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Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Natalie Randolph more than just a coach

By Patrick Hruby
ESPN.com

WASHINGTON -- The notebook is as thick as a strip steak, its slate-gray cover lined with multicolored stripes. Natalie Randolph carries it wherever she goes. Classrooms. Football fields. Locker rooms. Her bedside. Show up to practice without it, and teasing is sure to follow. Coach! Coach! Where's the book? Inside are blank pages, many of them covered with neatly jotted reminders: thoughts and to-do lists, lesson plans and schedules, game plans and zone blitzes.

"I'm always making notes," Randolph said. "Everybody makes fun of me for it. Other coaches don't have books like mine."

Of course, the notebook isn't the only reason Randolph stands out. The head football coach at Coolidge High School in Washington, D.C, Randolph is believed to be the only current female varsity football coach in the nation, and only the third woman ever to hold such a position.

Natalie Randolph
Randolph, pictured working with player Jayme Hutchins in 2010, is starting to see her methods pay off with the team's 8-2 record.

Hired last year amid local hoopla and national interest -- former District Mayor Adrian Fenty declared a citywide day in Randolph's honor, while ESPN profiled her on television and online -- the 31-year-old science teacher is again making headlines. And not simply for her gender.

Now in her second season, Randolph has led Coolidge to an 8-2 record and a meeting with rival Dunbar High School in the D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association championship game, held on Thanksgiving near Capitol Hill and nicknamed the "Turkey Bowl."

Steeped in tradition -- and serving as the supreme arbiter of local public school pigskin bragging rights -- the Turkey Bowl has been contested for nearly a half-century and has showcased a number of future professional football players, including Cleveland's Josh Cribbs, Pittsburgh's Byron Leftwich and Miami's Vontae Davis.

Coolidge's ascension to the game caps a remarkable turnaround from last season, when the team lost its first five games and some doubted Randolph could successfully navigate the testosterone-soaked culture of a mostly male sport.

"Coolidge in the Turkey Bowl? You don't understand how epic that is," said Daniel West, a Morehouse College freshman who last year played football for Coolidge. "Last year, everyone told us how terrible we were. They laughed at us having a female coach.

"We'd ask the girls [at school], 'Are y'all coming to our games?' And they'd say, 'Oh, sure, when are you going to win?'"

These days, no one has to ask. Behind a high-scoring offense led by swift senior receivers Dayon Pratt and Fellonte Misher and a quick, opportunistic defense, Coolidge recorded five straight victories during the regular season. An ongoing delay in paperwork processing has left the team without its defensive coordinator, Shedrick Young, forcing Randolph to call defensive plays herself.

"She's aggressive," said Young, who still watches Coolidge games from the stands. "I remember one game where she ran the same blitz, 'Thunder,' like five times in a row. I told her, 'You have to relax once in a while.' But she's doing good. It might be hard for me to get my job back."

The talk of the town

Young still remembers the slights, the casual, condescending sexism emanating from his radio. The dial was set to local sports talk. The subject was Randolph.

How, asked the caller, can I let my son play for this woman? How can she teach him to be a man?

"I was fired up," Young said. "I wanted to call in myself. First of all, it's not [Randolph's] job to raise your son. It's your job. Second, how many single [moms] are there?"

Young played linebacker for Roosevelt High School in Washington and defensive back for West Virginia's Bethany College. He coached and befriended Randolph during her five-year stint with the D.C. Divas, a women's professional tackle football squad.

When Randolph called Young for advice after Coolidge administrators encouraged her to apply for the school's vacant head football coaching position in the spring of last year, he didn't just offer encouragement. He volunteered to be her defensive coordinator. Young believed in Randolph, a former 400-meter hurdler at the University of Virginia. He saw her discipline and determination, how she went from being unable to catch a football and run at the same time -- literally, she would fall down -- to becoming the team's most reliable receiver. He saw Randolph's quiet ferocity, too: how she thrived as a hard-hitting punt gunner despite her slight, 5-foot-5 frame, once leaving an opposing returner in tears.

As such, Young didn't see any reason a woman couldn't coach football, let alone win. Suggestions to the contrary drove him nuts.

"None of the other coaches wanted to say it," he said. "But they didn't want to lose to a female."

Randolph's hiring was greeted with open arms. Not to mention arched eyebrows. She was celebrated as a trailblazer, featured on CNN and on the cover of Parade magazine. Hollywood producers wanted the rights to her story. Companies wanted to book her as a motivational speaker. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell invited her to the NFL draft, while the Washington Redskins hosted her at training camp.

