Archive for January, 2020

Decades Ago Morgan Wootten Taught Me an Unexpected Lesson

January 26, 2020

With the passing earlier this week of Morgan Wootten, I was compelled to think of my most memorable interaction with the famed coach. 

I had heard so much about Wootten in the 1970s and 1980s while I was a track and soccer athlete at the University of Maryland and later practiced my journalism career in the Washington, D.C. area. He was a coach and mentor to some of the best high school basketball talent in the country and coached some of the best teams at DeMatha Catholic High School in Hyattsville. He was old-school honorable, respectful, competitive, and inspirational.

I had observed Wootten admirably from a distance until the early 1990s. At that time one of my journalism jobs involved work as a sports anchor and reporter for CTV News on Prince George’s County Community Television. We relied heavily on the schools’ sports teams to provide video they recorded of their games for highlight packages. Over a few years, I recall receiving video from coach Wootten only one time. It was one experience I will never forget.

When I picked up the video from his office at the school, coach Wootten emphatically asked me to ensure I return it. I promised that I would do so. 

A few days later I searched for the video to return to coach Wootten, but I could not find it. I looked throughout the newsroom, in the video storage area, and in the control room. I asked colleagues if they had seen it. Soon I realized it was gone. I felt badly about breaking my promise, but I thought, perhaps disrespectfully, that it was no big deal. It’s one tape about one game. He’ll probably forget about it, anyway. 

No such chance. A few days later coach Wootten called to ask about the tape. I told him that I had lost it and apologized for my mistake. I attended 12 years of Catholic school growing up in New Jersey and understood both the schools’ harsh approaches to discipline and the value of forgiveness. I expected coach Wootten, a staunch Catholic, to favor the latter principle, especially since I was not one of his students or players. I had hoped he would find a way to accept the transgression as a minor inconvenience. 

He did not. I don’t recall the exact words he used to express his disappointment, but they were not kind, and lacked any trace of forgiveness. Further, I was surprised by his calm, but pointed and extended expression of disappointment. I felt as if he was talking to one of his students who had cheated on a history test, or a player who ignored one of his directions at practice. I felt he as if he wanted me to feel guilt and remorse for my mistake, and I did. I also felt a bit of, are you kidding me? People make mistakes. It was an honest error. Can’t you see that?

Upon reflection, I understood the reasons for his admonishments. He was a coach and a teacher, and this was a teachable moment. And, although I was an adult in my early 30s, I realized he felt the need to teach me a lesson about respecting another person’s property and the importance of keeping a promise. 

The incident carries more significance to me now that I am a public school teacher, a youth travel soccer coach and a teacher of leadership skills through my Born Ready Project. In all capacities, I stress the values of respect and forgiveness. 

Years after the video tape incident, coach Wootten took part in a video project I produced about youth sports leadership. And most recently, he took my calls when I asked him questions for my book about Len Bias. He was very accommodating, gracious and accessible. 

And, it turns out, he forgave me after all.