If you ask Ed Washington why he spent last fall at Verdese Carter Park watching teenagers trip over potholes, amid a raging pandemic, the high school football coach has a simple answer: “God kept telling me, ‘Look, these kids at Castlemont need you. I want you to go back.’”

Raised in East Oakland, Washington spent four years playing defensive back in the early 2000s for the Castlemont Knights. He earned a football scholarship to Texas College, an Historically Black College in Tyler, Texas. Then, as a 26-year-old in 2013, Washington returned to accept the head coaching position for a team that hadn’t won a game in three years. Washington’s first game coaching ended the losing streak. 

But in 2017, the death of his grandmother left Washington—seemingly always flashing a million-dollar smile—reeling and exhausted. He temporarily moved to Houston, hoping to rekindle some of the joy from his college years. Yet, a voice inside of Washington kept calling him back to Castlemont High and his old neighborhood in East Oakland. That inner voice is what led him to the pothole-infested field last October.  

Washington, determined to prepare for the season despite the pandemic shutting down the school’s campus, organized unofficial practices—the team’s first since March 2020—four days a week at Verdese Carter Park on 98th and Bancroft Avenue. Surrounded by a 10-foot chain-link fence, the grassy area at the park resembles a poorly maintained P.E. field. But between the pick-up soccer games and children riding ATVs, Washington claimed just enough space for a semblance of practice. Each day produced a different result, with some practices receiving up to 25 out-of-shape players and others a mere six. 

None of that mattered for Washington, who is also a ninth-grade social worker at Castlemont. For months during the pandemic, he yearned for opportunities to keep his players busy and outside the house. He’d spent most school days conducting welfare checks with students and helping them avoid trouble. Now, he was attempting to fulfill those duties and oversee a delayed five-game football season, all while his players and other students adapted to online classes. 

“I don’t come and just coach football,” Washington says. “If you think you’re going to come with that type of mindset you’re sadly mistaken. You’re a therapist, counselor, educator, friend and social worker.”

Castlemont High head football coach Ed Washington leads the team in a chant during practice on April 15, 2021.
Castlemont High head football coach Ed Washington leads the team in a chant during practice on April 15, 2021. Credit: Mathew Miranda

Almost 11 months after OUSD schools closed to students, cutting off in-person classes and sports, the Oakland Athletic League, which oversees sports programs at Castlemont and five other Oakland public high schools, restarted sports conditioning on Feb. 8. For the Castlemont players, it meant they could finally leave the park and return to their decades-old home field. And for Washington, it meant he could blast George Clinton through his speakers during practices and have all the assistant coaches together on a field. 

Nearly all the coaches, except for Washington’s longtime defensive coordinator Richard Lee, are first-timers—a testament to the man they joined to help.

“We’re all here because of Ed,” said secondary coach John McLeod. 

McLeod, a Mountain View police officer who works 10-hour overnight shifts, didn’t bother saying no when Washington asked him to coach. Twelve years earlier, during the first day of conditioning at Diablo Valley College where McLeod was then a player, Washington personally offered to teach him footwork. Castlemont’s offensive coordinator Omar Kharroub, a former Brazilian football league quarterback, knew Washington solely as a friend on Facebook, before receiving a phone call last August. It only took Washington 30-minutes to convince him to join the coaching staff. And Lee, a father of seven children, including two sets of twins, learned long ago to not argue with Washington. Back when they played together in high school, Washington called Lee every day for two weeks straight until he agreed to stop missing practices. 

“The reason I got back into football was because of Ed,” Lee says. 

The first game of the season against Oakland Tech on March 27 ended in a heart-breaking 30-26 loss. The boys’ lack of conditioning was evident in their gasps for air and cries for water in the second half. 

But Washington had greater concerns on his mind. The week marked the worst of an already traumatic year in Oakland, with six homicides in six days. At the time this article was published, 54 people had already been murdered in Oakland this year—more than double the number at the same time last year, according to police records.

“It gets tiring hearing of people dying or shot,” Washington says. 

Castlemont High head football coach Ed Washington and secondary coach John McLeod watch their team play against McClymonds High on April 10, 2021.
Castlemont High head football coach Ed Washington and secondary coach John McLeod watch their team play against McClymonds High on April 10, 2021. Credit: Mathew Miranda

Growing up in East Oakland, Castlemont wide receiver Kevin Fowler and his teammates try to not let the uptick in violence faze them. “I’m just used to gunshots already,” Fowler says. Others, like quarterback Daniel Parsons and defensive tackle Charleston Waugh, have suffered personal losses. In 2017, Parsons’ cousin, a high school senior, was shot and killed at the Giant Burgers on MacArthur Boulevard. Waugh never met his father, who died in a shooting on the corner of McClymonds High School.

This reality is one of the reasons Washington personally spends hundreds of dollars on Ubers and gas money for coaches who give players rides. He emphasizes walking home as a last resort and will scold those few that decide to sneak off walking after practice or games. Washington estimates spending $2,000 to $3,000 out of his own pocket each season. His coaching salary is $1,700.

“We are not in that position to walk home,” Washington says of his players. “I’d rather make sure the boys get a ride.”

