By Jeff White
CHARLOTTESVILLE — All this fuss embarrasses Anthony Poindexter. He has a football game to coach in Saturday, after all, and untold details to deal with before kickoff.
Like it or not, however, the man known to his friends, his players and his colleagues as Dex will step into the spotlight at 3:13 p.m., about 20 minutes before the start of UVa’s football game with Indiana at Scott Stadium.
On the field where his feats became the stuff of legend, Poindexter will be the 11th former Cavalier to have his jersey retired.
As a 6-1, 220-pound safety known for his crushing tackles — “A linebacker playing safety,” said Byron Thweatt — Poindexter was a two-time All-American for UVa and the ACC’s defensive MVP in 1998. He remains one of most beloved players in school history.
“Dex is UVa football,” said Butch Jefferson, who followed him at Jefferson Forest High and at Virginia.
“You say Anthony Poindexter, and people think UVa football.”
Has a decade really passed since No. 3 roamed the secondary for the Cavaliers? Has it been nearly 15 years since Poindexter and safety Adrian Burnim teamed to tackle Warrick Dunn inches from the goal line on the final play of UVa’s 33-28 victory over heretofore invincible Florida State at Scott Stadium?
“Lord, help me,” Poindexter, now the defensive backs coach at his alma mater, said with a smile in his McCue Center office Monday night. “I can remember those days like it was yesterday. Being able to coach here and being around it still, at this school, at this place, is special.”
Six former UVa stars have had their numbers retired: Shawn Moore (12), Frank Quayle (24), Bill Dudley (35), Joe Palumbo (48), Jim Dombrowski (73) and Gene Edmonds (97).
Poindexter will join another group of former greats whose numbers are still active: Ronde Barber (19), Tiki Barber (21), Terry Kirby (42), Ray Savage (56), Tom Scott (65), Mark Dixon (66), Chris Slade (85), Herman Moore (87), John Papit (87) and Chris Long (91).
“I’ve often told people this,” said Slade, who preceded Poindexter in then-coach George Welsh’s program. “Out of all the great players who played before me and played after me at UVa, Anthony Poindexter is the one guy I wish I’d had the opportunity to play with.
“As a player, he was just ferocious. He was well-respected, and not just by his peers in college. When I was playing for the Patriots, I remember guys coming up to me and saying, ‘Who’s that guy playing safety for you guys? He’s an animal. He’s a beast.'”
A catastrophic knee injury ended his senior season prematurely — costing him, in all likelihood, millions of NFL dollars — but Poindexter still finished his college career with 342 tackles, a record for a UVa defensive back. He was named to the all-ACC first team three times, intercepted 12 passes and recovered a school-record seven fumbles.
Asked about Poindexter, Welsh — a legend himself — cited a famous comment by Joe Paterno about Penn State great Ted Kwalick.
“Paterno said, ‘God created Kwalick to be a football player,’ or something to that effect,” Welsh recalled Wednesday. “Anthony Poindexter was created to be a great football player. He had size, speed and great instincts, and no concern for his body — or anyone else’s he hit.
“There is such a thing as no physical fear, and not many people have it. But he did.”
Listen for hours, days, weeks, and you won’t hear Poindexter, 33, say such things about himself.
“I don’t like to be a braggart and be boastful about what I’ve done,” he said. “I just try to let my play speak for itself. The guys I played with, those are the guys that know how I was and know how I played and know what I gave to them.
“For me, that’s the biggest part. This is a tremendous honor for me, but as long as I got that with my teammates, and the special bond we have, that’s enough for me.”
Those teammates included Thweatt, a linebacker who was two years behind Poindexter at UVa. Thweatt is now an assistant at the University of Richmond under Mike London, whose brother, Paul, played with Poindexter at Virginia.
“It was amazing,” Thweatt said of his time with Poindexter at UVa. “A guy like him, he’s a true football player, in all aspects. He’s a football player.”
Before leaving for UR, Mike London coached with Poindexter at UVa. Long before that, though, London used to marvel at Poindexter’s play in the Cavaliers’ secondary.
