At Funeral Mass, DeMatha Coach Morgan Wootten’s legacy as a coach, teacher and man of faith remembered
Jan 29, 2020
Legendary DeMatha Catholic High School basketball Coach Morgan Wootten was remembered not only as a dedicated family man devoted to his Catholic faith, but also as a teacher, mentor and coach whose life – rooted in God, family, education and basketball in that order – influenced the lives of countless of young men on and off the court. Wootten died on Jan. 21 at the age of 88.
For the Jan. 27 funeral Mass, 1,500 mourners – many former players, coaching and teaching colleagues, family and friends – filled the Morgan and Kathy Wootten Gymnasium on the campus of DeMatha, where from 1956 to 2002, Wootten served as the head basketball coach and was a world history teacher at the all-boys school in Hyattsville, Maryland.
“We give thanks today for the legacy of Morgan Wootten and his impact on the lives of thousands and thousands of people,” said Trinitarian Father Damien Anuszewski, a longtime member of DeMatha’s faculty.
Throughout Coach Wootten’s 46-year career, he became famous for many extraordinary basketball accomplishments, among them were 1,274 victories, his induction as the first high school coach into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2000, sending a dozen former players to the NBA and many more to the college ranks. His teams won five national high school championships, 22 city titles and 33 Washington Catholic Athletic Conference championships. In 1965, Wootten coached DeMatha to national prominence following an historic and improbable win over New York City’s Power Memorial led by star player Lew Alcindor, who later became Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, breaking their 71-game winning streak.
But he always remained foremost a man of humility, who never wavered in emphasizing the strict order of his life’s oft-repeated priorities - God, family, school and basketball, said the priest.
“Whenever Morgan was honored in any venue, in his remarks he always thanked God, his family, the coaches and players who made possible the many recognitions he received. He would always share the honors,” he said. “He stressed year after year after year the importance of those priorities.”
The values that shaped and guided Coach Wootten’s entire life, Father Anuszewski said, were instilled early on by his parents’ example of faith and hard work. As a youngster, Coach Wootten moved in 1940 from Durham, North Carolina, to Hyattsville, where he became an altar server at the St. John de Matha Monastery. He began his coaching career at St. Joseph’s Home and School for Boys, an orphanage in Northeast Washington. While working toward his degree from the University of Maryland, he coached junior varsity basketball at St. John’s College High School until 1956, when he left to coach football and basketball at DeMatha Catholic High School.
“At the moment of his Baptism, he was a child of God and began his journey of faith. On Tuesday, Jan. 21 that journey of 88 years reached its glorious end and the Lord called Morgan to his heavenly reward,” said the priest.
He said Coach Wootten and his wife, Kathy, were generous to all and relied on their shared, steadfast Catholic faith throughout their 55-year marriage, especially during the challenging times as when the coach endured a life-saving liver transplant in 1996 and 10 years later a kidney transplant from his youngest son, Joe. “Morgan and Kathy showed us what it means to trust in God,” he said.
In the summer of 1996, Coach Wootten collapsed at his summer youth basketball camp and almost died before undergoing emergency surgery after his liver failed due to an autoimmune disease. Only a few months later, in November of that same year, he was back on the court coaching, having achieved his greatest victory of all.
Following his health ordeal, Wootten said the principles that defined his life were not only reaffirmed, but he gained a greater appreciation of his blessings. “To me, the big thing is I think I understand more fully God’s gifts to us – the gift of life, the gift of a beautiful sunset, the most simplest of things,” he said in a 1996 Catholic Standard interview when he returned to DeMatha. “Everything has taken on a deeper meaning of how thankful we should be for each and every little thing.” He would go on to coach until 2002, and thanks to his organ donors, he lived for another 23 years.
During the coach’s retirement years, the Woottens attended daily Mass together at St. Mark Parish, Hyattsville, followed by breakfast, and then a visit to DeMatha where they would walk the indoor track for their exercise. “Every day they refreshed their souls and bodies, and refreshed us as well by their presence on campus,” the priest said.
In closing his homily, Father Anuszewski asked funeral-goers to join him in reciting the Memorare prayer: “Remember, O Most gracious Virgin Mary, that never was it known that anyone who fled to your protection, implored your help or sought your intercession, was left unaided. Inspired by this confidence, I fly unto you, O Virgin of virgins, my Mother; to you I come, before you I stand, sinful and sorrowful. O Mother of the Word Incarnate, despise not my petitions, but in your mercy hear and answer me. Amen.”
Before every single basketball game and at every game’s halftime, Coach Wootten led his players in the same Memorare prayer. The priest noted, “I once asked him, ‘Why have you chosen that prayer?’ He said, ‘It’s very simple. The words. What are the words saying to us?’”
