We recently said goodbye to one of our true Washington area heroes. DeMatha Catholic High School’s Hall of Fame Coach Morgan Wootten deservedly gained recognition as one of the best basketball coaches ever, but he was first and foremost a man of God whose wisdom and example will live for generations through the thousands of lives he touched.
Heroes are not always those in the spotlight who dazzle us on the court or the field, or who occupy what society might consider high places of importance. Teachers and coaches, and especially Morgan Wootten, are heroes because they shape us day by day by what they teach and how they live their lives.
Morgan unquestionably lived the values he taught. He made it clear to his players from day one that God should be first, followed by family, then school, and basketball no higher than fourth. From my perspective, he was indeed a man of God first, and then a man of family, teaching, and coaching. He was everything you could ask for in a role model not just for teachers and coaches but for all of us wanting to live a Christian life.
I first remember Morgan from my high school days as I watched him coach against my school, St. John’s. I was never good enough to play basketball, but I loved the game and attended many St. John’s-DeMatha battles. Those games showcased some of the best high school basketball in the city, and it was a thrill to watch two coaching giants go against each other: Morgan and Joe Gallagher, for whom he had once worked.
His teams and players got the attention, but I heard from friends at DeMatha that Morgan was known as an equally great history teacher. He made history come alive through the stories he told and through discussions with students about how they might respond in the same situation as a Napoleon, Churchill, and other important figures in world history.
When I was director of the Catholic Youth Organization for the Archdiocese of Washington in the 1980s, I frequently asked Morgan to speak to our coaches. Many coaches would come to hear him, eager to learn from someone who was a huge success in basketball and, even more importantly, helping young people reach their full potential in life.
I think the most poignant story I ever heard from Morgan was at one of those coaching clinics. DeMatha had just lost the city championship game, and Morgan walked into a locker room filled with glum faces, hanging heads and understandable sadness. He made one comment to his team:
“I know how sad you are right now and how tough it is to lose this game, but think what it would be like to lose your soul.”
What a powerful lesson – even at a time of deep disappointment – that our relationship with God comes first, that we will live forever with God, and that God wants us to live a strong moral life with character. Morgan taught us all that winning the game of life here leads us to the ultimate championship in heaven.
I still chuckle thinking back to how Morgan liked to tease me at the coaching clinics. “Father John called and asked me to come do this talk,” he would frequently tell the coaches. “When I drove in the parking lot, I knew he was already here because I saw the stained-glass windows in his car.” He got a laugh every time, from the crowd and me.
I always found Morgan to be a man with great advice and counsel for those of us trying to help others draw closer to God. I was blessed to visit his home a few times, and I always loved seeing Kathy, his beloved wife of 55 years. I was also blessed to teach their daughter, Cathy, at Immaculata.
Morgan Wootten had a major impact on the game of basketball – at all levels. He had a major impact on our city and sports in the Washington area. He impacted Catholic education. He impacted his parish, St. Mark’s in Hyattsville. His impact on those who knew him, coached with him, played for him, and learned from him will continue for generations to come.
I suggest we all take a moment to examine our lives and whether our priorities reflect what we truly believe. Is God first, followed by family, then school or career, and only then other important activities?
Morgan practiced what he preached. I remember when he was courted by North Carolina State and had the chance to take what the world would consider a major step up and coach at a prestigious college, not to mention earn a very big payday. He ultimately said no, believing his place was shaping young men in high school. He wanted to do what God wanted him to do. Staying home was his answer to God’s call.
What a difference it would make – to us and to those whose lives we touch – if we also worked hard to put God first, to do God’s will, and to respond affirmatively to all God asks of us.
I thank God for the gift of Morgan Wootten, and I thank Morgan for his faith, his wisdom, and his friendship. I would be way down on his long list of friends, but I cherish the talks we had and the opportunity to learn from a great coach, an even better man, and for me a modern-day saint.
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