“You’d see him play and say, ‘Who’s that dude at safety just knocking people out?'” London recalled. “He just played with a tremendous amount of passion and intensity.”
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A native of Lynchburg, Poindexter grew up in nearby Forest. His older brother, John, played football at Ferrum College and now coaches that sport at Northumberland High. The brothers got their work ethic from their parents, John Sr. and Lois.
“Just salt-of-the-earth people,” former Jefferson Forest High coach Bob Christmas said of Mr. and Mrs. Poindexter.
In 1991, with John at quarterback, the Cavaliers advanced to the state Group AA, Division 3 final, where they lost to Nottoway. Anthony took over at quarterback in 1992 and, as a junior and a senior, led Jefferson Forest to state championships.
Each time, Jefferson Forest beat Matoaca, whose 1992 roster included one James Farrior, for the title. Thweatt was on the Matoaca teams that Jefferson Forest faced in ’92 and ’93.
In 1993, Matoaca scored late in the second quarter to take a 14-7 lead, leaving Christmas less-than-pleased with his players as he headed for the locker room.
“At halftime, I was getting ready to go in and blast them,” Christmas recalled, “but by the time I got there, Anthony was already in there taking care of business.
“I never went in there. I stayed in my office and listened. He said all the things I would have said.”
Now a high school coach in Georgia, Christmas still considers Poindexter his “all-time favorite player. Not because he turned into a great college player, but because he was full speed all the time.
“Didn’t matter if it was practice or game. He loves the game, and he was just a great leader. When were in games and it looked like things were falling part, he would just take over.”
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When Poindexter was a boy — and to this day — his closest friends included Ryan Gilleland. They attended kindergarten together at New London Academy and remained classmates in middle school, high school and, finally, at UVa, where Gilleland played baseball.
“Everything from Ping Pong to tennis to street hockey to Wiffle Ball, we played it all growing up,” said Gilleland, who now teaches and coaches at Jefferson Forest High.
“Anthony was always a very good athlete. He was probably smaller than the rest of us, honestly, till about the 10th grade. But he still hit harder than anybody else.”
Poindexter, an outfielder, starred in baseball — the Florida Marlins selected him in the 70th round of the 1994 major-league draft — and played basketball at Jefferson Forest, too. Still, football was his best sport, his initial lack of size notwithstanding.
On the JV, Christmas said, “Anthony probably was 5-6 or 5-7 and about 145 pounds.” By his sophomore year, though, Poindexter weighed about 175 pounds, and size never was an issue for him after that.
Neither was speed, though no track star was he.
“Not fast at all,” Poindexter said. “I wasn’t a 40 guy.”
Christmas said Poindexter covered 40 yards in 4.7 or 4.8 seconds — slow for a major-college defensive back — but “when you watched him on film, he looked like he was running a 4.4, because he played the game so hard and so fast.
“College coaches would come by and say, ‘How fast is he?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t know.’ They’d say, ‘He looks like he’s about a 4.4,’ and I wouldn’t say anything. I didn’t want to lie, but I didn’t want to hurt him.”
The recruiters kept coming, and Poindexter eventually narrowed the list of colleges he was considering to four: Virginia Tech, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.
He’d already toured the other three schools when he took his official visit to UVa. Shannon Taylor was on the same visit, and Gilleland already had signed to play baseball at Virginia.
“After the first night, Shannon and I were both like, ‘We’re coming here,'” Poindexter recalled. “It was just something special about this place. It was something about the guys that were on the team, and it was an hour and 15 minutes from my house.”
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He enrolled at UVa in 1994. Poindexter ended up redshirting that season after suffering a knee injury that required arthroscopic surgery, but he made an impression long before he got hurt.
On the eve of the regular season, Welsh approached Art Markos, then Virginia’s secondary coach, and asked which newcomers might be ready to contribute as true freshmen.
“Anthony had just made a play on a pass that made me feel comfortable, and I said, ‘I think he’s ready to go,'” Markos said Tuesday.
