Introducing Coach Natalie Randolph


Everybody at Calvin Coolidge High School is decked out in Coolidge Colts orange, a touch richer than the Tennessee Volunteers orange and a bit brighter than the Cleveland Browns orange, the sartorial splendor owing to tonight’s football game, the first of the 2010 season and more importantly, the inaugural game of the Natalie Randolph era.

“Hey coach!”

“Where’s your tie?”

“I just took it off, like, just now.”

Player and coach exchange a quick hug, and Randolph and I continue our journey through the school hallways.

“I asked them all to wear shirts and ties today. Most of them don’t have ties,” she offers. “They’re like, ties? Huh?”

By sixth period lunch on the first Friday of the new school year, students are still hammering out their schedules and getting paperwork in place, the phones are ringing off the hook in the administration office, and already there are several television trucks in the parking lot between the school and the football field,.

With the din and buzz around her, Randolph seems to be sleep walking, kind of hovering above or outside all the commotion, just trying to get on with the business of coaching and teaching. Mostly, what she needs right now, five hours before kickoff, is some lunch and the use of a color printer to print her game-plan.

Head coaches juggle all the minutiae of putting together a football team, from reserving the field for practice, doling out donated cleats, making sure players have regulation face-guards, and getting appropriate eligibility paperwork filed. At the moment, Randolph has struck out on several stops, but remains focused on her quest for the color printer.

An environmental sciences teacher at Coolidge High and former wideout for the D.C. Diva’s women’s full-contact football team, she was hired to be the head football coach in March of 2010, creating a tsunami of media attention. NPR carried the story. The NYT covered the story. Then the big sports outlets – ESPN and HBO – got in on the act. It seemed like everybody wanted access, wanted a piece of Natalie Randolph.

The unassuming red brick school with green-tiled walls, orange lockers and narrow stairwells, is home to about 720 students, most from other neighborhoods, not the northwest D.C. neighborhood were it sits, a by-product of the D.C. policy of open enrollment, according to Principal Thelma Jarrett. (Simply, with open enrollment, students may attend any school within the district and are not obligated to attend the one closest to their residence.) Coolidge is never on anybody’s radar, but today the media tsunami is cresting. Vice-principal Vernard Howard landed the dubious duty of fielding media requests. Amazingly, he laughs that he volunteered for the task. He had to deny some requests and limit access to others, as the strain on Randolph was showing. Despite his best efforts at even-handedness, some media noses were out of joint.

By the time the first game is over, a 28-0 loss to Carroll, it’s been a long day for all of us – the camera crews, the print reporters, the photographers, to say nothing of Randolph and her staff. The wait for her post-game press-conference seems interminable.

“Yeah, they called me today to ask me how to hold a press conference,” says one local reporter disparagingly. Admittedly, it was a little disorganized, or, rather, under-organized, but I can’t help wondering, just what high school is prepared for this sort of thing?

“The only reason you all are interested,” says the young, slight, pretty African-American head football coach at the end of her brief, post-game presser, “is that I have different parts.”

For most, it comes down to this. If she fails, it will be because she is a woman. Ignore the fact that plenty of male head-coaches are fired and suffer through bad seasons. If she fails, it will be due to her gender; and if she succeeds, that will be subject to all kinds of spin and interpretation.

Time and again, I have been asked, hysteria barely contained, “But what about the locker room? She’s a woman! Coaching boys!” Simply the boys change out of their school clothes and into their football clothes. Almost all football players wear a t-shirt or other undershirt underneath their shoulder pads and it only takes a moment to pull on some pants and a shirt. Perhaps other teams lollygag about the locker room naked, but coach Randolph’s charges do not. I wonder why anybody would want to lounge around a high school locker room naked anyway? I also wonder if UConn’s Geno Auriemma is ever asked about his presence in a locker room full of basketball players who also happen to be young women?

It was a crazy night, that first game, with the boom mikes and national media, plus full stands, which I would hazard held upwards of 3,000 people.

A month later, I returned to Coolidge to catch up with Randolph and catch the Colts game versus Forrestville, their fifth of the season. With her team at 0-4, there were no television cameras, no other journalists vying for a moment alone with Randolph. In the social-networking, twitter-fed, hits-driven instant media world, Randolph and the Colts were ancient history. Everybody had moved on to the next big story, leaving her to operate on a much smaller stage, a fact which seemed to bother her not a bit. “That was awful, just awful,” she admitted of that first hectic game.

It felt fitting that the trend had passed; Randolph is no revolutionary or radical. She wants to build something permanent, affect a lasting shift in the athletic-academic paradigm at Coolidge. She is re-thinking how sports can be used to boost classroom learning. Randolph’s vision was not lost on Principal Jarrett, who chose Randolph for her academic vision, not because she thought she was the next Urban Meyer.

The idea is a model that is more collegiate, brought to the high school level. In order to be eligible to play football, the players must attend a one hour study hall every day: they sign a pledge to not skip classes, skip school, goof off. Will it work? Will the players perform better in the classroom because they are motivated to play football? The more wins she can roll up, the bigger the carrot of  football becomes, so in order to change lives off the field, she has to win games on the field. Only time will tell if the plan will work, but I’d be willing to bet that nothing other than football would get most of the kids to study hall daily.

I spend a few hours before that Forrestville game following Randolph around like a lost puppy, from the parking lot to the field, to the locker room, to the coach’s box above the field, before we finally head back to the locker room. The walkway leading from the field to the interior hallway is dimly lit with only one bare fixture, the floor cracked concrete and paint on the walls which looks as though it had been applied during the administration of the school’s namesake. Coaching high school football is not glamorous, but it sometimes can be fun.

Most members of the Coolidge coaching staff are already in their locker room directly across the hall from the player’s locker room. They are all men, save for quarterbacks coach Lisa Horton who hasn’t made it to Coolidge yet. Ranging in age from late 20’s to 60’s, they’re eating pre-game sandwiches, changing into their coaching gear, talking game plan, telling tales of injuries sustained in their playing days, gossiping and teasing Randolph and each other. It is unseasonably hot and everybody digs in the recently re-filled cooler in search of a stray cold bottle of water or Gatorade. Randolph herself looks tired.

“I know what you need,” offers one of the men to Randolph.

The room breaks up in boisterous laughter.

“I was going to say ‘sleep.’”

But it’s too late. We’re all too far gone.

The attitude, the wise-cracking, the pre-game nerves, seem like every other coaching staff I’ve ever been around. It’s easy to be blinded by Randolph’s gender and appearance and miss the fact that she’s just a football coach, a rookie football coach trying to find her way through her first season, hoping to get her first win in a few hours against Forrestville.

She didn’t get the win that night. They lost on a last second Forrestville touchdown, but the Colts finally got one in the win column a week later when they waxed Anacostia by a score of 48-12. Then they ripped off three more wins, before dropping their final regular season game to Dunbar, DCIAA Western Conference Champs. Still, the 4-6 record (3-1 in conference) was good enough to secure second place and send them to the DCIAA playoffs. They lost in the first round game, sending H.D. Woodson to it’s third Turkey Bowl (the DCIAA championship game held on Thanksgiving morning.)

The first time we met, we sat in her classroom while she worked on the game plan. She told me, “Honestly, I don’t know what kind of coach I am going to be. I’m going to find that out, though.” For now, after her first season, she’s learned a tremendous amount about the challenges of coaching. She learned, “everything,” is what she told me. Now she can start planning for next year, keeping up the hard work of touching young lives, trying to give them the tools that will sustain them off the field, carry them into successful adult lives long after the sense memory of sweaty shoulder pads and study halls have receded.

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Image via Marfis75