By Bill Sterling
Second chances in sports usually come for those who prepare for the opportunity.
Tony Washington, who coached football for most of his 76 years, knew about second chances in life, a well-lived life that ended when he died Sept. 19.
Twelve years ago, Washington spent two months in the hospital when a respiratory ailment shut down his kidneys. Washington was completely unaware of his surroundings, but his wife Earline spent every day by his side and fought for his recovery.
Former players, coaches and faculty members called daily to check in to see how Coach Washington was doing. When he emerged from his semi-coma state, doctors had to tell him two months had elapsed since he entered the hospital. He then faced a long rehabilitation process.
Again, Earline drove him much like he had sought the extra effort from his football players. Washington was eventually able to return to the sidelines as an assistant football coach at Nandua. But he knew where the credit should go for his new lease on life. “I tell everyone I can the only reason I am here to enjoy all this is because I’ve got a wife who wouldn’t let me die,” said Washington shortly after he returned to coaching.
Washington always felt he received a bonus of 10 years following that health setback. “Tony loved coaching and loved his players. He felt very blessed to be able to do it again after being so sick,” said Earline Wednesday.
He finally stepped away from coaching a few years after his illness but continued teaching driver education in Accomack County, primarily on Chincoteague when they needed a teacher there. Chris Holland, then the principal of Chincoteague High School and now the superintendent of Accomack County Schools, said Thursday morning, “I know they loved Tony at Nandua, but we loved him at Chincoteague too. He really cared for his kids and would come watch them play football, basketball or whatever sport they were playing.”
Washington was one of the first calls Holland made when he was named superintendent. “He was a coach, mentor and friend to me,” said Holland. “We were both from North Carolina, and we talked about sports and barbecue all the time. He had such a way with people, and I wanted his advice. I owe a lot to Tony and will always be indebted to both him and Earline. What a couple they were.”
In the early years of Washington’s return to coaching after his illness, his wife would drive him on the field because of his weakened condition. “I guess people thought I was crazy when I was driving Tony on the field to coach when he could barely walk, but that is where he wanted to be,” said Earline. “Football was a reason for him to get better. He would have been happy to die on the field and be buried at the 50-yard line.”
Tonight at the Nandua home football game, Washington will be honored in an on-field ceremony. Although he coached football in Northampton County for 23 years, it was at Nandua that he had the most success, especially the years he coached his two sons, T.J. and Todd Washington, both of whom starred at Virginia Tech and had professional football careers. Todd is one of only 13 men ever to win a Super Bowl as a player (with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and again as an assistant offensive line coach (for the Baltimore Ravens). T.J. is in banking management with Bank of America in Charlotte, N.C.
Tony and Earline Washington, for the most part, admired their sons’ professional football careers from afar. But with both sons playing for Virginia Tech at the same time, college football was like family to them. Despite his coaching duties, Washington and Earline missed only two games when their sons played at Virginia Tech. They would often leave after a Friday night high school game and drive all night to be at the game the following day, whether it be a home game in Blacksburg or a road game in Syracuse, Pittsburgh or even Miami, twice. Earline did most of the driving while Washington usually slept, tired from the weeklong preparation for his game. Flying was not an option because Washington refused to board a plane.
The Washingtons became the adopted parents of most of the Washington boys’ teammates because at home games, Earline would cook huge vats of food for her sons and their friends.
Dennis Custis, a longtime friend of the family who taught with Washington at Nandua and retired as principal of the school, said Wednesday, “Tony Washington was the type of coach who would go the extra mile for his kids. He would drive them home from practice, bring them to his house to help with homework and would stay in touch long after they left school. He was a good coach who was genuinely liked by everyone. There might be some who would disagree with him, but there was never anybody who would say something bad about him.”
Custis will be among the speakers who will pay tribute to Washington at his funeral Saturday at Nandua High School, beginning at 1 p.m.