Recuperating coach Billy Pugh remains a big part of Hayfield's football program

By James Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 2, 2010; 12:20 AM

Billy Pugh plans on being with the Hayfield football team on Thursday night when the Hawks open their season at Marshall. The longtime coach, who suffered a massive stroke last season, has one thing to figure out before kickoff, though: from where will he watch the game?

Standing on the sideline, as he did for the past 11 seasons as the head coach of the Alexandria school, is not a good idea. Pugh uses a wooden cane and wears a brace on his left leg, and he can't risk getting hit by a tumbling player.

He could sit in a wheelchair, but he'd have to find a volunteer to push him. "Someone will do that for me at school," he says, half-jokingly.

The best option, it seems, is for Pugh to stand and watch from the track that encircles the field; that way, he can sit on a chair and take breaks when needed.

It's just one of the adjustments that Pugh, 49, has had to make since he collapsed last October while teaching a history class.

He is now an assistant coach - he calls himself an adviser - after handing over the reins to his longtime friend and assistant Roy Hill last month.

To come back, Pugh has learned how to walk again, endured months of excruciating rehabilitation and struggled with the heartache of losing so much of his ordinary life. That perseverance has inspired the Hayfield players, who hope to repeat as Virginia AAA National District champions.

"You want to do everything for him," said Hayden Knudson, a junior wide receiver, defensive back and punter. "You see how hard he is fighting so you want to fight just as hard."

'I was just going, 24-7'

On Oct. 19, while teaching Mesopotamian history at Hayfield, Pugh started babbling in the middle of a sentence. He had a headache and the left side of his body felt weak. Students rushed for help and a nearby teacher grabbed Pugh before he collapsed.

Pugh readily admits that he wasn't taking care of himself prior to the stroke. He was rarely home before 10 p.m. during football season; and Pugh, already with type-2 diabetes and a defibrillator in his chest for an arrhythmic heart, wasn't caring for his blood sugar and cholesterol levels.

"I was just going, 24-7," said Pugh, who went to Hayfield as an assistant in 1995 and became the head coach in 1999. "Because, you know, the coaching job, not a lot of people realize the amount of time that goes into that. Then you have to do the teaching part, which I enjoy just as much. You know, that's two full-time jobs."

After the stroke, Pugh was hospitalized for 21/2 months. It was the worst punishment for a man who speaks fondly of how when his mother went into labor during halftime of a football game and his father Alger, a storied football coach in Danville, refused to leave the game.

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