Skip to Content Skip to Navigation
Marshall University Foundation Logo

Marshall alum Larry Choates revels in changing young lives after being nominated for NFL High School Coach of the Year

If you ask high school football coach Larry Choates to define the word “winner,” his answer would have little to do with athletic achievement. It would not be defined by wins and losses, nor would it show up in statistics or in shiny trophies on a shelf.

A winner, according to Choates, is someone who makes a difference in the lives of others. It is an adage he hopes to instill in his young players every time they step foot on the field of play.

“I was lucky. I had both of my parents in the house growing up, but I still needed more,” Choates recalled. “I needed guidance and friendship, and I got that from my football coaches. They provided all the extra things that I needed after school. They kept me out of trouble and gave me some purpose. I want to provide that for the people and players at this school.”

From the guidance of his own coaches, to having the opportunity to inspire young men himself, Choates was selected earlier this year by the Washington Commanders to represent John R. Lewis High School in Fairfax County, Virginia, as its nominee for the Don Shula NFL High School Coach of the Year Award. The Commanders selected Choates after having previously recognized him as their coach of the month.

Despite serving at the high school as head coach for only two seasons, Choates’ immediate impact on the program and the players made him an easy selection.

“We are an emerging program, but we are growing,” Choates said. “During the COVID season, before I became head coach of the program, we only had 40 kids. We’ve been working to get more and more kids to come out and play football. I have a lot of kids that their parents didn’t grow up playing football and they had never played before. A lot of kids work right after school, or are taking care of their younger siblings, so we are trying to build our program up the right way while looking after these young men.”

Choates grew up playing football in a small town in northern Virginia, reveling in the grace and beauty of player movement combined with the raw violence of grown men smashing into one another. But there was another element to the game that immediately struck a chord with a young Choates – the chess-like strategy of coaching.

While playing the tight end position in high school, Choates became quick friends with the team’s quarterback, a young man who also happened to be the son of the head football coach at the time. And that relationship quickly blossomed into a sea of opportunity.

“I knew I loved football a lot, not just playing the game, but the other things that went along with it like the organizational pieces,” Choates said. “The son of our head coach was our quarterback and he and I were really tight, so in the offseason I got to see behind the scenes some of the things his dad did. We had a couple of camps at our school that I got to be a part of and when I was a kid, I was always an organizer. I recognized early that was a skillset that I had.”

While Choates found plenty of success on the gridiron in those early years, it was actually another team, competing nearly 400 miles away, that would change his life forever. Choates grew up watching Marshall University in the early 1990s on television and dreamed of one day cheering on the Herd as a fan.

“When I was a freshman in high school, there was a channel up here that used to play every Marshall football game, so I became a Marshall fan,” Choates said with a laugh. “I still remember the ’92 season. I watched Troy Brown, and the football stadium was brand new, it was all just really exciting. It was easy to fall in love with a team that is winning all the time. I watched the games, and I decided I wanted to be a part of a winning school so I came to Marshall.”

Encouraged by one his teachers, who was also a Marshall alumnus, and a few of his friends who followed him to Huntington, Choates enrolled at Marshall and immediately found the atmosphere exactly what he was looking for in a school.

“Marshall was a great decision. I got to see a lot of good football and met a lot of lifelong friends,” Choates said. “The people were so nice, I felt like a part of the family as soon as I got to campus. It was not too big, not too small, and far enough away where my parents weren’t knocking on the door at 9 a.m. on Saturday morning. I even had a couple of friends from my senior class come with me to Marshall. It was a fresh new start for me.”

Choates would eventually earn a communications degree from Marshall in 2005, spending his spare time working at area radio-giant Kindred Communications, as well as part-time at The Union Pub and Grill and on campus at the award-winning WMUL-FM radio station. He also took in a few games while on campus, cheering on the Herd just as a new head coach was taking over the reins of the program – Marshall legend Bob Pruett.

“I watched (Pruett) a lot. I learned about halftime adjustments and just seeing him around town and how he carried himself, it was great to see the role of a head coach at a major university,” Choates said. “He always talked about, ‘we have the best coaches, the best facilities, we need to have the best team.’ They believed that all the way and won a lot of championships. Watching that rubbed off on me and, as we build the right way and take our time with these kids, hopefully we will have a championship program here at John R. Lewis High School.”

After graduation, Choates returned to Virginia and began working as a teacher at Edison High School, the same high school he grew up attending. It was there that he got his first taste of coaching young men on and off the field.

“When I started there, I became friendly with the head coach and one of the coaches from when I was in high school,” Choates said. “That is when I got interested in coaching and began helping with one of the positions. I was immediately hooked.”

After bouncing around to a couple of different high schools over the next few years, Choates landed at John R. Lewis High School in 2017. While serving as a social studies teacher, Choates finished up his graduate degree from George Mason University and continued down his coaching path as quarterbacks coach. He eventually took over the program with his first full-time coaching position in 2021.

While there is nothing glamorous about the football program at John R. Lewis High School, and the record of the team since he has taken over – zero wins in 2021, a single victory in 2022 – is nothing to write home about, it was the work that Choates is doing off the field that immediately caught the eye of the Commanders organization.

Things like reading days at the local elementary schools where players share in their favorite children’s books, and community service and mentoring programs like Rising Lancers where players and coaches work with younger athletes to prepare them for the rigors of high school and athletics.

“I want these kids to be good, outstanding young people who are going to be good fathers, good husbands and just good, community-minded people that help others,” Choates said. “That is what is important to me. Football is just the teaching method. What I am most proud of is that we have 26 kids in the program that had a 3.5 GPA or better and 12 of those kids had a 4.0 (GPA). One even had a 4.6. These kids are doing what they need to do in the classroom for sure.”

Once nominated, each coach worked with their local NFL team to submit a packet detailing their accomplishments, which were later judged by NFL coaches and former players such as Peyton Manning and Tony Dungey. The winning coach received a personal cash prize, as well as a cash prize for their school, along with an invitation to the Super Bowl and Pro Bowl events and recognition at the NFL Honors ceremony.

While he wasn’t selected as the national recipient of the award, just to be nominated by an NFL team was an honor. It meant that what he was doing was being noticed and was having an impact.

“It was an honor just to be nominated and to have your name on a list of coaches that have won multiple state championships and done other great things for these high schools,” Choates said. “But this wasn’t about me. It was about the work that me and the other coaches are doing to even get this accolade. This is a team award because I can’t be the coach of the year if I am not working with others. I can’t be recognized if the kids aren’t buying in to what we are doing. Getting more kids to come out and build the sport of football while making a difference in our community is what it translates to.”

Of course, there were benefits to the players as well. The team had an opportunity during the process to attend a Commanders game and be recognized on the field and will be participating in a camp at the stadium later this year, as well as community service opportunities with the NFL. And being the savvy marketing person that he is, Choates has used this as a recruiting tool to get more kids to come out for the football program.

“Now that people are starting to realize what we are doing with this program, more kids are coming out,” Choates said. “It takes a while for people to buy-in to what you are doing, but we are in year three and the kids are starting to buy-in to going to the weight room more, getting to class and maintaining their grades and just being upstanding citizens in the community. We are doing the grassroots stuff to get people involved in our program and for our kids to give back.”

Of course, the question remains, now that he is back in class following a dream experience working with the NFL, has his life changed at all?

“My students were pretty excited about it, but my wife didn’t know what to think,” Choates joked. “When I told her and we read through everything, we finished dinner and she said, ‘OK, now it is your turn to wash the dishes Mr. Coach of the Year.’”