and after not holding a coaching job in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was hired by Wheeling in 2021 as the offensive coordinator.
Washington helped the Cardinals, who went 1-10 in the program's inaugural season in 2019, go 5-4 in 2021 and 7-4 in 2022. He was preparing to coach the team again in March until he received an email that would change his career trajectory in a flash.
The message came from Browns Senior Personnel/Coaching Executive Bob Quinn, who asked him if he was interested in being the team's next Bill Willis Diversity Coaching Fellow.
The answer was an obvious "yes" from Washington, who spent the next two weeks carving time to not only coach spring practices for Wheeling, but also complete a series of tests and interviews with Browns coaches.
Two weeks later, he received a phone call from head coach Kevin Stefanski.
They wanted Washington in Cleveland.
"I'm thrilled to be able to add Nemo to our staff," Stefanski said. "When we were looking to replace Israel and looking to add to our staff, we really cast a very wide net and talked to a lot of people. We did a lot of work and just spent some time with Nemo. He has a very unique story, which I'm excited for everybody to learn about, but he's so excited about this opportunity.
"This is what this program is for — to go find really good coaches out there that you can go develop on the offensive side of the ball — and Nemo, I think, fits the bill really well."
Washington got the call while he was sitting with his other Wheeling coaches, who had been telling him they knew he would land the fellowship.
"They were more confident than I was," Washington said with a laugh. "They said, 'Man, you're going to be gone.' The thing is, we did a lot of things people didn't think we could do. We went from 1-10 to 7-4. We turned it around really quickly in a short amount of time, and for them to support me the way they did meant a lot."
Washington has already begun to feel a similar level of support with the Browns. He's taken advantage of sharing an office space with Grant and has developed an even better feel of what's ahead: a lot of meetings, a lot of listening and a lot of helping the Browns coaching staff do their jobs.
"He's been extremely supportive and giving me a lot of advice," Washington said. "I'm sitting in some of these meetings, the bigger meetings, and there's things Ashton already told me that I'm just re-writing now because he told me to take a lot of notes, put your head down and keep working."
That's nothing new to Washington, and he's ready to dedicate the next year toward turning the opportunity into something bigger.
"I'm just excited, man," he said. "The thing about the journey is to finally get here, and now it's about staying here and working to stay here."