Meanwhile, some wondered if Randolph was in over her head -- in part because she was a full-time environmental science instructor with just two years of high school assistant coaching experience, in part because she was, well, a woman. Some online comments were nasty, brutish and retrograde, dispatches from the Andrew Dice Clay school of gender equity. A sports columnist for the local alt-weekly newspaper speculated that Randolph's hiring was a publicity stunt, designed to divert attention from the city's failure to provide more athletic opportunities for high school girls.

For her part, Randolph didn't have time to worry about being a female in a traditionally male role; she was too busy trying to build and coach her team, fulfill her full-time teaching obligations and manage an increasingly unwieldy slate of media requests. Roughly two dozen reporters and 3,500 fans showed up to her first game, a 28-0 home loss to Archbishop John Carroll High School.

Natalie Randolph
After some difficult early moments in her first season, Randolph has turned Coolidge into a team to be reckoned with.

Randolph's players were speedy but small, eager but undisciplined. They made mistakes, blew assignments, committed turnovers, took bad angles. They didn't entirely trust Randolph, didn't know what to make of her stringent athletic and academic demands. Probable starting quarterback Stephon Stevens had transferred to Dunbar the day before the start of fall practice; strong-armed backup Femi Bamiro was sidelined with a knee injury. Everything was new, and difficult. "If it's not hard," Randolph preached, "it's not worth doing."

The team dropped its next four games, the last a 22-19 loss to Forestville Military Academy in which Coolidge surrendered a 99-yard drive culminating in a last-minute, game-winning touchdown.

Facing a silent, teary-eyed locker room, Randolph delivered a verbal lashing, ripping her players for nearly an hour.

"This is not OK!" she said. "It's not OK that we lost. We played down to their level."

Coolidge won its next four games, ultimately qualifying for the city playoffs; following Randolph's first victory, players showered her with Gatorade. Even now, they insist the Forestville loss -- and Randolph's subsequent tirade -- was a turning point, one that carried over into the current season.

"In the beginning of last season, I wouldn't say she was intimidated, but she was new," said Raynard Ware, a Morehouse freshman and former Coolidge defensive back. "But as the season progressed, she got more stern. More firm in everything."

A coach for life

Last summer, West, Randolph's former player, signed up for a new social networking service. In late June, he posted a status update.

"Finally home from movin [sic] my sis to her new house ... yet i still dnt [sic] have my new damn phone ... [expletive]"

About a month later, Randolph joined the same service. The same day, she left a comment for him.

"Daniel you need to watch your mouth in writing ... possible employers can search you and see how you act."

"I was like, 'I'm sorry, Coach!'" West said. "I didn't even realize she was my friend on there. But that's just her looking out for us, like always."

Natalie Randolph
"Natalie really cares about all of them," says Coolidge assistant coach Alexis Richburg of the coach's bond with her players.

Randolph wasn't hired to simply win football games. She was hired to improve her players' grades and to keep them out of trouble. Which suits her just fine. A popular environmental science teacher, Randolph is a graduate of elite local private school Sidwell Friends -- Chelsea Clinton is a fellow alum; the Obama daughters are current students -- and a stickler for education. Victories are nice; making sure her players go to college is paramount.

"Natalie really cares about all of them," said Coolidge assistant coach Alexis Richburg, who also works as the school's business manager. "She has their genuine best interests in mind with everything she does and does for them. For her, it's all about making sure they don't make avoidable mistakes that will derail them from being ultimately successful in life.

"Go to college and play football. Go to college and not play football. Whatever their career track will be, she just wants to put them in the best situation and give them good guidance."

To that end, Randolph is an academic adviser, a life counselor, a cool aunt and a tough-love matriarch. She calls her players "my babies." Her players occasionally call her "Mom." Four days a week before practice, Randolph holds a mandatory, 60-minute study hall. Cursing on the field -- or anywhere, really -- means 20 penalty push-ups, right there on the spot. When her players need a ride home, they hop in the back of her two-door coupe; when they need transportation to university campuses for football camps and recruiting visits, she ferries them up and down the East Coast, on her own dime and time; when they're working on college application essays, she offers advice and editing.

This season, the Coolidge football team's GPA rose from 2.75 to 3.0 -- an accomplishment Randolph would take outward pride in, if she didn't think it could be higher still.

