There's a knock on the office door. A baby-faced freshman pokes his head in and sheepishly addresses Billy Pugh, asking him what to do with a medical form he is holding.
"Are you a football player?" Pugh barks.
"Yeah," the kid half whispers.
"Go give that to the freshman football coach," Pugh says. His words come out in a southern Virginia drawl that runs through every syllable of every word, drawing them together into one tight command that is delivered in an exhale that snaps like a whip.
The boy backs out of the office, nodding silently as he shuts the door.
Billy Pugh, the 44-year-old head football coach at Hayfield Secondary School, has two great loves in his life, aside from his faith and family -- football and music. He can hardly help that, what with his family background. Pugh's father was a teacher and high school football coach down in Danville, Va., and his mother a music teacher. Pugh inherited equal parts of both parents' gifts: He has spent his adult life teaching, coaching and singing.
"I can't read music," he said, "but I hear a song once and have no trouble singing it."
Lately Pugh has been teaching and coaching more than singing. There's hardly time for all three, particularly this time of year. September means the start of school and another football season, and for Pugh, a short man with thick hair and a quick wit, this is the 21st year he has been involved in coaching sports at Fairfax County schools. He's coached at Lee, Woodson and Edison high schools in addition to Hayfield; he even spent one jayvee basketball season at West Potomac High. He's coached everything from girls' and boys' basketball to golf to baseball and softball, most seasons coaching two or three sports in addition to teaching history full time.
Last year, his sixth as head football coach at Hayfield, was the first time he coached only one sport. That was more than enough, given the special challenges facing any Hayfield coach. Hayfield, in the county's Alexandria section, draws students from the largest geographical area of any Fairfax high school, so diverse that it lacks a sense of togetherness like you'd find in a small city or town. As a result, it is not a real tight-knit community.
Pugh is not the most famous high school football coach in Northern Virginia, nor the most successful. He was 35-26 in his first six seasons and so far is 2-1 this year after Monday's 30-24 loss to undefeated Herndon. He is in many ways typical of many teacher-coaches in Northern Virginia who perform duties well beyond their job description -- from seeding, aerating and watering the football fields all summer to painting the lines on the grass he has nurtured into a soft blanket of green for his players to land on.
On the day before the opening night of the 2004 season, an away game against Mount Vernon, Pugh was concerned about whether his team was ready. But he was also looking ahead a week to the Hawks' first home game and the condition of the football field.
There had been a little rain during the week, and normally the team would practice on the game field the day before a game, but Pugh wasn't taking any chances of chewing up the grass and ruining it for the home opener against Lee. He had instructed the players to gather on a separate practice field. As he made his way toward practice, he noticed a bunch of players on the game field.
He quickened his pace and shouted for all the world to hear: "I want to know which one of you bright people thought you could go on the game field?" A player or two began to answer, but he cut them off: "Get off my field and get up to the practice field like you were told to do."
Pugh has a set of pipes on him, make no mistake. A lifetime of singing took care of that. "Oh well, I can project," he said with a laugh, "don't worry about that. There aren't many people who can project like I can. I don't have any problems getting somebody's attention."
There are about 4,000 students at Hayfield, nearly 400 more than the school is designed to hold. The crowding will be relieved when the south county new high school opens a year from now. Pugh, who is married with five stepchildren, teaches four history classes to freshmen. He has always liked teaching freshmen, he said, because they are still young enough to listen and learn.
There's a fringe benefit, too: He sometimes spots a student or two or three who haven't gone out for football, and he can do a little recruiting. This season there are more than 100 students on the freshman, jayvee and varsity football teams. (Hayfield, Lake Braddock and Robinson are Fairfax's three secondary schools, which include grades 7-12.)
Practice is held on a cluster of grass patches behind the school that is spotted with bare areas of hard dirt and a few rocks that are picked up and tossed aside by coaches and players.
Pugh, dressed in a T-shirt and shorts, never really stops moving during practice. He is a perfectionist, something he got from playing football for his father at George Washington High School in Danville. He had to be perfect at every practice and in every game; otherwise he thought players and parents would look at the short wide receiver who weighed 125 pounds and say he was only playing because he was the coach's son.
Now, as a coach, Pugh tries to preach perfection. He lets his offensive coordinator, Bob Bowman, and his defensive coach, Roy Hill, run the practice while their units are playing against a scout team, which mimics an opponent. But Pugh is always there, looking for imperfections in form and execution, questioning his assistants about the play calling formations. He doesn't consider that second guessing, he calls it playing devil's advocate, making sure that every angle is covered.
