Dewayne Washington played in the NFL for 12 years. He was an all-American cornerback at N.C. State and ha high school All-American at Northern Durham High.
Yet, he says, one of the greatest honors he has ever received was a hug. The embrace came from one of the seniors on his Heritage High School football team after a season-ending loss.
The Huskies won the school’s first football playoff game ever this season and finished 11-3. But rival Wake Forest High, which went on to win the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4AA championship game last Saturday, ended Heritage’s season in the playoffs, 35-20.
“When a senior comes up to you after the last game with tears in his eyes and hugs you … Well, you can’t buy that feeling with any amount of money,” Washington said.
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Wide receiver Zach Gemmell was one of the seniors who sought out his coaches.
“It was a roller coaster of emotion,” Gemmell recalled. “I was so disappointed that we had lost, that the season was over. It was devastating. Then I thought about what these coaches had done for us. All they had invested in me. All that we had accomplished together. I just had to let them know how much they meant to me and that I did love them.”
Heritage does not have a typical high school football coaching staff and Washington is not a typical high school head coach.
Washington, who will turn 44 on Tuesday, made millions of dollars playing in the NFL, primarily for the Minnesota Vikings and the Pittsburgh Steelers. He intercepted 31 passes and played in an AFC championship game during his career.
At Heritage, which was founded in 2010, he has built a coaching staff that attracted NFL Films to chronicle the program’s pro football connection in November. It is a group that looks like something out of a video game or fantasy football league.
Gemmell thought back to his Madden video game days when Washington introduced Willie Parker to the team.
“I was sitting in the weight room and Coach Washington said Coach Parker would be working with us,” Gemmell said. “Coach Parker? Coach Willie Parker? I used to always use Steelers when I played Madden so that Willie Parker could be my running back. He had a lot of speed.”
I was sitting in the weight room and Coach Washington said Coach Parker would be working with us. Coach Parker? Coach Willie Parker? I used to always use Steelers when I played Madden so that Willie Parker could be my running back. He had a lot of speed.
Heritage wide receiver Zach Gemmel
Parker, who played sparingly at the University of North Carolina, had a six-year career in the NFL and set a Super Bowl record with a 75-yard touchdown run in a 21-10 victory over the Seattle Seahawks in 2006. Parker, 36, who coaches the running backs, was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ MVP in 2006 when he rushed for 1,202 yards.
But the Huskies coach with the most NFL honors is former N.C. State wide receiver Torry Holt. He played in the NFL 11 years, made the Pro Bowl six times with the St. Louis Rams, and ranks No. 10 in all-time NFL receiving yards and No. 11 in all-time receptions.
And if the trio ever needs any backup they can sprint over to assistant athletic director Charles Johnson, another former NFL star who became one of the Steelers’ top receivers during a nine-year career. He also helped the New England Patriots win the Super Bowl in 2002.
They coach for the same reason as Washington – they want to give back, to help kids.
“These kids are so social media conscious that they will look us up online and bring up things that we have done and have forgotten about,” Johnson said. “The coaches had the kids’ respect from day one, but the coaches had to earn their trust.”
Holt, whose son Brayden is a Heritage sophomore wide receiver, said he had been overwhelmed by the players’ emotional response to the coaches.
“They come up and give you hugs and they tell you ‘Thank you for coaching us,’ ” said Holt, 40, who coaches the receivers. “It is so heartfelt. It really gets to you. It makes you feel that you are making a difference in young lives.”
The quartet loves the game of football, but nothing compares to having a chance to watch the players mature as people.
“I love the game and I love coaching, but the greatest reward is just being with the kids, being a part of their lives,” Washington said. “Trying to help them. I am competitive. I want to win all of the games, but victories don’t mean as much as getting to know these young men. It is hard to believe the impact that a coach can have on a young man at this point in his life.
“I had my time on the field. Now it is all about the kids.”
Learning on the job
Despite having about three decades of NFL experience on his staff, Washington, whose team was 5-7 in his first season, said he was unprepared for the head coaching job in the fall of 2015. Johnson had been offered the position, turned it down and made the call to Washington, then an assistant at nearby Ravenscroft School.