"She's made a big difference in my life," Ware said. "My old coaches were all about football. They didn't really talk about life. But Natalie prepared me for school, made me think about football not being everything."

Last year, Ware was a speedy Coolidge defensive back, dreaming of an NFL future … and nothing else. Nobody had ever asked him what he wanted to do with his life. That is, except Randolph. She sat him down one day, told him to close his eyes.

"What," she asked, "do you see yourself doing in 10 years?"

"I see myself in a shirt and tie," Ware said.

"OK," Randolph said. "A businessman. What's your favorite subject?"

"Math," Ware said.

Randolph referred Ware to Richburg, a Morehouse graduate who majored in business accounting.

"We talked about majoring in finance," Ware said. "I recently searched jobs for finance majors -- being an account manager for a corporation or the IRS sounds pretty good. I'm going to work for that.

"Every football player dreams of going to the NFL. I'll try to do that, too. But I have a plan if that doesn't work out."

When Ware and West arrived this past summer at Morehouse, an all-male, historically African-American university in Atlanta, they suffered homesickness and culture shock. The student body was cosmopolitan. Many of their peers were from wealthy backgrounds, confident and outgoing. Football practice was hard. Classes were no joke.

The two Washington transplants struggled to fit in. Ware, reticent by nature, felt painfully shy. He thought about leaving Morehouse for a year of prep school. West, bright and gregarious, suddenly felt a lack of confidence, like he wasn't good enough to mix with his classmates. He wanted to go home. He talked it over with his friend.

"Look," Ware told him. "You gotta do what you gotta do. But if you go back home, you are going back to nothing, to what we came to school to get away from."

Separately, each of them reached out to Randolph.

"Change is hard," she told Ware. "Why not stick with this?"

"You are not coming back," she chided West. "You better make it work. You don't have a choice."

Today, Ware is excelling in the classroom, while West raves about college life.

"It's amazing," he said. "I've met people from all over. One of the guys on the team is a prince from Africa. I have a close friend whose girlfriend is from Alaska. I never thought I would meet someone from Alaska! My whole life I've been around one shade of black, so to speak. But there are so many shades, people who aren't the same as me."

Both players stay in touch regularly with Randolph.

"She changed our lives," West said.

Master of details

By now, Randolph knows the drill. She's the first female coach in the Turkey Bowl, which means camera crews are coming back around. On a clear and chilly recent evening, she sits in the Coolidge coaches' locker room, slouching and soft-spoken, her slate-gray rainbow-striped notebook in her lap, answering questions from a local preps reporter.

"Everybody associated with D.C. football played in the Turkey Bowl or knows someone who did," she said. "If you played in it, you know exactly what year, what day, what the score was."

Randolph deflects credit for her team's success, instead praising her players. Good kids, she says. They listen. They care. They've bought in. Next question: What would a Turkey Bowl victory mean to her?

Again, Randolph hedges. But Young has an idea.

"I still hear in the stands that a woman can't coach a man," he said. "I heard that our last game. I have to bite my tongue. She knows people out there are still doubting her. She wants to prove them wrong. She wants to be the best."

Randolph wraps up her interview. She yawns. She does this a lot. Last season, she was sleeping four hours a night, tops. With her added defensive responsibilities, this year is more of the same. Some people ask others for money. Randolph asks friends to loan her time. "It never happens," she laments. There are classes to teach, game films to study, practices to schedule, buses to coordinate, highlight videos to cut for college recruiters. There are texts and calls at all hours, from current and former players, all of them her babies, with wants and needs and problems and thanks. Just the other evening, Randolph received a message from Ware:

"Coach, I received a math award today. I had the highest grade in class. Since I matured I see everything you were trying to tell me last year."

There is so much yet to accomplish. So much to jot down in Randolph's increasingly crowded notebook.

A few days ago, Randolph and Coolidge assistant coach Bob Headen were discussing Dunbar, their upcoming Turkey Bowl opponent, which defeated Coolidge 43-42 in the regular-season finale for both squads.

"Dunbar," Headen said, "runs a bubble screen. All the time."

Randolph opened her book. Flipping through the pages, she began to count out loud.

One … two … three …

"They ran it five times," she said.

"With that science background, Natalie is very detailed," said Headen, a local prep coaching legend who came out of retirement to work with Randolph. "My old friends would always ask me, 'Does she really know anything about football?' She does."

Headen laughs.

"She carries a notebook. I used to have a clipboard."