Welsh already had noted Poindexter’s ability.
“George looked at me square in the eye and said, ‘Art, just don’t screw him up,'” Markos recalled with a laugh. “That was my mission for four years.”
Poindexter started three games as a redshirt freshman in 1995 and split time at linebacker and safety that season. (He was at linebacker in the 33-28 win over FSU). He moved full time into the secondary in 1996 and quickly established himself as a force.
He made 19 tackles versus Virginia Tech that season. Two years later, he matched that total against Maryland.
“How does a safety have 19 tackles?” said Jefferson, now an academic coordinator in the UVa football program.
The answer: Poindexter was no average safety.
“He was a coach’s dream to work with,” said Markos, now assistant director of compliance at UVa. “He would just soak everything like a sponge, and whatever you said to do, he’d do it like you said it, and then put his own flair behind it.
“The way he played showed his personality. He had tremendous instinct and anticipation, attributes that all defensive backs should have. He just had a knack for getting a jump on the ball or knowing where the play was going.”
He also had a knack for talking smack at practice, always with a smile on his face.
“He’s so passionate,” Markos said. “He was the consummate Welsh practice player. He’d go on the field and make practice fun for everybody.
“Anthony taught everybody how to have fun at practice. He trash-talked, but he’d never say anything demeaning.”
Thweatt said: “He treated every guy great — the guys who didn’t play a lot, and the starters. He treated everybody the same. You couldn’t help but look up to him. He’s a wonderful human being.”
Jefferson is a distant relative of Poindexter, and they grew up near each other in Forest.
“He’s the ultimate teammate, the ultimate leader,” Jefferson said. “He’s vocal, and he leads by example.”
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In the final minutes of the seventh game of Poindexter’s senior season, the path of his life changed. He suffered extensive ligament damage in his left knee, an injury from which he would never fully recover.
“I cried in the press box when they recognized him [at Scott Stadium] a few weeks later,” Markos said. “It just broke my heart. He gave so much. It was just an injustice, and we all felt that way.”
Had he left UVa after his junior season, Poindexter almost certainly would have been a first-round draft pick and might have made a fortune in the NFL. But he refused to indulge in self-pity after he got hurt, and his stance never has wavered.
“What helped me get over it was, I knew I had done it a certain way every day,” Poindexter said. “So my career was over, but it wasn’t like I wished I could get this play back or I could get that play, or that practice, or that day back.
“That’s the one thing: I didn’t have any regrets. Obviously, I wanted to do some things for my folks that I was unable to do, but it wasn’t like they had their hands out waiting for me to become the savior anyway. My dad was going to work regardless of what kind of money I made.”
The injury shattered his NFL stock, but the Baltimore Ravens gambled on Poindexter anyway, drafting him in the seventh round in 1999. He drew NFL paychecks for parts of three seasons — the first two with the Ravens — before his pro career ended in 2001.
In 2000, the season that ended with Baltimore’s victory in the Super Bowl, Poindexter appeared in 12 games. He didn’t play in the Super Bowl but saw time on special teams in the AFC championship game.
“It wasn’t like I was the same player, but I got a chance to reach one of my goals, to play in the NFL,” Poindexter said. “Obviously, I wasn’t the same player that played at Virginia, but Art Modell and the Ravens gave me a chance, and I’m grateful for that.”
“The thing about Anthony, which is a testament to his character, is he never played the what-if game, he never felt sorry for himself,” said Slade, now the sideline reporter for radio broadcasts of UVa games.
He has too much to be thankful for, Poindexter would tell you. He and his wife, Kimberly, have three children — Morocca, Anthony Jr. and Chloe — and he works at a place he loves.
Al Groh hired Poindexter as a graduate assistant in 2003, then promoted him running backs coach a year later. Poindexter moved to the secondary — his home — after the 2008 season. He sees Welsh regularly and is surrounded by friends and happy memories.
“I’ve had a blessed life,” Poindexter said.