On a windy Friday afternoon in early April, the day before Castlemont’s highly anticipated game against rival and three-time state champion McClymonds, Washington speeds through practice. He’s spent the week conditioning the boys: running the creaky wooden bleachers, running the sun-burnt track, running the synthetic turf field. At 5 p.m, the players huddle around Washington. The coach pulls out his iPhone, hands it to the closest player and tells him to pass it around. A McClymonds coach texted him a tongue-in-cheek message earlier in the week: “100-0.” 

Washington knows that playing the underdog is Castlemont’s best chance against a team that just defeated its previous opponent 59-0. After all, for most of his players, that’s all they know. There’s defensive tackle Angel Martinez, who walks 45 minutes from his father’s house to get to practice. Star running back Joshua Jones grew up in the foster care system and works a five-hour shift at Footlocker before games. Offensive tackle Franklin Davis, one of two seniors on the team, only recently learned football after moving from Lagos, Nigeria to Oakland last year. Davis worries that one shortened season of tape won’t be enough to capture the attention of college scouts. 

“Whatever you got going on in your life, your situation, take it out on them tomorrow,” Washington says, in his final words to the team before breaking the huddle. “That’s why I love coaching y’all—because all y’all have something going on. Take that out on them tomorrow.”

Castlemont would lose 59-0 the next day.  

Castlemont High head football coach Ed Washington hugs 16-year-old wide receiver Kevin Fowler after a 59-0 loss to McClymonds High on April 10, 2021.
Castlemont High head football coach Ed Washington hugs 16-year-old wide receiver Kevin Fowler after a 59-0 loss to McClymonds High on April 10, 2021. Credit: Mathew Miranda

Zero wins, four losses. That’s the Knights’ record before their final game of the season on April 30, a rematch against Oakland Tech. Considering Castlemont’s lack of experience and inconsistent practice schedule all year, the record means little to Washington. He likens the season to spring training. For a team with only two seniors and more than a dozen first-time players, the goal is to teach the fundamentals of the game. The winning, hopefully, will come in later seasons. Yet, football remains a second priority. 

“Football comes and goes,” Washington often tells the team. “It’s about the life lessons. It’s about becoming a better person.” 

Washington partners with two local organizations, My Other Brother and OK Program, to reach that goal. Operating through the Oakland Police Department, the OK Program aims to reduce the high incarceration and homicide rates among African American young men and develop leadership and life skills, while My Other Brother provides educational support to students through mentoring and workshops. Whether by organizing college preparation materials, leading study halls, or dropping off boxes of food, these programs provide much-needed support.

“Our kids go through a lot,” said Robert Smith, the OK Program director and an Oakland police officer. “No one understands the amount of crap our kids go through daily.”

That “crap” is why, after every game, Smith arranges for a team dinner that typically consists of Mountain Mike’s pizza. It’s also why his organization runs a food distribution program through the Acts Full Gospel Church that serves as a makeshift grocery store for struggling families. And it’s why, since meeting each other in 2015, Washington and Smith have teamed up for weekly visits to students’ homes to provide food, counseling, and even prayer. 

“It’s not hard work,” Smith said. “It’s heart work and Ed has the heart to do it.”

The Castlemont High football team huddles before its 32-6 loss against Skyline High on April 17, 2021.
The Castlemont High football team huddles before its 32-6 loss against Skyline High on April 17, 2021. Credit: Mathew Miranda

Despite a slow start, the final game is one of Castlemont’s best of the season. At halftime, they’re only down 6-0. In the second half, Tech comes out firing and scores on its first possession. A rally, led by Jones’ strong running and monster blocks from Davis, brings the Knights to within one score late in the fourth quarter. Tech answers with a 75-yard run. Washington paces up and down the sideline, his head bowed as if in prayer. He knows the season is fading. The offense has one last chance to score, and then, an interception with two minutes left seals the game. As Tech is running down the clock and Washington begins to exchange hugs with the assistant coaches, he catches a few players with their heads pointed toward the ground. 

“I walk out of here with my chin held high,” he tells them. “Y’all do the same.”

It’s nearly 9 p.m. The game finished two hours ago but Washington sits in Castlemont’s film room rubbing his forehead and blurting out the occasional expletive. He looks older than his 33 years. Thirty minutes ago the room was filled with 27 sweaty teenagers chattering about their plans for next season while munching through seven boxes of pizza. Now, it’s just Washington and the five players that still need a ride home. Washington can only fit three in his 2015 white Honda Sonata. He’s waiting on the one assistant coach that agreed to return to campus and give a ride to the twins. The remaining boys are discussing whether it’s ethical to include a touchdown that was disallowed in the game due to a penalty on their highlight tape. They ultimately decide that with a couple of video edits no one will know the difference. 

Washington, pretending not to overhear, turns to a visitor, looks at him directly in the eyes, and jokes, “Do you want to be the head coach of this team?” But before that person can answer, Washington chuckles to himself and rises from his chair. He still needs to lock up the bathrooms and empty the trash. Then he will happily drive three teenagers safely home.

Mathew Miranda is a first-year student and reporter at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. He has reported for The Orion, Chico Enterprise-Record, Richmond Confidential and Richmond Pulse. Follow him on Twitter @mathewjmiranda.