By Josh Barr and Hamil H. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
After friends and colleagues paid their tributes to Suitland High School football coach Nick Lynch, his older brother Keith approached the podium at Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church during yesterday afternoon's funeral service with a football tucked under his right arm.
Before nearly 3,000 mourners, Keith Lynch ticked off his brother's accomplishments at Suitland, a 13-year tenure that included a 117-33 record and two state championships, and -- looking to his right, where many members of this past season's team sat, some wearing their jerseys -- said that none of those victories mattered.
"The most impressive stat of Nick's life was how he impacted the kids," Keith Lynch said, holding aloft the ball, which commemorated Suitland's 2004 Maryland 4A championship, the first football title in school history. "He committed his life to kids. He took time to teach our young men about the principles of living and honor."
Lynch was killed in a car accident early in the morning on Dec. 31. According to Maryland State Police Trooper Wesley Brown, Lynch's 2008 Dodge Magnum was struck by an oncoming vehicle when he turned left off Branch Avenue onto Brandywine Road as he apparently was returning home. Lynch was transported to Southern Maryland Hospital in Clinton, where he was pronounced dead. He was 43.
The driver of the other vehicle suffered a broken leg, Brown said.
While school was closed for winter vacation until this week, news of Lynch's death spread quickly in the Suitland community and in the area's coaching fraternity. A candlelight vigil was held Friday and Suitland Principal Mark Fossett worked feverishly to have things in place for yesterday's service.
First Priority Bus Tours, hired by the school to take its teams to Baltimore for the two state championship games, donated transportation for the football team and cheerleaders to attend yesterday's service in Fort Washington. Workers at the school were prepared for more than 1,000 mourners to gather at Suitland for a repast following the burial ceremony. Henry's Soul Food Cafe in Oxon Hill donated food, as did the Ebenezer church and County Council member Camille Exum, Fossett said.
The outpouring of support for Lynch's family was apparent early in the day at Ebenezer. A line wound down a hallway and around a corner as people arrived well before the viewing began at 9 a.m., and a steady stream of visitors continued to pour into the lobby and then into the sanctuary over the next three hours.
"I always thought he was more concerned with his teammates and what they were doing and the success of the team than individual stuff," said Ben Wright, the football coach at Thomas Johnson High in Frederick, who coached Lynch at Eleanor Roosevelt High.
Wright brought with him a large, framed photo of the 1981 team from Lynch's junior year, with Lynch wearing No. 82 and sitting in the center of the front row.
"I figured maybe his wife or his brother might want it," Wright said. Lynch "was just a real hard worker who took care of everybody. He was just very humble. He liked people and people liked him."
As he waited to sign the condolence book, Willie Stewart, the football coach at Anacostia High School in the District, looked around a lobby filled with players past and present and said: "Coaches have a special relationship with their athletes: dad, brother, uncle. He is really going to be missed by these young men."
Current and former players, high school and college coaches from around the area and others filled the 2,500-seat church. Among them were University of Maryland football coach Ralph Friedgen and two assistants; Ron Vanderlinden, Friedgen's predecessor and a current Penn State assistant coach, with his colleague Larry Johnson; and incoming New Mexico coach Mike Locksley, a former Maryland assistant. Prince George's County Executive Jack B. Johnson and other elected officials also were in attendance.
"Nick was like an ambassador to Prince George's County football; I was proud to be his secretary of state," Terrill Williams, a close friend and an assistant coach to Lynch for the past 12 seasons, told the crowd. "Coaching came naturally to Nick. He had a driving force around him -- he wouldn't let anyone around him have any ounce of quit. He wouldn't rest until he felt he had given every kid an opportunity for success. It was truly a 24-hour job with Coach."
Lynch's son David, 23, remembered his father teaching how to be mentally tough. "If it's not taught, you won't be able to get through things like this," he said. "To all the kids -- the ones who graduated this year and in the future -- I want you to wear that 'S' with pride."
Hundreds of mourners filed past Lynch's black-and-silver casket, which was flanked by photos of him, his family and players.
"That's my father," Keith Brown, a junior running back and safety at Suitland, said afterward. "He kept it real and he told you how he felt. You liked it or you didn't. I learned it the hard way. I came in thinking I was a star, but he put me in my place."
The Rev. Grainger Browning of Ebenezer called it the largest funeral ever held at the church. Workers hurried to set up folding chairs in some aisles, while more people stood in stairways and others filled in a section where the church's 50-member choir sat behind the altar.
"Coach is no longer with us in person, but he will always be with us in spirit," Fossett said.