According to the coach’s final wishes, the Wootten’s 15 grandchildren served as lectors and honorary pall bearers during the funeral Mass. They lovingly adorned the altar before the liturgy began with memorabilia of their beloved grandfather, such as the Holy Bible, a basketball, a world history book, a photo of Kathy and Morgan Wootten, and his basketball Hall of Fame hat.
Washington Auxiliary Bishop Michael W. Fisher and more than a dozen priests concelebrated the Mass. The chorus of DeMatha led the congregation in hymns, “How Great Thou Art,” “Be Not Afraid,” and “Amazing Grace.”
Also among the attendees were Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, who attended DeMatha for two years and was a student basketball manager; House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.); and Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, DeMatha class of ’96.
In a eulogy, CBS Sports NFL broadcaster James Brown, a DeMatha graduate and standout basketball player under Wootten, praised his former coach as a man of great faith and character who imparted fundamental life lessons through the game of basketball. “Morgan taught that the fundamentals are timeless. They’re tried, they’re true and they are proven,” he said. “If you want to enjoy sustained success, what’s important is to do the ordinary things extraordinarily well.”
He said Coach Wootten never became anxious about winning a game, but rather he always stressed to his players, “It was about maximizing the gifts and talents with which the Lord blessed us to become the best player, to become the best teammate, to become the best person that we could.”
Local sports broadcaster Johnny Holliday, said of his longtime friend, “There aren’t almost any words that can adequately describe him by anybody who he came in touch with... He was known for his coaching, but as far as a human being he had this aura and wonderful charisma. He really did things the right way.”
Holliday also recalled asking Coach Wootten four years ago if he would accept a recognition at a charity golf tournament. He said the coach seemed genuinely surprised and humbly replied, ‘“I don’t know why you want to honor me, but I’m glad to help anyway I can,’ and he did.”
Maryland Gov. Hogan shared fond memories serving as a DeMatha basketball manager during his freshman year and getting to know Coach Wootten as both a teacher and a coach. “He was an incredible man. He really touched my life. He was my history teacher and had such an influence on me. At the time, I wanted to grow up and be a coach,” he told the Catholic Standard. “He molded the lives of so many young men.”
Pat Smith, DeMatha Class of ’82, is a former player and assistant coach for Morgan Wootten, who has taught English at the school for 30 years. He describes his former coach and boss as a true leader and mentor who was always prepared, unflappable and an inspiration to all those around him.
“My biggest thought is the impact he had on so many lives...He was constantly telling us how to be an example of a good player and a good person. We are seeing the truth of this coming to fruition,” said Smith, looking around and pointing to the gym filled with generations of Wootten’s former players and coaches.
Members of the 2020 DeMatha basketball team, who handed out programs prior to the funeral, prayed for the former coach in his final days. Hunter Dickinson, a senior basketball player, said although he never played for Coach Wootten, he was honored to meet him on a few occasions. He spoke of the late coach’s impact and lasting legacy on the team today.
“He was such a great guy of high character. Our coach (current DeMatha basketball coach Mike Jones) talked about him, and told us, ‘You can’t go to DeMatha and not know about Coach Wootten.’ How we practice, our plays, when you think about DeMatha basketball, you think first of Morgan Wootten,” said Dickinson, who will play basketball next year for the University of Michigan.
During wake services held over two days on the weekend before Monday’s funeral, 2,000 well-wishers came to DeMatha to honor Coach Wootten and pay their respects to his family.
In a final moving tribute to Coach Wootten, at the conclusion of the Mass, more than 100 of his former players and coaching colleagues in attendance lined both sides of the gym’s center aisle, forming an honor guard as the coach’s remains were processed out of the gymnasium.
Coach Wootten is survived by his wife, Kathy; their five children and their spouses -- Cathy (Mike) Stamper, Carol (Steve) Paul, Trish Wootten, Brendan (Elizabeth) Wootten and Joe (Terri Lynn) Wootten; their 15 grandchildren -- Stephen (Cameryn) Paul, Bucky Paul, Kiersten Paul, Nick Stamper, Ryan Stamper, Charlie Paul, Greg Stamper, Megan Wootten, Kevin Stamper, Micky Wootten, Ally Wootten, Caitlin Stamper, Alexa Wootten, Reese Wootten and Jackson Wootten; his brother Angus (Batya) Wootten; his sisters Clare (Bob) Crawford-Mason, and Lee Wootten; and his extended family at DeMatha. Interment was in Gate of Heaven Cemetery, Silver Spring.
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