Former Big Red standout Washington remembered
STEUBENVILLE — When it comes to prep football in the Ohio Valley, Steubenville Big Red is the flagship program.
Reno Saccoccia has guided the Big Red to four state championships, dating back to 1984. His teams have won nearly 400 games.
The program has produced many a great player, topped by Calvin Jones. He won the Outland Trophy in 1955 while starring at the University of Iowa. He was the first African-American to win the award which goes to college football’s premier lineman. He tragically died in a plane crash after his first year in pro football.
Sadly, the Big Red football nation lost another one of its former stars recently.
Robert “Rabbi” Washington died June 11 in Phoenix, a victim of COVID-19. He was 68.
The 1970 Steubenville grad was a three-sport prep performer, excelling in basketball and track along with football. His gridiron skills landed him a full scholarship to Notre Dame, where he graduated from in 1974.
The news of Washington’s death had a deep impact on one of his former Big Red teammates.
Gary Repella was the star quarterback for Steubenville in 1969. He and Washington formed a lethal passing tandem for Coach Abe Bryan.
Repella, who served as Steubenville’s law director for many years, was so moved after learning of Washington’s death he penned a letter to the editor for the Herald-Star. In it, he called Washington, “one of Steubenville High School’s all-time great football players.”
Repella, who went on to become a starter on the Ohio State University basketball team for Fred Taylor, recalled one Big Red grid game in particular that spoke volumes of Washington’s talent.
It was the Oct. 24, 1969, showdown against Canton McKinley, the No. 1-ranked team in Ohio, played in front of an overflow crowd at Harding Stadium.
“As the second quarter was coming to an end with McKinley holding a 14-0 lead and driving for a touchdown, Washington intercepted a pass with 19 seconds left in the half and returned it 75 yards for a touchdown,” Repella noted in his letter. “My fondest memory of playing football for Big Red is the emotion and exhilaration our teammates and coaches shared in the locker room at halftime after his spectacular play. In the second half, Robert went on to score the winning touchdown on a 39-yard touchdown reception with two minutes left in the game.”
Steubenville went 7-2-1 that season. The Big Red lost only to Niles McKinley and the state champion from Kentucky while tying perennial power Massillon. Washington turned in a spectacular 80-yard punt return in a win over rival Weir that season.
Washington courted football offers from Ohio State, Michigan, USC, Tennessee among others before deciding to play for Ara Parseghian at Notre Dame.
Washington’s brother, Les, said Tennessee was his top choice but Bryan and Parseghian had a close friendship which helped to steer him to South Bend. Les added that Woody Hayes came to the Steubenville football banquet and promised his brother a scholarship and a starting job as a sophomore defensive back, and promised Les a scholarship to carry his brother’s books. Freshmen were not eligible to play varsity in those days.
“His career at Notre Dame was hampered when he got injured as a sophomore,” Les said. “He did get a national championship ring in 1974 as well as his degree. He went on to get a good job at General Motors in Detroit before moving to Arizona where (former Notre Dame head football coach) Dan Devine helped him get a job in the pharmaceutical business.”
Saccoccia has seen many a talented Big Red gridder. He remembers Washington quite well.
“Robert was a tremendous athlete. He was super both at end and defensive back,” Saccoccia noted. “People still today talk about his heroics in the Canton McKinley game.”
While Washington blossomed into a dynamic receiver, Repella said the former Notre Damer had a much different start to his high school football career.
“When we were freshmen, we had about 70 kids on our team. They made Rabbi a guard that first year,” Repella said. “Once they realized how fast and athletic he was they moved him to receiver and defensive back as a sophomore. He was a tremendous football player and his senior year he was maybe the best sprinter in the Ohio Valley.
“Bo Schembechler really wanted Rabbi at Michigan. In Bo’s book, he says that Rabbi was one of the top recruits in the nation,” he continued. “When I got to Ohio State to play basketball sometimes I would cross paths with Woody Hayes. He would say that Rabbi was the second big-time recruit from Steubenville he lost. Calvin Jones was the first. Rabbi always will be remembered by his teammates, coaches and Big Red fans who watched him play.”