GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Nick Washington laughs as his eyes drift down to the Band-Aid wrapped around his right thumb. He's a football player, so Band-Aids are extensions of the uniform, but this one hides a rather unusual battle scar. It isn't one from constant on-field battles or crushing body blows Florida's redshirt senior safety regularly delivers.
This is one that any self-proclaimed outdoorsman would be proud of. This one came while Washington was wrangling an eight-pound catfish by its sharp, Velcro-like mouth.
"I stuck my hand in its mouth," Washington said with a laugh. "Probably wasn't the smartest thing to do."
Maybe not, but that's a guppy-like problem compared to his more dangerous off-field hobby -- that requires corralling much bigger and more dangerous aquatic beasts.
Florida's next starting safety catches alligators in his free time.
For those who know Washington, who's from just outside of Jacksonville, where swamp and country living intersect, it isn't at all shocking that their charismatic teammate has a fondness for danger. Catching monster catfish, riding horses, hunting hogs, skeet shooting and, yes, catching alligators fit Washington to a T. While his voice doesn't exude much of a backwoods twang, the outdoors are Washington's sanctuary.
"He's a country boy from Jacksonville," center T.J. McCoy said.
Washington's father filled their football field-sized pond with bass, catfish, brim and a couple of carp when Washington was young so that the family could regularly fish. When he wasn't playing football or baseball, Washington would hunt hogs or white-tailed deer with his father. He later moved on to saltwater fishing because of the abundance of fish and the adrenaline rush that comes with a little added danger of the ocean.
"Something can pull you in there," Washington said, "that's the thrill."
And that thrill escalates when Washington wraps his 6-foot, 197-pound body around a gator. Washington doesn't exactly do this for fun. It's more business when he's called out with his friend and his friend's dad, who is licensed to catch alligators that have wandered into small ponds, yards or pools around the Jacksonville area. Washington, who has been helping since his senior year at Trinity Christian Academy, assures it's all relatively safe and very humane.
It's a hobby Washington loves, and on a "non-cannibalistic level" it's almost spiritual to catch gators while playing for the Gators. It comes with risks and offers the Florida veteran a primal thrill away from the football field that stimulates his brain almost like a pad-rattling hit would in his own Swamp.
But how does one catch an alligator? Well, Washington says it all depends on the size. First, you have to lure it in with some sort of bait. Smaller ones can be snagged with a fishing pole or a three-pronged treble hook. For bigger ones, a treble hook, which has hooks that curl up, is always your best bet.
Next, you have to secure the gator's jaws. The gator has to be distracted, while your partner quickly puts his hands around its mouth. Interestingly enough, it's relatively easy to keep an alligator's mouth shut with your bare hands because the jaw muscles have little strength for opening, but the muscles that shut their jaws can generate about 300 pounds per square inch in an adult.
An alligator's bite can measure more than a literal ton per square inch. Humans usually exert about 150 pounds per square inch.
"Once the mouth is secured, I'm not really afraid to do anything else after that," Washington said.
The next step is to wrap the gator's feet either in front or behind it, but you must always be cognizant of the alligator's vicious tail while securing and transporting. Washington hasn't been whipped by one just yet, but he can sense the awesome power of it with every swipe that has come his way.
"That tail is serious," he said.
Washington estimates he has helped catch about 10 alligators. Each time gets easier, but he's quick to say his respect never deviates the more he's around them. It's an adventure that activates all of his senses, but it isn't something his teammates are interested in trying. Most called him crazy, and only defensive lineman Khairi Clark said he'd even accompany Washington on one of his wild excursions.
"I'll come out and watch from a distance," Clark said.
So, is there any sort of correlation between wrangling alligators and being an SEC safety? For Washington, it helps eliminate fear. Sure, it benefits his endurance and raw strength, but it feeds his brain. If he can tame a wild animal, Washington can play without hesitation in the SEC.
"I like that I'm kind of in control of everything," he said.
Washington's thirst for excitement with his alligator catching might seem like an extreme hobby, but he isn't alone when it comes to unique off-the-field endeavors. Here are a few other players with interesting non-football-related hobbies:
Nic Shimonek, QB, Texas Tech: The one-time walk-on has a very interesting hobby away from the field. The expected replacement for first-round pick Patrick Mahomes, Shimoneki is also a master at restoring furniture. He has run his own restoration business out of Lubbock, Texas, and he picked up the trade from his mother. Sanding became a ritual between classes for Shimonek, and by last summer, Shimonek and his girlfriend, Kayla, had sold more than 100 pieces of furniture. Shimonek closed the business to focus on football after earning a scholarship with Texas Tech last fall.
John Kelly, RB, Tennessee: Seen shredding defenses during the latter part of his sophomore season, Kelly was once known for shredding the sidewalks and skate parks of Minneapolis and Detroit before making Knoxville his home. Kelly says he was very close to becoming a professional street skateboarder and had a good chance at it when he was 12, so he devoted a majority of his time to making videos with his buddies in order to earn a sponsor. His professional dreams faded at 14 when he skipped a week of football practice to work on his skating. His coaches sat him down and convinced him football was his true path. He had been skating seriously for eight years before football took too much of his time. He doesn't skate as much these days but still sneaks in a session here and there.
Gregor MacKellar, OL, Rice: MacKellar not only played rugby at St. Andrews College in Ontario, Canada, but he continued to dabble in his love of playing the bagpipes. He has been playing them since he was 6 and he's an accomplished Grade 1 competitive bagpiper, which is the highest amateur level. MacKellar has played with the 78th Highlander's Halifax Citadel Grade 1 Pipe and Drum Band and competed in the World Pipe Band Championships in Glasgow, Scotland, in 2013 as the youngest member of the band (15). Football has somewhat ended his competitive days, but he hasn't put the bagpipes away completely.
Chad Thomas, DL, Miami: The senior from Miami is a local music producer who goes by the name "Major Nine." He got a major break in the game when he produced the opening track, "Apple of My Eye," on Rick Ross' new album, "Rather You Than Me." Like Ross, Thomas raps as well and has known the megastar for a couple of years now. Thomas is in the process of building a studio and also plays nine instruments, including the organ, trombone and clarytone.
Jared Cornelius, WR, Arkansas: The Razorbacks' most experienced receiver goes by the name "DJ JRed" in Fayetteville, where he's a local DJ and music producer. The Kanye West-inspired Cornelius plays seven musical instruments, learning drums, piano, and organ by ear. Cornelius went from tweaking his high school fight song and producing songs for school plays to producing, mixing, matching and creating beats out of his in-home studio. Cornelius works with various artists, including his older brother, JC Jones, who is a singer and actor in Los Angeles.