Coolidge Coach Natalie Randolph makes her presence felt on the football field

by Alan Goldenbach
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010; 8:46 PM

As she lugged an equipment bag onto the Coolidge football field, and saw 29 helmet-clad players waiting to start the season, Natalie Randolph sounded Friday afternoon like most coaches nervously preparing for their first practice.

"There's just so much to do," she said. "I'm not even sure what to do next."

Once she blew the first whistle, though, Randolph appeared in her element, running players through drills and officially beginning the season as just one of a handful of women ever to lead a high school football program.

The Colts had grown accustomed to Randolph's leadership over the summer, adhering to her detailed conditioning program five days a week. That program was a major reason they were surprised by their lack of fatigue.

"We must not be human," senior Daniel West told his teammates during a water break, "because humans would get tired in this heat. We ain't tired."

The Colts expect a few more players to come out, as about a half-dozen had to watch practice from the sideline while awaiting medical clearance. They also have one less player than they expected after the surprise departure of senior Stephon Stevens, projected to be the Colts starting quarterback this season before he opted to transfer to Dunbar on Thursday (permissible according to D.C. Public School's out-of-boundary transfer rules).

Regardless, Randolph held practice with the players she has, and her attention to detail and preparation were among the talents that the school's coaching search committee said set Randolph apart. It was apparent throughout the three-hour workout, notably as she ran players through a footwork drill in which they tiptoed through a ladder on the ground.

"Don't mess up my ladder," she warned players as they ran through the exercise. "Keep my ladder straight."

Parker Covington, 76, lives three blocks away from the Brightwood school. His grandson, Antonio Pixley, played quarterback for the Colts six years ago. Covington leaned against the fence on the far side of the field and paid particularly close attention to Randolph.

"I definitely wanted to see what she was all about," Covington said. "I'm always coming to the games, but now, I'll be coming to the practices, too."

Since her hiring, Randolph has appeared on the CBS Early Show, Good Morning America and CNN. She has been besieged with dozens of interview requests, and has had an ESPN camera crew trailing her since April. Friday, however, the media scrutiny was light - The Post was one of three outlets covering Randolph's first practice.

It may have been a welcome respite for Randolph, who is not one to seek out the spotlight.

"I had no idea [the coverage] would be this big," Randolph said recently. "There's no preparing for something like this."

It's been fruitless to try leaving voice messages on Randolph's cell phone; either her mailbox is full or she doesn't have time to retrieve her messages, no matter who leaves them.

"I've learned how to text," said Randolph's mother, Marilys, "because that's the easiest way to get to her."

Marilys Randolph was helping in the recovery from the earthquake in her native Haiti when her daughter's hiring was announced and Natalie began appearing on national television. While she saw Natalie's appearance on CNN in Haiti, it wasn't until Marilys returned home that she realized the breadth of coverage given to her daughter.

"I came home," Marilys Randolph said, "and I was like, 'Oh my God. What has she gotten herself into?' "

Randolph has been such an intriguing topic that when the United States sent a team to Sweden last June for the inaugural women's championship of the International Federation of American Football, some of the U.S. players who either knew of Randolph or were her former teammates on the D.C. Divas of the Independent Women's Football League, received phone calls in their hotel seeking interviews.

"That's when I realized how big this story is," said Donna Wilkinson, one of the U.S. players and a former Divas teammate of Randolph's. "It's pretty amazing to have the whole world watching every move you're making. When you have that kind of attention, I don't think you can prepare for it."

It's one thing to have a media outlet send a reporter or television camera out to practice once or twice for a story. Players can prepare themselves for those moments, but it can be a little much when they are under the microscope every day.

Randolph "tells us, 'Don't worry about ESPN. Don't pay them no attention,' " junior Felonte Misher said, "But you don't know who's going to be out there watching. It's a motivation, but it's also pressure. We can't make her look bad on camera."

Several area coaches have said since her hiring that they fear losing to a Randolph-led Coolidge team, simply because of what her gender signifies.

With that tension present, Randolph is feeling that pressure to perform. If the Colts struggle, then her critics will be proven correct.

"She's aware of it all," Marilys Randolph said. "She'd like to be able to do this without having to put so much pressure on herself. It puts additional pressure on her that she wants to win and prove herself to everyone who doubts her."

Her players are sharing that burden with her.

"If we lose," West said, "then people will say that all this hubbub is just a big circus. We're a team. We have to show that, and winning is all that matters."

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