Washington talked to his son, D.J., who was student body president at Ravenscroft and a football starter, got D.J.’s blessing (although his son stayed at Ravenscroft for his senior season) and began his career as a non-faculty head coach at Heritage.
“The biggest surprise was that the buck stops with me,” Washington said. “I knew that, of course, but if there is a football left on the field, I’m the one that’s responsible for getting it. Dealing with parents and boosters, it is on me. Pushing academics and accountability. And recruiting – trying to help the guys play at the next level – takes so much more time than I thought.”
Pat Kennedy, the Heritage athletic director, said players can tell quickly if a coach genuinely cares for them. He said the four former NFL players are exceptional people first and great coaches second.
“I think those coaches’ hearts are in the right place,” said Ken Browning, Washington’s coach at Northern Durham and later an assistant coach at UNC. “NFL guys have been exposed to a lot of coaching through the years. And recognize which coaches helped them and which ones they turned off and why.
“Dewayne’s heart is in the right place because he cares about the players and how they are treated. But being in a winning environment is very important, too, so that the players learn to pursue excellence. Dewayne has that part, too.”
There was potential for a pecking order in the coaches’ office with a plethora of NFL experience on one side and other coaches on the other side, but Washington said the NFL players’ opinions are not valued more than the other eight varsity and junior varsity coaches.
“It is not that way at all,” Washington said. “This isn’t about us. We don’t have our egos tied up in this. We work together.”
Holt said he has tremendous respect for all of the coaches.
“Some of those guys have been coaching football longer than I have,” he said. “Those guys know a lot about football and about working with young men.”
Parker, Holt and Washington are non-faculty coaches who arrive at the school for practice in the afternoon. The supplement for a Wake County high school head coach with less than four years experience is $4,022. The supplement for a football assistant with less than four years experience is $2,801.
Johnson, 44, who works in special programs, is at the school, checking with the players in the halls and making himself available. Among his duties is checking athletes’ academic status.
Academics are his passion. He graduated from the University of Colorado with a Business degree in three years despite playing two varsity sports.
“To me, that is a part of earning the kids’ trust,” Johnson said. “The players had to know that the coaches cared. Part of that is caring about how they are doing in school. If we don’t help motivate the kids to do well in their classes, we are failing them, just using them. Frankly, I wish academic standards were a little tougher. That’s my pet peeve. I wish the state set a higher standard.”
Learning to teach
The Huskies’ former NFL coaches still are a formidable bunch physically. They can throw and catch and still demonstrate techniques.
But Russell Blunt, who coached a state championship track team at Durham Hillside High when he was in his 80s, said he never really learned to coach until he got too old to demonstrate and had to start explaining.
Washington laughed at the thought and said he could appreciate it. Becoming a better teacher instead of demonstrator is part of his learning curve.
“I’m on the cusp,” he said. “I’m teaching, but I still like to get out there and show them a little bit, too.”
He has tried to model his coaching style after Browning, his Northern Durham coach, and former N.C. State assistant coach Buddy Green.
“Coach Browning was so consistent,” Washington said. “You do things a certain way. You treat people a certain way. Communication is a two-way conversation. I tell my guys that they have to talk to me. I can’t help them, none of the coaches can, unless we know what is going on.”
Green harkens back to another Blunt assessment of coaching – you make players work harder than they want to and harder than they think they can work.
“Buddy Green was that way,” Washington said. “Coach Browning worked us hard, but nothing like Coach Green. I thought I was going to die some days in practice. But he saw something in me that I had not seen and he believed I could achieve more than I thought I could. That is what good coaches do.”
Washington’s goal is to be a good coach. He is giving back to a game that he loved, but hopes that he is giving more to a bunch of young guys who trust him to do what is best for them.
Tim Stevens covered high school sports for The News & Observer and the Raleigh Times for 48 years.
Heritage high school’s NFL connection
Head coach Dewayne Washington (N.C. State): Minnesota Vikings, Pittsburgh Steelers
Assistant coach Torry Holt (N.C. State): St. Louis Rams
Assistant coach Willie Parker (UNC): Steelers, Washington Redskins
Assistant athletic director Charles Johnson (Colorado): Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots, Buffalo Bills