Maya Washington, while growing up in Wayzata, didn’t know much about her father’s football life. But now, as an award-winning filmmaker, Washington knows much more as she traced back Gene Washington’s personal and athletic roots and documented them on film.
“Through the Banks of the Red Cedar” (2018), whose title comes from the 51-mile-long Red Cedar River that runs north and west through four cities, including the Michigan State campus in East Lansing en route to the Grand River, follows her father’s 50-year legacy as a college and NFL player and longtime corporate executive. Since its release last year, it has been screened at several film festivals as well as several community and institutional events.
Maya is the youngest of Gene’s three daughters. By the time she was born, her father was out of football and working at 3M as a diversity manager, she said.
“I really didn’t know about my dad’s football career,” the filmmaker admitted. “Football really wasn’t something important in our lives. I knew he was out getting jobs for other minorities, and that’s what I knew about him.”
“I always knew he was a real hard worker,” Maya continued. “I saw him working hard and going to work every morning and coming home, sometimes working on different projects on the weekends and traveling a lot for his work. But I really didn’t know what an amazing athlete he was.”
Her father is part of history, Maya learned. Her one-hour documentary is more than a biographical tribute to her dad; it also introduces to others how life in America was for Gene and his generation of Black men and Black athletes in particular.
“I got excited when I learned about his history,” she told us of Washington, who is one of the “50 Greatest Minnesota Vikings of All Time” and a College Football Hall of Fame member.
Washington’s daughter spent nearly a decade gathering archival footage of his playing days, speaking to teammates, coaches, and family members. She also included father-daughter scenes where he speaks candidly about life in the segregated South, going to school and earning two degrees in the integrated North, and working in corporate America while Black in Minnesota.
“I hope people are inspired by the contributions of early pioneers, especially African Americans, and the sacrifice they made in order to create opportunities for this generation,” Maya explained. “I do believe that we have a great story.
“It was finding out his connection with civil rights history that really inspired the film,” she pointed out. Gene Washington was a member of America’s first fully integrated college football team in the 1960s at Michigan State. He went on to make NFL history as one of four teammates from the same school to be drafted by Minnesota in the first round of the 1967 draft, playing six pro seasons.
“I never saw myself going back [to his native Texas],” Gene said. “It would have been very difficult for me to relive and go back to that area [after retiring from football]. I had such bad memories growing up.”
Seeing himself on film along with some of his old now-deceased teammates and family members speaking about him and life back then was awe-inspiring, Washington noted. “I am so grateful that I got those interviews in when we did,” Maya said,” because we didn’t know we were going to lose those people.”
“She did all the work on the film,” Gene said with evident pride. “It was her idea.”
See more details on the film at www.throughthebanksoftheredcedar.com.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.