No way, Joe High thought, that this guy was his new college roommate. The man who stood in front of him was balding, for crying out loud. He looked less like a college student than a parent dropping one off, and he did nothing to dismiss that notion when he opened his mouth.
Tony Werner introduced himself to High as a retired police officer, as a husband and father of two. He also introduced himself as High's new roommate at Salisbury and his teammate on the Salisbury lacrosse team.
"I was like, 'Whoa, this doesn't add up. This is too much,' " High said. "It was a pretty crazy situation, but that's the thing about Tony: He finds a way to fit in and make everyone comfortable, no matter what's going on."
It's a skill that has benefited Werner, 47, throughout his life. His general adaptability has guided him through 20 years of police service, through parenthood, through junior college and through Salisbury, from which he graduated in 1998. This year, Werner expects to adapt equally well to his new position: head coach of the Severn football team, which opens practice Aug. 15.
Werner, also the dean of students at Severn, spent the past several years as an assistant to longtime coach John Beckman, who retired after last season. In his new position, Werner accepts a steep challenge: Severn graduated its three best players -- quarterback Jamal Jones, running back Deon Peters and fullback Duke Gibbons -- so Werner figures he's starting from scratch.
"I'm very excited, but also a little apprehensive," Werner said. "It's going to be a fresh start for all of us. It's almost like an entirely new football team. I've always had aspirations of being a head coach, though. This is where I want to be, and it's not going to scare me if it's a little bit hard."
Difficulty, after all, never deterred Werner before. His job as a police officer sometimes inspired him, sometimes exhausted him. During his last two years on the job he decided he wanted to go back to college, and he used a lacrosse scholarship to place him there.
A stellar high school lacrosse player at Glen Burnie, Werner had refined his skills in adulthood by playing for several club teams. A former club teammate recommended him to Catonsville Community College, where Werner landed a lacrosse scholarship. For two years, he worked as a police officer, went to school full time and played lacrosse.
"He was killing himself to do everything," said Beth Werner, his wife. "It was just too much. It was really wearing on him. It became pretty obvious that something needed to change."
Werner decided to retire from the police force and go to school full time. Jim Berkman, the lacrosse coach at Salisbury, invited Werner to try out for his team. Eighty players came to the tryout, including a dozen defensemen. Werner, still gritty and determined at 40, sneaked into the six-man defensive rotation. He had found his new school.
"At first, some people on the team thought it was some kind of joke," High said. "But the guy could play. He hit hard, and he was keeping up with all of us. He's a smart player. It made a lot of sense to have him on those teams."
What made less sense, though, was Werner's living situation. He practically quarantined his room in the three-bedroom apartment he shared with High and another student, both 19-year-old sophomores. On weekends when his wife visited, Werner made his roommates clean the apartment and pick up beer cans off the floor.
"It was like living with my son again," Werner said. "There could be some parties every once in a while, and I just tried to find another place after the year. I ended up living with a high school football coach my second year there. That was a little more tame. My family didn't have to worry about seeing cans everywhere anymore. Seriously, though, I loved living with those guys. They became two of my best friends. It taught me a lot. It was like, 'Okay, I guess you can forge a bond with almost anybody.' ''
That's what leaves Werner brimming with confidence entering his first year at Severn. Few adults, he said, have as much experience spending time with younger athletes. Thus, Werner believes he can simultaneously be a friend and a mentor.
At Severn, he'll fulfill the duties of a coach: He plans to change the offense so that it uses more shotgun formations. He's reworking the playbook, hiring offensive and defensive coordinators, and improving the weight lifting program. He plans to run and work out with his players, something he'll be in shape for since he already runs 12 miles each week. He will also open his office at school to his players, and he encourages them to talk about their problems.
"I'm excited about doing this in so many ways," Werner said. "I've been through a lot of stages in my life, and I finally feel stable and happy about where I am. It's a great feeling. I'm ready to get comfortable."
Werner, who spent 20 years as a police officer and went back to college in his early forties, said he has always aspired to be a head coach.