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by Cathy Bongiovi

The smile. The laugh. Yes, it’s really him. Anthony Poindexter has returned home to his family at the University of Virginia.

The two-time All-American defensive back is working again with his beloved Cavaliers. Although this time, Poindexter isn’t donning a jersey.

“I’m the G.A. (graduate assistant) in the weight room,” the 6-1 former safety said. “I get to work with the players in the weight room. I’m trying to learn to be a coach. I played for so many years, but I really want to coach. It’s a process you have to go through, and I’m just trying to learn right now.”

Learning will not be a problem for the Forest, Va., native. Regarded as one of the fiercest hitters in college football, Poindexter played both linebacker and safety as a freshman in 1995. His 93 tackles from that season still rank as the third most in school history by a freshman.

But perhaps Poindexter will most be remembered for what has been called the biggest single defensive play in school history. In the 33-28 upset of No. 2 and previously undefeated Florida State, Poindexter and teammate Adrian Burnim tackled FSU tailback Warrick Dunn just inches short of the goal line on the game’s final play, giving the Hoos their first win over the Seminoles in series history. The Virginia victory also snapped Florida State’s four-year, 29-game ACC win streak since joining the conference in 1992.

“Being the first team to beat them in the conference, I was pretty excited,” Poindexter recalled, “and I was pretty young then. That was pretty exciting.”

As a sophomore in 1996, he finished second among all ACC players with 98 tackles, tying Lester Lyles’ school record, set in 1994. Poindexter also earned first-team All-ACC accolades for the first time.

“Anthony was probably the best safety in the last couple of years. He was the best safety in the country in my opinion,” said former head coach George Welsh. “He was just a great athlete, great instincts, very hard hitting, brutal in a lot of ways. He played a lot of people out.”

Accolades started rolling in during his junior year as Poindexter was second in the ACC with 78 tackles and led UVa with four receptions. Named first-team All-American by The Sporting News, he also garnered the Dudley Award as the best college player in the state of Virginia.

But then came “the decision.”

“That was a tough one. I know for about three or four weeks I went back-and-forth, back-and-forth,” Poindexter recounted of his decision to forego the NFL draft and stay at UVa for his senior season. “I had hurt my shoulder, and I had shoulder surgery. When I went to ask what round I would go in, they said one through three. I wanted to be a first round pick, so… They said if you come back and you play the same way you’ve been playing, then you’ll definitely be a one. That’s what I was banking on. The way my senior season was going, they had me projected as a Top 15 pick.”

But Poindexter’s dream of becoming a first round pick was shattered on October 24, 1998, when he injured his left knee against N.C. State. He sat out the last four regular-season contests, as well as the Peach Bowl, following reconstructive surgery. Poindexter still managed to earn national recognition as he earned first-team All-America honors from the Football Writers Association of America, The Associated Press, The Sporting News, and College & Pro Football Newsweekly. The 1998 ACC Defensive Player of the Year could have been bitter, but he wasn’t.

“(The injury) didn’t seem to affect him at all,” Welsh said. “He tore all the ligaments in his knee, so it almost made it impossible for him to come back. But he tried and worked awfully hard. But he always had that same demeanor, the same smile. He had the right attitude about going about it.”

“Until I got hurt, things were going the way I wanted them to go,” Poindexter said. “But that’s life. I’ve still been blessed.”

Despite his tribulations, Poindexter could always rely on his family for strength.

“Definitely my family- my mom, my dad, both of my grandmothers,” Poindexter confided his influences. “One of my grandmothers passed when I was in high school, and every game I always wore her initials on my left wrist. That’s the reason I played. I remember a long time ago she said, ‘You’re going to make it.’ After that, every game I went out there. I always played in honor of her. That was my driving force when I was out there.”

His family at UVa included teammates Aaron Brooks and Germane Crowell. The former roommates still keep in touch even though they live in different parts of the country.

“We’re like brothers. I just talked to them the other day,” Poindexter said of his relationship with Brooks and Crowell. “The class I came in with- there were 19 of us. Ten of us were left at the end, and we’re all like a family. We still talk to each other. I feel like I’ve known those guys all of my life. Without them, I don’t know what I’d do. That was one of the main reasons I came back. Germane was leaving; he was the only one of our class that was going to leave. I was looking it as Brooks is going to be back, Adrian Burnim’s going to be back, etc. We had a core of dudes that we could win with coming back, and I was like, ‘Man, I want to be a part of it.’ We were family, and I wanted to leave with my family. That’s how I looked at it.”

Family kept him strong throughout his final season on grounds. In the spring of 1999, Poindexter was drafted in the seventh round by the Baltimore Ravens.

“Baltimore was great. They gave me a chance,” Poindexter shared. “I couldn’t even walk when they drafted me. I guess they were going on what I had done prior to my injury and if there was any way I could get back healthy, they were the team that was willing to take the chance on me. It was an honor to me that they felt that highly of me as a player. As banged up as I was, they drafted me. They gave me the opportunity for two years, but I just didn’t heal. It was tough to heal, tough to get over. They released me, and I went to Cleveland. I still wasn’t healed. I was still hurting. I made it through training camp, and they liked what I was doing, but at the same time, by the end of camp, I was just limping so badly. I’m sure they thought ‘this guy can’t be healthy the whole year.’ So that’s the way it happened. I got to play two years, and I went to the Super Bowl. That’s pretty good.”

Not that he can change history, but if Poindexter had known he’d be injured, would he have gone to the NFL early?

“Oh, yeah, no doubt,” Poindexter said. “But I don’t regret what I did, because I did it, because I wanted to do it. Nobody told me to come back here, and nobody told me to leave. I made the decision for myself.”

Today Poindexter shares his experiences and wisdom with the younger players.

“If I see a kid now in the same situation, I would tell him to go (pro), because these opportunities only come around a certain amount of times,” he said. “The school’s been here- Thomas Jefferson built it- and it’s still here now and it’s not going anywhere. Education’s important, but this kind of money and this kind of opportunity don’t come around too often. One of things I know is that a play lasts maybe eight seconds. In eight seconds, I lost it all. I still don’t regret what I did.”

Entering a new phase of his life, Poindexter is learning to be a coach. And what better place than to start at home, at UVa.

“I would like to (coach defense), but now that I’ve been around Coach Groh for a month, and I’ve seen how he interacts on both sides of the ball, I’m going to try to learn (coaching) both,” Poindexter said. “I’m a defensive man, so I really want to stick to that side. If the opportunity comes up, someone may ask me to coach offense, so I want to be prepared to do that also.”

With Groh and Welsh around, Poindexter will learn from the best.

“They’re both great coaches. Coach Groh is more hands-on with his players,” Poindexter observed. “He can go to every drill out there and coach it. To me that’s kind of intriguing, but that’s the first time I’ve been around a coach that really has done that. Before I saw him doing that, I never thought about knowing everything. I thought that if I ever became a head coach, I would coach the defense, and I would hire someone to coach the offense. But then I’ve seen the way (Groh) does it, and pretty much he has control of his whole team.”

“He’ll be an outstanding coach once he gets to work along those lines,” Welsh added. “Anthony’s got all those qualities- he’s very bright, understands football, so he’s got the right background. He was a student of the game.”

Someday soon the student will be the teacher.

“It feels good. It’s home, my second home,” Poindexter concluded. “It’s good to be back.”

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