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How Eric English's basketball journey with the Spiders led him into a career in policing

"It's a calling when it comes to law enforcement."
Eric English.PNG
Posted at 6:43 PM, Oct 15, 2020
and last updated 2020-10-16 08:43:56-04

HENRICO COUNTY, Va. -- When he was sworn in as the new police chief for Henrico County earlier this year, Eric English made some history.

He is the first African-American to hold that position in county history, and he continued a professional journey he never would have considered as a teenager.

“Law enforcement was never a goal of mine,” English explained. “I would be shocked as a youth to say I was going to be a police officer. It was never in my thought process."

English came to the University of Richmond in the mid-80s as a moderately recruited basketball player out of a small town in North Carolina.

Legendary Tar Heels coach Dean Smith even recruited English to play at Chapel Hill, but made it very clear to him that his offer was contingent on another player's decision first.

Instead, he came to play for Spiders head coach Dick Tarrant, but he would have to change his focus as a player.

"He'll tell you, he was never a star,” Tarrant said. "Never got a headline. But he was so solid. When he went into a game, you knew he was going to play very sound defense. Right in your jersey defense."

"They would put me in to try and shut down whoever the team's best player was,” English added. “Coming out of high school, I was a scorer. It's the same thing in this profession, you have to find your niche."

Tarrant would have a former FBI agent talk to his players each year about the dangers of point shaving and other illicit activities that could easily derail a career. English had ideas of becoming an agent, which led him to a criminal justice degree, and a love for law enforcement.

'You've gotta have a servant's heart because that's what we do,” English said. “We service our community. In terms of that, you have to have a passion for it and it's a calling when it comes to law enforcement."

English was a part of the first Spider team to make the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament back in 1988. His athletic accomplishments alone would be enough to make his time at U of R memorable. But it was how he carried himself off the court and in the classroom that made the biggest impression.

“About four or five years ago, Eric had a ceremony when he was sworn in as deputy police chief in Richmond,” Tarrant recalled. “At the ceremony was a Dean from the College of Arts and Sciences here. He had Eric as a student when he was a professor. I asked Eric 'Did you send out many invitations to these big shots?' He says 'He just showed up. I didn't invite him.' It's just typical of the sort of respect he had from everyone."

That respect now will extend to the better than 1,000 sworn and civilian employees of the Henrico Police Department, who will be looking to English to guide them through turbulent times for law enforcement. English sees policing as a direct parallel to sports in that sense of teamwork and responsibility to others before self, just as his coach taught him.

"Sometimes you might have an injury, you might have turned an ankle, you might not want to practice that day,” English said. “He [Tarrant] drove you to push through those obstacles. Sometimes the job is the same way."

“Now this is a challenge,” Tarrant said. “In this present climate, he has taken on a challenge. He never turned down a challenge before. He didn't turn this one down."

“You know there are people out there that are counting on you, just like there is in sports,” English continued. “Your teammates are counting on you and you don't want to let them down."

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