Central High School sophomore quarterback Eric Featherston was stretching in front of his team's bench when Coach Robert Cashwell bent down to speak with him. It was a quiet conversation, no screaming or yelling. Cashwell just wanted to make sure his young team leader was ready to direct the undefeated Falcons against visiting Crossland.
Central went on to defeat the Cavaliers, 52-0, scoring 45 points in the first half. But just as important as the score was the tall and slender man strolling the Central sidelines. Cashwell, a football institution for four decades in the Washington area, has come out of retirement at the age of 66 to coach Central.
He is mellower these days, according to his players and other coaches who have known him. He is still a tough taskmaster. But as often happens when men get older, the rough exterior has faded a little, yet the hunger to lead a team continues to burn.
"It [the desire to coach] never dies," says Cashwell, who ran the program at Fairmont Heights from 1966 to 1972 and won five county championships during his seven seasons. Cashwell stayed in football after leaving Fairmont Heights--he was an assistant coach for Bowie State University, the minor league Washington Stonewalls and Oxon Hill High School. But he got out of the game completely at the end of the 1997-98 school year, when he retired as vice principal of Gwynn Park High School.
Cashwell's retirement turned out to be short. He returned to Central as a physical education teacher and football coach this fall. He is the beneficiary of a Prince George's County school system that needs to fill teaching vacancies by luring back retirees. Cashwell is among 118 retirees who will continue to receive their pensions while drawing an annual salary ($52,000 for Cashwell) for teaching this year.
Although he teaches the rudiments of the forehand to unfazed teenagers during the school day, it is no secret that football is where Cashwell's passions lie. He approached the Prince George's school district about coming back to coach, and eagerly applied for the vacancy at Central when he learned it was open.
He said he does not need the money. He simply got bored with retirement, filling his days playing tennis two to three times a week. "My wife says I stayed in front of the [television] more than anything else," he said.
Although running a high school football team in an era of cash-strapped athletic programs can be trying, Cashwell is thriving. It helps that he inherited a Falcons team with a winning attitude after posting a 6-4 record last season in Prince George's 2A/1A league. So far this year, Central is 3-0, but will not face its first real test until it plays Forestville in three weeks.
"Central is coming from a long history of losing," Fairmont Heights Coach Ralph Paden said. "Henry Frazier [who left Central to become Bowie State's head coach last year] turned that program around. [Cashwell] is benefiting from that. Those kids came back with an attitude of winning."
Cashwell retained Roy Jones, who has worked with the Falcons as an assistant coach and runs the same offensive system instituted by Cashwell's predecessor, Frazier.
Cashwell "gives me a full freedom to do what I need to do or whatever needs to be done," Jones said. "I didn't want to leave these kids. I really believe we have something special here."
While some coaches privately have questioned the merits of giving a 66-year-old coach the Central job, Cashwell still believes he has something to teach his kids. Cashwell learned the fundamentals of football from his high school coach at Bolling High School in tiny Lewisburg, W. Va.
"My coach talked nothing but football," Cashwell recalled. "In fact, when I came to Prince George's County, he had already taught me spreads and the shotgun [formation], and that was back in the early 1940s."
Cashwell gained a reputation as a disciplinarian, known for long practice sessions and little tolerance for players who bucked authority. Bob Johnson, who played under Cashwell at Fairmont Heights and now coaches football at Parkdale High School, admits fearing his former coach.
Johnson said he was punished with running a steep hill behind the field at Fairmont Heights every day for two weeks after coming off the bench during a game to tackle an opponent who had broken free on a long run.
"I can't believe that this guy is still coaching," Johnson said. "He's probably one of the toughest people I know. After I graduated from high school and college, I got a true perspective on what he did for me. He knew that life wasn't going to be easy and you couldn't come through it with just athletics."
Paden recalled watching Fairmont Heights practices in which Cashwell would write plays on a big piece of cardboard and hold it up to help his squad learn them. "He would make the kids go over and over the plays. He would demand that they would run it right," Paden said. "His kids were more disciplined than other kids."
Preparation, Cashwell said, is one key to controlling the game.
"Kids play better when they know the situation in which they're walking into," he said. "That's why we look at film all the time. If there is a mistake, I don't want the kids to say we never saw it before."
Yet, it is Cashwell's intensity and desire to win that resulted in one of the most embarrassing and demoralizing moments of his football career. Cashwell, Oxon Hill's defensive coordinator at the time, was suspended from coaching for a year for his part in an altercation between Oxon Hill and Bowie during halftime of the their state quarterfinal playoff game in 1988.
"They put two championship teams in the same locker room. I definitely should have handled the situation differently," Cashwell said of the situation that led to his hitting another coach. "It was a very bad time for me."
Not only was he out of football for the first time since 1957, but Cashwell said the suspension restricted him from seeing his son, James, play as a fullback and linebacker for Oxon Hill. "It [the suspension] changed the way I reacted to football. Before, I was extremely aggressive. Now, I'm not as aggressive. I can see it as a game."
Now, Cashwell has moved quickly to learn the nuances of modern high school football. He no longer runs marathon practice sessions, realizing eight years ago that the attention span and energy of his players lapses after an hour and a half.
However, he still stresses discipline--he didn't hesitate to sit starting running back Amir Davis against Crossland when the senior missed a team practice.
"He's great," said Robert Bennett, a senior offensive lineman who transferred to Central from Bladensburg this year. "He's tough. He stays on us making sure we do everything right. He really doesn't have a temper. He tells us what to do and sits back to watch us react."
Featherston said Cashwell has brought the Falcons even closer as a team by requiring all players to wear the same shoes and carry their street clothes in Central bags. "It makes us look more like a team, and feel like a family," the quarterback said.
Parkdale's Johnson has helped get Cashwell back up to speed as far as league opponents and tendencies. Said Cashwell: "I felt comfortable talking to Robbie. We've always been pretty close. He gave me insight on what changes have happened in the football program since I had been out. We talked about the politics and other organizational things."
One thing that hasn't changed in Cashwell's 40-odd years of coaching is his desire to win and his commitment to put his team in that position. In the same breath, he said he may only coach for a couple of years, and then he went on about the two 10th-grade quarterbacks he has waiting in the wings.
"My goal is to win a state championship," Cashwell said. "That's what the kids want. Their football team has never been ranked in the papers. They want to be ranked. I want to seem them ranked."