Special to the Gazette-Journal
The last time the Washington Redskins won the Super Bowl, Bill and Hillary Clinton hadn’t yet become household names in America. The date was Jan. 26, 1992 when the Redskins defeated the AFC champion Buffalo Bills, 37-24. Then Redskins coach Joe Gibbs became only the third head coach to win three Super Bowls.
Fans have waited for a return to those glory days, and nearly 20 years later, it just might take a Mathews County native to help turn things around. "This is the strongest team I’ve ever been a part of," Malcolm Blacken said.
Blacken, a 1984 graduate of Mathews High School, was hired by new Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan in February as the assistant strength and conditioning coach, his second stint with the team. A text message made it all possible.
"It was the second week in February," Blacken said. "We wanted to get out of the house and so we went on a three-day trip to Chicago." Blacken text messaged Larry Foote, a friend and current linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, to say hello. "Larry texted me back, ‘Who is Ray Wright?’" Blacken and Wright had long been associated with each other and both had talked about working together one day.
In his text, Foote said that Wright was just made the head strength and conditioning coach with the Redskins. Blacken jumped at the possible opportunity of working with his old friend.
"I knew the position was open but I was still under contract with the Lions," Blacken said. "I called Ray and he said, ‘I’ve just landed in Houston. Let me call you back in 10 minutes.’ At that point, it made it real."
Blacken explained that since he was still under contract with the Detroit Lions, he had to get permission to speak to the Redskins. It wasn’t long before he was on a plane to Washington for an interview with Shanahan. Soon after, he was offered the job.
What does Blacken’s role with the Redskins mean exactly? "My position is so important to football players at this level," Blacken said. "We lift weights to help with injuries. Most important, we lift weights to gain more muscle, and by gaining more muscle we are able to store more energy. It is that stored energy that makes football players more explosive on the playing field."
Blacken’s job with the Redskins is vital. "When you go into a new environment and into a new NFL locker room, the hardest part is building the trust of the players, getting them to be comfortable with you and learning a little more about their lives than what’s on the surface."
Blacken said it’s one of the few coaching positions in the NFL organization that you really have a relationship with the players, like quarterback Donovan McNabb, because "my job is to help prolong their career." Wright said Blacken is "excellent" with the team.
Blacken, 44, calls head coach Shanahan "a no-nonsense guy, very confident in how he wants it and how he wants it done. He shoots straight from the hip and I like that. At the end of the day, he has a program that simply works. I’ve seen coaches try to be the players’ coach, their friend—it didn’t work. I think he comes with so much respect that these players don’t want to disappoint him."
Shanahan’s coaching style is unique, Blacken said, because "he keeps the main thing, the main thing. If we’re working on being efficient inside the red zone, we’re working on that every single day."
Blacken has a history of involvement in professional football. He spent the last nine years as the Detroit Lions’ strength and conditioning coach. Jason Arapoff directs the Lions’ strength and conditioning program. He and Blacken have a long friendship going back years and worked together during Blacken’s first assignment with the Redskins from 1996 to 2000.
"His skill set and the things he brings to the table are well respected" in the NFL community, Arapoff said.
Prior to his first job with the Redskins, Blacken was an assistant strength coach for the University of Virginia’s football program in the mid-90s. He also served in a similar capacity for George Mason University in Fairfax.
Blacken is a 1989 graduate of Virginia Tech, where he was a Hokies running back from 1984 to 88. It was here that he realized his life’s calling. "After my junior year, I made up my mind that’s what I wanted to do," he said. Blacken was one of just two players to win the Super Iron Hokie Award in 1987, given for outstanding performances in the weight room.
So, is it harder to be a strength coach in the NFL or college? "In college it’s a different animal," Blacken said. "You’ve got young kids still trying to get used to being away from home, taking college classes, and having to manage their time. We haven’t even talked about football practice. You coach differently and you’re almost like a guidance counselor while you’re out there. In pro football, you have one thing to focus on and that’s pro football, keeping them motivated, and how to take care of their bodies."
Nutrition is one area that Blacken is passionate about. "You can lift weights five times a week, but if you aren’t feeding your body the right way that becomes a problem," he said. "We have to constantly check their body fat to muscle ratio."
Over the years, while Blacken has been the recipient of numerous accolades, he’s never forgotten his roots in Mathews. His parents, Melvin and Lillie Blacken of Beaverlett, left an indelible mark on his life.
"They were very instrumental in teaching me the core values of how to be a young man in this world and teaching me right from wrong," he said. When a young Malcolm would come home from school, all he wanted was "to go outside with a ball in my hand. But I had to get the homework done first and not rush it. My mother would check it over. I do the same thing with my kids."
Blacken and his wife, Marcy, have two children, 11-year-old Maya and 9-year-old Bo. "He is a great family man," Arapoff said. Blacken also has a deep religious background, proclaiming God as number one in his life. He and his family attend Crossroads United Methodist Church in Ashburn.
As if his family and football (in that order) aren’t enough, Blacken also makes time for the paintbrush. "I get a kick out of taking a blank canvas and turning it into a piece of art. To me, it has always been another form of communicating."
He has done several shows and even has a design studio in Northern Virginia. "One day when this crazy football thing slows down for me, it will be great to get into it full time," he said. Twenty-six years ago, the Friends of the Mathews Memorial Library logo was adopted following a contest among intermediate and high school students. Of the 28 entries, Blacken’s was selected. His professional art website can be found at www.artbymalcolm.com.
He cites his cousin, Eric Blacken, now of Cleveland, Ohio, as "a guiding light" in his life. "When I would see him play, I wanted to be like him and follow in his footsteps," he said. "He had some skills that I thought, as an eighth grader looking back, were unbelievable."
He also has kind words for former Mathews High School athletic director Al DeWitt. "He taught me it’s O.K. to be from a small town and shoot for the stars," Blacken said. He credits DeWitt with helping to take his career to the next level.
What advice does Blacken offer to a young man or woman interested in this career? "Know your product. I’m well read because I want to be on the cutting edge of my players. You might work for free at the start to get your foot in the door but learn the ins and outs, roll up your sleeves, and be happy about it."
The Redskins open the regular season on Sunday, Sept. 12, as they take on the Dallas Cowboys at FedEx Field in Landover, Md. Blacken said he’s "not really nervous" about playing the Cowboys but is "just ready to get the season started."
One of the greatest perks with his new position is the thrill of getting back to his hometown more often. "When I was with the Detroit Lions, I only got home once a year," Blacken said. "Now that I’m closer I should be able to get to Mathews a lot more. My wife and I are always talking about being back on the water some day. Who knows, maybe Mathews will be that place."