Practice on a recent day began with warm-ups and stretching. Then Pugh went right into special team practice. "On the hop!" he yelled, using one of his favorite expressions to get the players to move a little faster. He tells the players that special teams will be important when they line up the next night against Mount Vernon. "We've beaten Mount Vernon the last couple of years on big special teams plays," he shouted.
While an assistant reviewed a fake punt play, some of the players were not paying attention, yakking to each other, joking and laughing.
Pugh, standing near the opposite end of the field, suddenly started marching toward them, his voice rising in anger. "Hey! Shut the hell up. Next guy who runs his mouth is going to the hill. We've got a damn football game tomorrow! If you think you are going to just walk out there and win, you're wrong."
The players went deadly silent, and practice continued. Pugh looked delighted that he got his message across. "I'm real 'old school,' " he whispered to a reporter.
"The hill" is just that, a grassy steep incline behind the practice field that is used both for conditioning and as a stick to hold over the players' heads when they're sloppy or don't put forth maximum effort.
Just after 5 p.m., practice ended, and Pugh gathered the team around him. "We're going to wear all white tomorrow," he said. "White helmets, white jerseys, white pants." Players nod their approval. "We're gonna look sharp," one player said. Pugh told them to put new Hayfield Hawks decals on their helmets after practice, then go home and get a good night's sleep, and to wear their game shirts to school the next day.
Pugh's father, Alger, coached football from 1964 until his retirement in 1982. He died of a heart attack in January 1984. "He ran three miles the day he died," Pugh said proudly. His father played football at Virginia Tech, was an all-conference halfback and was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers. But a bum knee kept him from the National Football League, so he opted for a career teaching and coaching.
Pugh's mother, Virginia Herndon Pugh, still lives in southern Virginia. He has a younger sister who is a Baptist minister in Richmond.
"My mother was a music teacher and taught other things, but was a musician from the word go," Pugh said. "And consequently I have done both, sports and music."
Since he has been teaching in Fairfax, he has been in two musicals with students, and once in a while he'll sing on Broadway nights at school. "I don't sing as much as I should, least that's what people say," Pugh said somewhat sheepishly.
Pugh followed his father to Virginia Tech, but he was too small to go out for football. He started off as a theater major but realized he liked performing much more than studying about it and decided to follow his parents into teaching. As graduation neared, his father urged him to move to Northern Virginia where salaries were a little bit higher. His father had many contacts through coaching and used them to help his son.
"I knew his father, Alger Pugh, through the state coaches association," said Dennis L. Baughan, the head football coach at Edison in 1983, who is now retired from coaching. "At the time I interviewed with Billy, he had the characteristics of his dad and his mom, so I knew from his background that he would be a very good coach and a very good educator. . . . He was fiery and fair and a good disciplinarian. I thought he was a good example for the boys, even though he was not much older than some of the players."
Pugh didn't have enough money to get his own place, so he moved in to the Baughan family home and coached the running backs as well as girls' basketball and baseball. The next year he got a job teaching at Lee but kept his football job at Edison.
His father was a precise coach with a superstitious streak, and Pugh has inherited both traits. When he was in high school, his mother and sister would go to church every Wednesday. Billy and his dad got out of practice too late to make church, but on those days they went to the same pizza restaurant in Danville, where his father always ordered the same thing.
Now on game days, about the same time every week, Pugh has to park his Ford Explorer Trac in the same spot behind the school. He has to have his coaches whistle for him for pregame warm-up, blowing each practice play dead with a quick chirp.
And then there are the shoes. Late on Friday afternoon, opening day, Pugh distributed new golf shirts for the coaching staff.
All the uniforms, helmets and equipment worn by the players and coaches are purchased with money that is raised by the team. The biggest source of income is an annual mulch sale. On two Saturdays each spring, the team delivers more than $10,000 worth of mulch that they sell in a fundraising drive. With a fleet of borrowed trucks, Pugh and his team can deliver about 1,200 bags an hour. He also runs an annual golf tournament, among other ways to raise revenue. The county pays only for the lights on the field and the officials. The team, with Pugh as the lead fundraiser, must do the rest.
So it was with great pride that he distributed the new coaches' shirts. The coaches were gathered in the cramped office next to the locker room. Pugh changed from his teaching clothes to his coaching clothes. Bowman, the offensive coordinator, pulled out a new pair of white and orange Nikes, and all the other coaches gasped their approval.
Pugh picked up an ancient-looking pair of black Adidas off the floor and wiggled his feet into them. The shoes were speckled with white paint, stained from past years of painting the lines on the game field each week. "There's a lot of luck in these shoes," he said.
Pugh and the coaches met separately, with the offense and defense beginning a little after 4:30 p.m. During the offensive meeting, Pugh's cell phone rang and he answered it, but quickly got off the phone. It was someone looking for him to refinish a deck, which he does summers and in his spare time during the school year.
