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If a damaged reputation could be repaired like a car’s engine, George Starke could have his students fix him up.
On Oct. 7, Starke will host an open house at the Excel Institute, a school for automotive technicians—don’t call ’em mechanics anymore!—that the former Redskins tackle and Head Hog founded seven years ago. Inside the 30,000-square-foot facility, located between two sets of train tracks in a drab section of Northeast D.C. off Bladensburg Road, Starke oversees the training of a student body that now numbers 150.
Starke says Excel will accept students of any age or means, but the school was designed primarily to take in D.C. youngsters who have dropped out of the public-school system and turn them into supremely employable craftsmen, able to diagnose and remedy whatever ails the latest-model automobiles. He estimates that 50 percent of Excel’s incoming class will complete the two-year tech program successfully.
“I’m shooting for 75 [percent] eventually,” he says.
Given that a typical Excel student, according to Starke, is a “kid without a father” who has spent much of his adolescence “probably sticking people up,” that’s a lofty goal.
At the open house, he’ll show off Excel students’ automotive abilities through a series of intramural skills competitions and repair-related demonstrations.
Starke himself will also be on display. And though he would say otherwise, he has his own repair issues to worry about. The four-hour event will be Starke’s most public outing since he was arrested on drug charges on May 14. Cops pulled him over for driving without a seat belt, then found 7 grams of crack cocaine in the car.
After the arrest, Starke offered several public denials of his guilt. The car wasn’t his, it was owned by Excel, Starke told reporters. And in front of television cameras on a courthouse sidewalk shortly after his arrest, Starke declared, “Everyone in Washington knows I don’t do drugs.” But for all the pooh-poohing outside the courtroom, Starke pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor possession charge and admitted the drugs were his after failing a court-administered drug test. Judge Zinora Mitchell-Rankin sentenced the 55-year-old Starke to a year’s probation and a $50 fine.
Starke, who retired from the Redskins in 1985, now refuses to discuss the arrest or the guilty plea or the drug test, other than to say that media reports about all three were “all wrong.” When asked which part of the record needs correcting, Starke declines to name any.
“If life is a football game, there are times you get thrown for a loss,” he says. “You don’t get a first down every day. And when you get thrown for a loss, you don’t hold a press conference. You huddle up, and you run another play. I will not get into the merits [of the drug case]. I’ve let it all go. That’s done. Done. Done. Done.”
It’s not really done, however. He’s still on probation for the offense, for starters. More important, the arrest left a lot of folks in this area shocked and saddened.
Starke was brought to Washington in 1972 by Redskins legend George Allen after being cut by the Dallas Cowboys. But his gridiron heyday came with the arrival of Joe Gibbs, when he became an original member of Joe Bugel’s Hogs, the most famous offensive line in NFL history and the first such unit to make the tubby guys who play center, guard, and tackle sexy and marketable.
He was a member of three of the Skins’ Super Bowl squads and earned a championship ring with the 1982 team, and in 2002, he was named one of the 70 Greatest Redskins in a poll sanctioned by the franchise. But from his first days in Washington, Starke had a lot more than just football going for him. He flaunted a civic pride and level of social conscience lacking in his Redskins teammates and other local sports stars. The Redskins practice in the Virginia suburbs and now play their games in Maryland, but Starke, more than any other Skins player, acted as if he owed something to the city in the team’s name. He has long lived within D.C.’s borders—his current home is in Columbia Heights. He can’t remember the last time another current or former Redskins player lived in any part of the District.
Starke always said he wanted to live downtown because the city’s youth needed role models who looked more like them. The tall, dark, handsome, brawny, and brainy Starke made a fab role model.
A native of Westchester County, N.Y., he was educated at Columbia University. At the Ivy League school, Starke earned letters in football and basketball—he played center for Columbia’s 1968–1969 hoops team when it was the second-ranked squad in the country, behind only Lew Alcindor’s UCLA Bruins—while getting a degree in the decidedly nonjockish field of physics.
The Starke known to the general public was the sort of guy whom Eleanor Holmes Norton would appoint to head up the D.C. Commission on Black Men and Boys, a 12-member, all-male panel charged with coming up with ways to improve the lot of local youngsters. Last year, in that role, Starke went before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Government Reform and pleaded for more federal involvement in the inner city, lest the fatherless kids “end up in the drug business.”
The Starke known to the general public was the sort of guy who would identify a gaping hole in vocational education in the city—just one D.C. high school, Ballou, has an automotive-repair program—and open the Excel Institute.
The Starke known to the general public was the sort of guy who could harangue Big Three automakers for turning their back on D.C.—“There are now only two new-car dealers in D.C., and they’re both right at the city’s borders [with Maryland]” he says. “That’s crazy. I’m trying to get that changed”—while hitting the manufacturers up for money to cover tuition for all his students. (Starke says he’s responsible for raising however much is needed to cover Excel’s 2005 operating budget of $3 million.)
The Starke known to the general public was the sort of guy who in early March would be the guest of honor at a dinner sponsored by a D.C. group called the Roundtable Associates and awarded a medallion for “Outstanding Service to Youth.”
The Starke known to the general public wasn’t the sort of guy who, just two months after that dinner, would be caught driving around town with crack cocaine in his glove compartment.
Accurately or not, Starke asserts that the goodwill he developed on and off the gridiron over the years will overcome whatever damage the drug arrest did to his local standing.
“I chose the route I chose [not talking about the case] because I live in the community. I interact with people on Capitol Hill constantly. I interact with people in the District government constantly,” he says. “And at the end of the day, I believed fundamentally in the fact that all the people who knew me personally would insulate me from having huge problems. I’m not just some guy they read about in the newspaper [getting arrested]. People here know me. I thought my integrity would survive, and it did.”
He also says his arrest and prosecution were never issues with his students, also for reasons that have nothing to do with football.
“I got everybody [at Excel] together when this happened, explained what happened,” he says. “I’m here every morning at 7:30 for these kids, and these are street kids, and they know what the real deal is. They don’t care that I was a Redskin. Most of them don’t even know that. And those that do, well, they just want me to get them tickets.”
Yet Starke doesn’t discount the worth of his Redskins tenure. It’s no accident that the Excel Institute’s brochure features burgundy and gold type, and that the only picture of Starke inside the pamphlet shows him wearing a Redskins jersey, the one that was cited so often by NFL referees that “Holding, No. 74!” became a big inside joke among the team’s faithful.
All these years later, he says, fans will give him the benefit of the doubt with regard to his legal infraction, too.
“I’ve learned that people live in the past in Washington,” he says. “People never forgot the Hogs. Now, fans act like all this was yesterday. The glory days weren’t yesterday: In my case, it was 20 years ago. Isn’t that scary?” —Dave McKenna