Black History Month: Henry Washington of Detroit coached in five decades, continues to give back to the community
Detroit – Henry Washington has been in a teacher in the Detroit area since 1979 and he can’t say for sure when he’ll stop.
To most, Washington, who became a member of the 60-and-over crown on Jan. 19, is best-known as a coach and he, at long last, got out of coaching in 2015 after having revived a dormant Detroit Southeastern girls basketball program. Washington, a Southeastern graduate, said he came back to his school to coach in 2014 because he said he didn’t want to see the basketball program be eliminated.
But that’s Washington. He just can’t seem to say no. Often he wouldn’t go looking for a job, the job followed him.
A lifelong Detroit resident, except for the time he spent in college and the Detroit Tigers farm system, Washington began coaching in ’79, not long after graduating from Oakland University.
“I came back to Southeastern and talked with Ernie Scott, who was my coach,” Washington said. “Ernie, who was still the boys basketball coach, asked me if I wanted to coach the freshmen team.”
That was it. That’s all it took for Washington to begin a coaching career that would span five decades. All told Washington would coach 71 seasons of basketball and baseball combined.
He coached baseball for 18 season at Southeastern. He also coached girls and boys basketball, and for four seasons he did both.
Washington was an assistant men’s basketball coach at Macomb College (1986-89) and wanted to get back to Detroit to coach.
“I was teaching at Foch Middle School (in Detroit),” he said. “That was in ’89, and I was interested in getting back to high school. So they (at Southeastern) told me to just to hang on. A day or so later they came back and asked if I could coach both. I was coaching baseball there. I said how can I do all three?”
He did, for the next four seasons. He gave up the boys basketball position after the ’93 season but remained coaching the other two.
Eventually Washington would go back to Warren and Macomb College to become the head men’s varsity basketball coach (2008-10).
Though he has curtailed his work schedule recently, Washington, for years, seemingly wasn’t happy if wasn’t working 10 hours a day or more.
This quick-pace lifestyle was the only one Washington knew. He played basketball and baseball in high school and played both when he was at Concordia College. When he transferred to Oakland after his sophomore year he quit basketball, a sport he said would save his life later, and continued playing baseball, his first love.
At Oakland he was the only African-American on the team and Washington was good, too. An infielder, he was signed by the Tigers in ’79 and went to play for their minor league team in Bristol, Va. His roommate was Bruce Fields and he played against the likes of Lou Whitaker, Alan Trammell and Kirk Gibson.
It was during his time at Oakland that the filming of the Ron LeFlore movie, ‘One in a Million: The Ron LeFlore Story’, began. LeVar Burton had the starring role but there was a problem. Burton couldn’t play baseball well and required a stand-in.
Enter Henry Washington.
“I had heard they needed extras for the movie,” Washington said. “Me and this other guy, he was from Wayne State, were the only two black guys there. And he was left-handed. So they told me I would be Burton’s stand-in. The three of us, Burton, LeFlore and me, went to Tiger Stadium for an exhibition game. They picked me on a Saturday and Monday we were filming. I remember they put me in the outfield and I said I’m an infielder. They told me to throw a wild throw to third base from center field. I didn’t have time to warm up and when I threw it, I threw my arm out. My arm was never the same.”
The Tigers released Washington after one season thus ending his playing days. That created a void and Washington sought to fill that through coaching.
“Basketball saved my life,” he said. “I got released from playing baseball but the thing was, I was making more money teaching than I was playing in the minor leagues. (Coaching) basketball gave me another goal.”
As Scott’s assistant at Southeastern, Washington coached during a time when basketball had one of its peaks in Detroit. Washington’s first season in ’79 saw players like Antoine Joubert (Detroit Southwestern), Derrick Kearney (Detroit Kettering), Robert Godbolt (Detroit Kettering) and Steve Beck (Southeastern) enter high school. Joubert went to Michigan, Kearney and Godbolt went to Louisiana Tech and Beck to Arizona State. Beck was such a fine athlete, one of the best of his era that Bo Schembechler came to the school to recruit him to play football at U-M. Washington said that baseball might have been Beck’s best sport.
After all these years Washington is still contributing to the community. He spent time recently at Southeastern lecturing on behavior intervention and is currently teaching Health, Wellness and Lifestyle Choices at Macomb College.
As a pastime during the spring, summer and fall Washington rides his bike five or six days a week sometimes 25 miles in a day.
Washington married his childhood sweetheart. He and his wife Tanya raised two children together, and they continue to be Detroit residents on the city’s eastside.
“I never had dreams of playing in the major leagues,” he said. “All I wanted was to play and compete, and have fun.
“All I ever wanted kids to do is to put the time in. Winning championships wasn’t important. It was important when someone else made it important. I tried to teach fundamentals and for them to be good citizens. I wanted them to get the best out of their abilities.”