Just before 5, he gathered the team in the room. "Somebody in this room is going to have to make a big play tonight who doesn't expect to," Pugh said. He talked about how hard they have worked all preseason, all the practices, the hills they've done, weight lifting and studying. He spoke quietly, telling the seniors that this was a night they would always remember, the opening game of their final high school season.
"Tonight is a night that some of you will never experience again," he said. "You have 35 minutes to get on the bus and go kick their ass. Now let's go." Team members gathered in a circle around him, raised their right arms to make one point and shouted: "One, two, three, Hawks!"
At 5:20, the team boarded two yellow county school buses for the ride to Mount Vernon. Pugh said he thinks this year's team may be the best he has had since becoming head coach at Hayfield. He has size in the line (Ali Malone is 255 pounds, and Eric Brown is listed at 315); speed in the backfield with junior Larry Asante; and a quarterback, senior Pat Martin, who is skilled enough to run the option offense.
The half-hour bus ride was quiet, and so was the locker room. In the visitor's locker room, several hundred yards from the field, the team gathered and finished getting dressed. Bowman told the team captains that Hayfield wanted to get the ball on offense first. The plan was to come out and run the first play without huddling up, try to catch Mount Vernon napping.
The night was warm and the western sky the colors of rainbow sherbet as the sun set. After a prayer led by a player without the coaches in the room, the team walked in two lines toward the field. Pugh padded along in his paint-stained black shoes. One player walked in front of him. "He's bowlegged," Pugh observed, "that's the sign of a good athlete." As Pugh continued walking, it was evident that he's pretty bowlegged, too.
On the field, Pugh shouted instructions: "Let's go to kicking game. On the hop!"
He had his lucky whistle around his neck and kept the warm-ups going on a quick pace, handing out praise and encouragement. He stood at midfield and took off his Hayfield baseball cap, running his right hand through his thick graying hair one, two, three, four, five times and then scratched the back of his neck before plopping the cap back on his head.
After warm-ups, as the team headed back to the locker room, Pugh met with the officials. He told them of their plan to run the first play without a huddle, so they wouldn't be caught off guard. The referee thanked him and said the officiating crew planned to enforce the taunting and sportsmanship guidelines strictly and would throw a penalty flag without issuing any warning to the players.
"Please do," Pugh said in his twang. Pugh had warned his players all week to keep their mouths shut during the game. He told them that Mount Vernon might do some trash talking, but that they were forbidden to respond.
Back in the locker room, the players were slamming each other's pads and getting themselves worked up to play. Mount Vernon had won the pregame toss and deferred to Hayfield, just as Bowman had predicted they would. Hayfield would get the ball first.
"You've got to remember," Pugh told the players, "it's the first game of the season. It's a long game, and you've got to keep your cool. The officials have already told me they are going to penalize for unsportsmanlike conduct without any warnings. You have to keep your mouths shut, because you know they won't."
Hayfield scored on the first possession of the game. Mount Vernon came right back and tied the game. In the second quarter, Mount Vernon scored again but missed the extra point -- a special team mistake. Hayfield tied and went ahead, 14-13, on an extra point kick by Jonahan Romero. Asante was cutting Mount Vernon up with his running, and Pat Martin was fooling the defense with his great ball handling on the option.
The locker room at halftime was not pretty. Pugh and defensive coordinator Roy Hill ripped into the defense. Their message came down to this: If you don't shut them down in the second half, we're going to lose. A loss to Mount Vernon, a smaller school and a rival, would certainly dash Hayfield's hopes of making the playoffs.
The defense shut out Mount Vernon in the second half, and Hayfield won 21-13. After the teams exchanged handshakes and good-games and way-to-go's, Pugh gathered his team around him near midfield. "Take a knee," he ordered. "We have a lot of work to do. There is going to be a whole lot of criticism in that film room tomorrow. You are to go home, get your heinies in bed and get back to school by 8:30. I'm going to be honest with you, I'm not happy."
With that the players stood and began their walk to the buses. They stripped off their shirts, and as the bus rolled back toward Hayfield, the smell of sweat and dirt was overwhelming. "It stinks in here," said one of the female trainers. A moment later they passed a dead skunk in the road. The stench filled the bus.
"That smells awful," someone in the back of the bus said.
"It smells a lot better than you guys do," said the female trainer.
The players laughed and began quietly replaying the game, telling war stories from their first win of the season. Pugh sat in the third or fourth row of the darkened bus, his black Adidas propped up on a ball bag or something.
This is what has kept him coaching all these years. Not the wins, though they are important and he values them, but the games themselves and everything that can be learned from playing the right way, the way his father taught him back in Danville.