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Central High’s Mike Washington Prepares Students For Life Beyond the Gridiron

Coach Mike Washington (left) and Shamar Craig (right)

Candles, stuffed animals, flowers and handmade cards flank the sign outside the front of the Providence Career & Technical Academy, the spot where William Parsons, the 15-year-old Central High student was shot and killed just the second day into the new school year.

Shamar Craig, 17, was among the Central students at the school at the time of the shooting. He heard the sirens and quickly headed to the football practice room in the far back of the school. He sat in the room and reflected.

“That could have been me, no doubt,” he recently recalled. “I would have been in the middle or I would have been dead.”

Not anymore. A 17-year-old senior, Craig has turned his focus from the inner-city streets to football and academics, thanks to a new-found friend.

A 6’5″, 235 pound defensive end/defensive tackle, Craig is in his final campaign playing high school football — his last chance to turn his life around.

Shamar Craig

Craig has always loved football. He watched other kids in his neighborhood play Pop Warner. But money was tight when you were one of six living with a single mom in the southside of Providence. There was no extra money for youth football.

So when he entered Central High as a freshman, he immediately joined the football team. Tall, strong with a solid muscle physique , he started as a freshman, dominated the field and excelled immediately. Soon he began to draw attention from several colleges, including Boston College.

That’s when Craig met Mike Washington, a former two-time All-State running back who once led the state in touchdowns and rushing.

“I came to Central to volunteer when I took a semester off from college after undergoing knee surgery,” said Washington. “I remember first convincing (Shamar) that he had to play offensive tackle (he only played defense). I told him he was going to have to do a lot of things he didn’t want to do to get where he needed to be.”

But when Washington headed back to finish up at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, Craig headed in the wrong direction, succumbing to the inner-city streets. He got involved with the wrong crowd, which led to trouble and fights in and out of school. He was suspended on more than one occasion. Last year he was late for school more than 100 times.

“I made a lot of mistakes…dumb mistakes,” Craig said shaking his head in displeasure. “I got involved with the wrong group of friends. And because of my size, people always looked at me as a threat. I had a bad attitude and a temper.”

Coach Mike Washington

Re-enter Mike Washington.

Now a college graduate, he returned home to Providence this summer and became an assistant coach at Central, his alma mater.

“Michael Washington is the best football player I have ever coached and I have coached at Central for 14 years,” said Central Head Coach Peter Rios. “But what he is doing in such a short period of time as a coach may have a greater impact on our program.

“He has been amazing with our players. He has them in weight room, created (academic) progress reports and study halls,” said Rios. “He told them they were fortunate to play football and had them put their jerseys on and pass out food and give to those less fortunate. Michael has transformed the players attitudes. What he is teaching them goes way beyond football. He’s teaching them about life.”

Washington saw the path of destruction Craig had taken and made it his mission to turn the Knights’ senior around.

“I honestly see a lot of Shamar in myself. He is naturally gifted athlete. He is a kid with unlimited potential who just needs the right guidance to put him in the right direction,” said Washington. “I have friends who have died in the streets and I have friends who wasted all of their potential. I came back to Providence to prevent both tragedies in these kids. There are not enough young black role models in Providence that these kids can look to. I made it my obligation to step up and point these kids in the right direction. I knew if I did not come back to do my due diligence the unprogressive stagnant cycle would continue in the city I love.”

Washington immediately took Craig under his wing.

“Coach Washington has taught me how important school is. He said with a degree no one can stop you.”

“There are not a lot of kids around here with Shamar’s size and talent,” said Washington. “He needed to take that size and be a leader. I told him we didn’t have a lot of time. This was his last shot.”

Since Craig had slipped off the field, the interest from colleges slipped, too.

“He will have to go the JUCO route,” said Washington, referring to junior college. “That’s what I did. I was the best player in the state but I didn’t have the grades. I am trying to change that while I am here now.”

“Coach Washington has taken me under his wing and has become a brother to me,” said Craig. “He motivated me to do the right things. I can share anything with him and he makes sure he is there for me. I never had that before.

“I had a bad temper and people saw me as a threat,” he said. “Coach Washington taught me how to use my size and become a leader, not a follower. “

“I have a mentor in my older brother who led me to a life out of Providence so I know how important it is to have someone older than you who looks out for your best interest,” said Washington. “I felt it was only right to reciprocate that same energy to Shamar and the kids of Providence.”

Washington often drives Craig to school and makes sure Craig walks through the doors at Central on time each morning.

“He not only makes sure I am in class, he makes sure I sit in front of the class and that I raise my hand,” said Craig, who meets weekly with a tutor. “People were always looking for me in school and I was nowhere to be found. Now when people ask where Shamar is…they say “he’s in class.’ No one said that before. Coach Washington has taught me how important school is. He said with a degree no one can stop you.”

Craig said one day he would like to become a chef or a clothing designer. Maybe both. For now, he will focus on his final high school season at Central.

The Knights started the season 1-1 in Division I. Last Friday, not only did Central lose a heartbreaker to Barrington by a point in OT, they may have lost Craig for a few games after he suffered a shoulder injury. Still, he remains focused and positive.

“(Tuesday) after practice he stood up and said he had something to say to the team,” said Rios. “Shamar talked about commitment, what it takes to win and about working hard. I was very impressed. He has done a 180, a complete turnaround. He has a whole new attitude.”

“I wish I could press a button and make all the bad decisions I made go away,” Craig said.

He knows he can’t control his past, but Craig does know he can stay on the right path and with a little help from Washington, he can control his future.

“I feel like my heart and soul are clean now. I feel like I’m a better person.” said Craig.