By Paul Tenorio
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 6, 2008
Danny McGrath had spent the past three weeks in front of a computer developing offensive and defensive football schemes. He'd been answering e-mails from parents, assistant coaches and prospective players. He'd been in the equipment room sorting through helmets and mouth guards. But yesterday, finally, the 25-year-old newly named head coach of Loudoun Valley was crouched over a green blocking pad with his hands dug into the grass in a four-point stance.
He was finally where he wanted to be.
"You're going to uncoil and explode forward using your hips," McGrath said to 10 offensive linemen who looked on intently. "Don't be afraid to fall flat on your face. That's what this pad is for."
Then, as naturally as if he were back in training camp at Virginia Tech -- where just two years ago he was the starting center -- McGrath sprung forward and into the pad in front of him and landed on his stomach.
A few minutes later, as his unit jogged to get water, McGrath laughed and acknowledged that, after the three sometimes overwhelming weeks since his hiring, it was good to get back to football. Back to what he knows best.
"I don't have to worry about anyone bothering me out here," he said.
On the first night of training camp for the Vikings, in front of a team that had waited nearly two months for its coaching vacancy to be filled, McGrath's transformation -- from immature sophomore starter at Herndon High to starting offensive lineman and team captain at Virginia Tech to being one of the youngest head coaches in the state -- was complete.
McGrath has coached just one year at the high school level, but the former Hokie said each step in his career has been a part of his preparation for this moment.
The process started with Tommy Meier, coach at Herndon. Meier had seen it many times in his 25 years of coaching. A big, talented kid would come into the program with infinite potential but could not balance his off-the-field popularity with his on-field skill.
In the Hornets' weight room, Meier saw his star sophomore messing around with his friends during weight training. "Getting more attention for being loud and obnoxious than he was for making tackles," Meier said.
So Meier pulled the 15-year-old McGrath aside and delivered a message.
"There are enough clowns in the world," McGrath recalled Meier saying. "You have the opportunity to do something that other people don't. You might want to keep your head on straight."
The impact was instant, Meier said. McGrath never lost his personality off the field, but on the field and in the weight room, he was a different person. "Always business," Meier said.
McGrath soon developed into one of the area's top players, earning a reputation for toughness. During a game his junior year he dislocated a shoulder, Meier recalled. On the sideline he could hear McGrath argue with trainers because he didn't want to miss a play. The trainers popped the shoulder back in, and McGrath pushed them out of the way and ran back onto the field. He only missed a few snaps.
"You don't see many 16- or 17-year-old kids" do that, Meier said.
When he arrived at Virginia Tech, McGrath heard Hokies Coach Frank Beamer repeat the same mantra: just do the right thing.
"I heard that phrase till I was numb in the face," he said.
But it wasn't until McGrath neared the end of his career at Virginia Tech, where he started for most of his last two seasons, that he finally grasped the philosophy.
The 6-foot-2, 290-pound center had grown into what his teammates considered to be the definition of a true leader. In one breath he could stand and tell his teammates they were slacking, and in another he could crack a joke to ease the tension. In the huddle, he could state the running back's responsibilities and then bark out the line's blocking assignments. By his final season, he had graduated with a degree in physical education and was nearing the completion of a master's program.
"As I kept getting older," McGrath said, "and kept doing the right thing -- going to my classes, getting the grades, graduating in three years -- and with the opportunities that have come to me now, I understand what [Beamer] means: Do the right thing, because if you do, the opportunities will just come to you."
McGrath was hired as the offensive line coach last year at Park View, and by August he was on the practice fields running the Patriots' linemen through drills. Coach Andy Hill said he immediately realized McGrath's ability when it took him just one day to install blocking schemes Hill thought would take half the week.
During the 2007 season, McGrath quickly became one of Hill's top young staffers and helped the Patriots to a 10-2 record and a berth in the Region II playoffs.
This spring, when the Loudoun Valley job opened, Hill encouraged his young coach to submit his name. "He is one of the best young coaches I have ever worked with," Hill would say later. And after a nearly two-month search in which one candidate accepted the position and then withdrew his name just days later because of family issues, McGrath got the job.
Loudoun Valley Athletic Director Janeen Schutte said she felt confident in McGrath's vision for the program despite his limited coaching experience.
"It might have been in the back of people's minds," Schutte said. "But after interviewing with him and actually sitting down and meeting with him and talking to him, he was very well prepared and ready to take on the responsibility of being a head coach."
Three days after being hired, McGrath stood in front of more than 100 parents and players of a program that had waited restlessly for a coach and said assuredly that his days and years as a leader for successful programs throughout his career had prepared him for the position.
"I take great pride in what I did" as a player, McGrath told the crowd. "But . . . my time is over. And I want all my past experience to go on to your sons."
That confidence was dented in the days and weeks immediately following his hiring as he was faced with filling out his staff, organizing and ordering equipment, and developing an offensive game plan and defensive identity in just three weeks. So McGrath e-mailed Virginia Tech offensive coordinator Bryan Stinespring seeking guidance.
"Coach what you believe in," Stinespring wrote back. "Stay the course and you will be fine."
And just as it had that day in the weight room as a high school sophomore, or in his reflections at Virginia Tech, the message hit home with McGrath.
"I've come from great coaches and shared a belief that made them successful," he said. "And it's a comfort that I've had the success and I know how to do this."