Athlete, coach and educator Ethan M. Pitts Jr. dies at age 50

Jeremy M. Lazarus | 6/15/2023, 6 p.m.
For the first time in at least 15 years, veteran Coach Ethan Matthew “Matt” Pitts Jr. was missing from the ...
Mr. Pitts

For the first time in at least 15 years, veteran Coach Ethan Matthew “Matt” Pitts Jr. was missing from the Richmond delegation to the Virginia Special Olympics summer games at the University of Richmond.

Mr. Pitts, a volunteer who helped train the mentally challenged for the competition, died of a heart attack at his home on Wednesday, May 31, 2023, his family said, just nine days before the games were to begin on June 9. He was 50.

“He was missed,” said Sylvia Seaborne, a retired Richmond teacher and head coach for the city’s Special Olympics athletes. “He got along so well with the athletes. The kids loved him, and he was like a big, happy kid himself when he was working with them.”

Mr. Pitts coached track, Ms. Seaborne said, and the children he worked with honored him by doing well. She said Richmond’s track team won five gold medals and several silver and bronze in the June 10 track meet.

Described as an outgoing, generous man with a passion for helping others, Mr. Pitts’ role in Special Olympics and his contributions to other young athletes were highlighted at his funeral Thursday, June 8, at Bethlehem Baptist Church, of which he was a lifelong member.

A full-time physical education and health teacher at Albert Hill Middle School, Mr. Pitts also was an assistant football coach at Thomas Jefferson High School and an assistant basketball coach for Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School.

A Richmond native, Mr. Pitts grew up playing multiple sports, but found his passion as a football kicker. Honing his skill at summer camps, he starred on John Marshall High School’s football team.

He became known for kicking straight-on like the pros instead of using a soccer-style approach as most other kickers did and went on to win district and metro honors and be named to the All-State first team.

“There was a saying, ‘If white boys can’t jump, can Black boys kick?’ He wanted to show that he could. And he did,” said his father, Ethan M. Pitts Sr., a retired John F. Kennedy High School principal. He also was a longtime coach there.

Mr. Pitts’ kicking skill earned him a scholarship to Hampton University, where he played four years and earned his bachelor’s degree. Following his father into coaching, Mr. Pitts served as a graduate assistant coach at Hampton and then at Virginia State University while also teaching in public schools. Later, he served as an umpire for youth baseball and refereed basketball games as a member of the RVA Umpire Group, his family said.

He also served as a part-time counselor for special needs children at the Virginia Home for Boys and Girls. His family said he had a special talent for dealing with children who needed extra help due to mental challenges.

Mr. Pitts’ other pursuits included playing cards, fishing and camping, as well as grilling, at which he was considered a master.

Survivors include his son, Ethan M. Pitts III; his parents, Ethan M. Pitts Sr. and Gwendolyn Pitts; and his sister, Bridget Pitts Mosley.