She's a Warrior

By Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 11, 2006; E01

Oh boy, was Jerrard Hunter in trouble. The drill called for him to run a stop-and-go pattern, only the H.D. Woodson High School wide receiver didn't do much of the latter. The pass from quarterback Gabriel Prophet sailed past the 6-foot-2 sophomore, right to the spot to where Hunter should have run, and his coach was seething.

Hunter tried to return to the huddle inconspicuously, but the Warriors' 5-foot-5, 125-pound wide receivers coach wouldn't let him get away. Natalie Randolph grabbed Hunter's right arm, and spun him around to face her.

"What are you doing?" she screamed. "You can't do that, and just stop running."

Hunter turned his head skyward.

"Look at me!" she yelled. "You're running up there blind. You have to run your route and see the ball. Can you do that for me next time?"

"Yes, coach."

Not too many women hear that from boys, much less football players. Randolph, 26, was hired as the Warriors' wide receivers coach before this season, making her what is believed to be the only woman on a varsity football coaching staff in the Washington area. While women have coached boys' high school teams in other sports, football has remained a boys-only club.

"This is football. This is different," said Wanda Oates, who was named Ballou High's football coach in 1985, only to have the hiring overruled by the deputy schools superintendent. Oates, who five years earlier was named the District's first female athletic director, said the move was prompted by the District's other football coaches. "Football is a macho sport. It's the macho of all macho sports -- seek out and destroy. If a woman seeks out and destroys a man, then, oh, my God."

Randolph has no compunction about seeking out players who deserve her attention.

"I see a seven-foot-tall man when she gets mad," Hunter said. "She doesn't have any trouble getting respect."

One of the reasons she gets respect is because she knows the game and has had the opportunity to play it. Not only does she teach environmental sciences at Woodson, she also just completed her third season as a wide receiver for the D.C. Divas of the National Women's Football Association. The Divas went 10-0 to claim the 31-team league's 2006 championship in July.

After Warriors Coach Greg Fuller found out about that just before the start of practice in August, he invited Randolph onto his staff. She had joined the Woodson faculty last October, just before the end of the football season.

"With her knowledge of being a professional -- I don't care if it's with a women's league -- it's going to help us," said Fuller, who's team is 4-3 heading into Friday's game at Eastern. "She's a great resource."

Randolph grew up in the District and ran track for Sidwell Friends, earning honorable mention All-Met honors in 1996 and 1998. On scholarship at the University of Virginia, Randolph was all-ACC in 2003, placing second in the 400-meter hurdles at the ACC championships.

But Randolph always had a passion for football.

"She wanted to play on Sidwell's team and she was actually faster than anyone on the team," said her father, Nathaniel Randolph. "But then I told her, 'You know, some of them may try to hurt you because you're a girl.' "

Nathaniel Randolph runs his own physical therapy practice in Northeast, and in June 2003 had one of the Divas, Carrie Pecover, as a patient. He put his daughter in touch with Pecover, and the following week, the Randolphs went to a Divas playoff game. Natalie was invited to try out the following November, and has been a Diva ever since.

Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University, said Randolph is establishing an important precedent.

"The old stereotype of [football coaches] being a bunch of old guys sitting around can't be anymore," Roby said. "There are issues with it being a highly masculine sport. I don't think that's the case anymore. You look in the stands [at football games] and now there are women watching football."

Randolph had no aspirations to coach when Fuller approached her. She thought Fuller just wanted her to help out on occasion.

"I came out and he said [to the players], 'This is our new wide receivers coach,' " Randolph said. "I was like, 'Wow.' "

It certainly surprised some of the players.

"We got a girl for a coach? You don't see that everyday," senior running back D'Andre Johnson said when he was told Randolph would be one of the Warriors' coaches. "But she must know something about football if she's going to coach it."

Randolph kept a low profile the first couple of practices, watching the other assistants and trying to find her niche. The players already knew her as Ms. Randolph, the science teacher.

"We're in a classroom when it was announced," she said. "On the way out, they just said, 'All right, coach, see you later.'

"They were really good about it. I expected more backlash. I'm this small woman trying to teach them football."

But she had the best motivational tool -- the threat of embarrassment. When she lined the wide receivers up for individual drills, Randolph played defensive back against each of them. She squared up a few feet across from each receiver, and when the whistle blew, she planted both hands into their chests, trying to throw them off-route.

"Don't let me manhandle you," she yelled at each of them. "I'm a girl."

"We didn't know what to think," senior wide receiver Charles Stephens said. "Then she started to jam us and we started to look at each other, like, wow, she's serious. I thought, 'Man, am I going to get embarrassed?' "

It continues at the end of practice, when she joins the players in running sprints.

"Don't let me beat you," she warned them as they ran one sprint after another.

And if she does, it's a lesson learned.

"It teaches these boys how to respect a woman and that carries on in the rest of their lives," said Gary Stewart, whose son. Antwan, is a senior wide receiver for the Warriors. "They'll learn to watch what they say wherever they go."

While Randolph had the power of discipline over the players, she had to establish herself with the other coaches.

"After the first week, I had more apprehension about the other coaches than about the players," she said. "It was about proving myself to the other coaches."

Woodson defensive coordinator Bob Headen, who has coached football since the mid-1960s and was Woodson's head coach from 1974 to 1999, admitted he was skeptical at first.

"I thought, 'Where'd she get her football knowledge?' " Headen said. "She didn't play high school football. She didn't play college football."

At the coaches' first meeting, while they watched video from last season, Fuller asked Randolph about her approach to the two-minute and no-huddle offenses.

As she began to reply, Fuller said, "Well, draw it up on the board."

Here was Randolph's personal two-minute drill. She showed how the Divas' offense attacks a cover-1, cover-2, cover-3 and even the seldom-used cover-4 pass defense. The rest of the coaches nodded in approval.

"I watched her and she knows the game," Headen said.

As she returned to her seat, she was thrilled.

"For me, it's more of 'lead by example' " for Randolph, said Woodson quarterbacks coach Thomas Byrd, who played the position before graduating from Eastern in 1992. "You can read a book and say you learned it that way. But based on her doing it on the field, I had confidence in her to do the work.

Randolph still has other adult opinions to change. She said some have approached her at practice and asked, "So why are you coaching football?" When she explains that it's a combination of her love of both the game and teaching, many people still don't understand.

Opposing coaches, too, are still a little taken aback by Randolph.

"I thought it was a rumor," Ballou Coach Moe Ware said. "But you look at their receiving game, and they know what they're doing."

Woodson ranks third in the DCIAA in passing yards and touchdown receptions.

Randolph said she is still uncomfortable when teams line up for the postgame handshake. Some opponents have mistaken her for the team trainer, and don't acknowledge her.

"I hate this part," she said as the Warriors lined up after defeating Cardozo 34-0 Sept. 29. "I hate shaking hands because they walk right past me and don't realize I'm a coach."

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