Massaponax coach Eric Ludden, pictured here talking with linebacker Elijah Christopher, has retired after 26 seasons at the Panthers' helm.

‘Like a father figure’: At Massaponax, Ludden enhanced his players’ options

by | Feb 23, 2024 | ALLFFP, High school sports, Sports, Spotsylvania

As Eric Ludden pondered whether to announce his retirement prior to the 2023 season, the longtime Massaponax High School football coach reflected on a scene in the movie “Forget Paris.”

The main character, played by Billy Crystal, was an NBA referee who ejected one of the all-time great players, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, during his farewell tour. 

“He threw him out and said, ‘Let me be the first to say farewell,’” Ludden recalled with a laugh. “I didn’t want that to happen to me.” 

It is highly unlikely the even-keeled Ludden would have met such a fate. 

Ludden, 65, quietly announced his retirement recently, after a stellar 40-year career that included 208 victories in 26 seasons at Massaponax. He recorded 238 overall victories, 25th in Virginia High School League history.

Ludden’s teams won at least 10 games eight times. His 2003 squad reached the Group AAA, Division 5 state championship game and the Panthers won five regional championships under his leadership. They went 49-5 in a four-year stretch from 2013-16. 

“He is the face of the program,” said Nat Jackson, Riverbend’s current boys’ basketball coach and a star quarterback for the Panthers in the early 2000s. “He has been the guy since the school opened and it is hard to replace that. In my mind, the stadium or the field should be named after him. Massaponax is known for its football program, and it is all because of him.” 

When Ludden took over the program as the school opened in 1998, his arrival was not met with great fanfare. As head coach at J.E.B. Stuart in Fairfax County, he had compiled a 28-42 record. He was 2-8 in his lone season at Courtland before joining the Panthers to build a program from the ground up. 

Massaponax struggled initially while playing a varsity schedule with an overwhelming majority of freshmen and sophomores in the Group AA Battlefield District. 

“It was tough, and nobody was taking it easy on us,” Ludden said. “It took three years and then we started rolling.” 

The Panthers went 5-4 in 2001 and 7-3 in 2002, barely missing the postseason.  

They transitioned to the Group AAA Commonwealth District in 2003 and arrived with a bang, finishing the regular season undefeated and winning 13 straight games before a setback to Hopewell in the Division 5 championship game. Jackson, who was the quarterback that season, was injured in the state semifinals and was unavailable.  

“I thought it set a standard,” Ludden said of the 2003 run. “You can read things or hear things about your program, but it is what the kids believe. That really solidified their belief.” 

The memory of the Hopewell defeat remains a painful one for Ludden, but the Panthers kept clawing each season. Two years later, they reached the state semifinals before suffering a 21-16 loss to Hampton and future Virginia Tech and NFL quarterback Tyrod Taylor. 

The Panthers had many more opportunities to capture that elusive state championship – most recently in the 2020 spring season, when they fell to Oscar Smith in the Class 6 semifinals. 

“It’s definitely hard,” Ludden said of the series of close calls. “But I really feel strongly about our kids and our coaches and how we did things the right way … If something went wrong, we did not look around, point fingers and gripe. We were going to find solutions and answers.” 

When Ludden walked off the field for the final time in a playoff loss to Stone Bridge this past season, he boarded the bus and began to think about preparations for next season before realizing he had decided to call it a career. 

The Massaponax administration will continue interviews next week to land his replacement. Ludden established a strong coaching tree with several of his assistants becoming head coaches in the area. 

Former Riverbend head coach Nathan Yates had the unique experience of coaching under Ludden for 12 years and against him for five seasons. He was able to see what made Ludden’s triple-option offense so potent.  

“You had to be on your ‘A’ game going up against the option because they ran it so well,” Yates said. “You had to be disciplined and you had to be ready to compete because if you look at his record, he did not lose very many. It was always a challenge because you knew you were going up against a well-coached, disciplined team that was going to fight for four quarters.” 

Yates and Jackson said Ludden’s most obvious quality had little to do with the offense he directed, but rather the way he encouraged his players to be better people.

Jackson recalled an instance when he received a camp invite from a major Division I program but Ludden informed him if he did not improve his grades there was no need to consider it. Jackson became an honor student and a graduate of Virginia Military Institute. 

“He was like a father figure,” Jackson said. “I always had a great relationship with my father, but he coached you like your second father. If you did something and did not live up to his expectations, you felt like you let him down. He cares about you as a person.” 

Ludden said he is in great shape and did not rule out a return to coaching in some capacity after a year away. He is set to run a half-marathon soon. He plans to enjoy his nine grandchildren and travel with his wife, Rebecca, who also retired as a teacher at Massaponax. Ludden coached his four sons, including current Panthers’ assistant Shane Ludden, a potential successor to his father.

In the past few years, Ludden gained an increased interest in race relations. He created the Empathy Project at Massaponax, where he brought in law enforcement officers to have candid discussions with young Black men, among other initiatives. He said becoming a conduit for improved race relations is something he may explore in retirement. 

“I love the kids. I love Massaponax,” Ludden said. “It was definitely hard when I told them. But there is never a great way to get off this merry-go-round. I only left Stuart and Courtland, so I have not had to say goodbye a lot. I am going to miss it, but I am excited about my next chapter.”

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