Eric Washington is unruffled.
He is the Carolina Panthers’ defensive coordinator, promoted a month ago. The responsibility facing him is enormous, but in seven years as the team’s defensive line coach he has been a master of pressure.
The only things that give away the stress of the task Washington, 48, faces are the single gray hair that has emerged in his left eyebrow and the hundreds of notes he has scribbled into his iPad. They are reminders and ideas, teaching tools and endless lists. New notes appear as soon old ones are checked off, but Washington has these handled, too.
After 20 years in less public coaching roles, he doesn’t have a lot of practice in the spotlight, but his confidence is palpable. He is prepared for any topic or twist, and navigates them with ease.
So when, midsentence, sudden grief cracks his voice and wets his eyes, it visibly surprises him. He cannot finish his sentence. He tightly interlaces his fingers, pressing one thumb against the other until the knuckle pales and he is composed once more.
The moment comes as he discusses his biggest motivator, his mother, who died of pancreatic cancer in 1997.
When she died, Washington was just beginning his career.
Now, he is a builder of men.
And Patsy Jean Washington gave him the tools.
Where it began
When Washington was a 5-year-old in Shreveport, La., where his father was stationed in the Air Force, he raced his parents home every Sunday after church so that he could watch an NFL game, usually the New Orleans Saints or the Dallas Cowboys.
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Washington would sit motionless in front of the television for all 60 minutes of play, then run outside and try to mimic what he had just seen.
He knew he wanted to be a part of the game someday. Patsy knew it, too, and she believed in his passion.
That was her gift, Washington says. A high school French and English teacher, his mother would pinpoint the things that motivated young people, the things they were good at, and nurture them.
She did the same with her son, one of her three children. She saw his dream and his talent, and believed in him.
Now, her spirit manifests itself through him. His gift as a coach is that he is a teacher first, with a knack for communicating his message effectively.
Just like Patsy, Washington starts by figuring out what each player is good at, then nurturing that success.
“I’m going to try to find the things that they do well, and it may be one thing,” he said. “And we’re going to focus on that one thing – and hopefully we’ll develop two or three more things.
“But we’re going to really focus on that as opposed to maybe what they don’t do so well.”
And Washington’s process works. The Panthers’ defensive line has ranked in the top 10 in the NFL in sacks in five of Washington’s seven seasons with the team, including four times in the top six.
In 2017, he balanced a meeting room that contained future first-ballot Hall of Famer Julius Peppers, big-money tackle Kawann Short and veterans Charles Johnson and Mario Addison – and a handful of developing players and undrafted free agents.
He proved more than up to the task. Peppers and Addison tied for the team lead in sacks with 11, and the Panthers ranked third in the NFL in sacks with 50, with starters and backups staying healthy and rotating productively.
Then-defensive coordinator Steve Wilks, now the Arizona Cardinals head coach, praised Washington’s coaching as a big factor.
To get there with a diverse group, though, Washington’s breakdowns had to make sense to everyone.
“As a teacher and as a coach, you have to be aware of the individual differences of the people that you work with,” Washington said. “They all have different backgrounds, they all have different things that they’re motivated by. And they all learn, they all retain information in a different fashion. ...
“(And) I want the players to know that I believe in them as people, I believe in their opportunity.”
That, too, comes from Patsy.
Always with him
Washington said there isn’t a day he doesn’t think about his mother. He might be reminded of her when he looks in the mirror, because he has her eyes. He sees her in her namesake, his 7-year-old son Ellis Gene.
Washington played tight end at Grambling State and got his degree in 1993. He took his first coaching job at Ruston Junior High in Louisiana and worked his way up to high school coach.
Patsy was already sick by the time Washington accepted his first collegiate position, as a graduate assistant at Texas A&M in 1997.
Right after he moved to College Station, he got a phone call from his family in Shreveport.
Patsy had passed away. She was 53; Washington was 27.
Washington had lost someone he depended on, and had a hard time accepting that.
“You have to find a way to harness what you learned, and to utilize those things,” he said. “You have to move forward. You can’t stay in that same spot, even if it’s a spot of immense pain.
“You can’t stay there.”
What stayed with Washington were the memories of his mother, and the lessons she taught.
And the way Washington coaches makes one thing apparent: She never truly left him.