Bob Headen rarely was late for a football practice. Even that August afternoon 25 years ago when he got married--after deciding to do so the night before, then sneaking out with his soon-to-be wife, getting a blood test, then racing to the service--he was still back at H.D. Woodson High, dressed and ready, in time for the first drill.
So when he wandered out to the practice field late one afternoon last month, late enough that the team's white jerseys had turned beige with dust and sweat and the quarterback's once-booming voice had turned dry and scratchy, a bystander could not resist asking Headen where he had been.
"Don't you know?" Headen said with a smile. "I am retired. This is not my team anymore."
Headen retired last winter after 25 seasons coaching football at the Northeast Washington school, a record eight D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association titles and a record of 284-89. His hand-picked successor, former Anacostia and Spingarn assistant Greg Fuller, officially began his career at Woodson yesterday as the Warriors were leading Oxon Hill, 42-26, when the game was suspended because of lightning midway through the fourth quarter. A decision on whether the game will be resumed is expected Tuesday.
Though Headen, 59, no longer coaches the team, he is still the school's athletic director and girls basketball and softball coach. He was wearing his "H.D. Woodson Athletic Director" shirt yesterday as he helped collect ticket money from entering spectators, pausing occasionally to ask for updates on the game via a walkie-talkie.
"Bob Headen! What are you doing here? I thought you were retired," said one fan as she entered the game.
"Hey, there is still a lot of work to do here," Headen said to her. "I am not going anywhere."
Headen will tell you everything he does is with his kids in mind. Asked recently about the Warriors' prospects for this season, he replied: "I know this is not my team anymore. But these will always be my kids."
His devotion to the kids has hardly gone unnoticed. DCIAA President Allen Chin appreciates Headen's devotion to the Woodson program.
"Bob is from D.C., he is a product of the public schools and I think he sees some of himself in those kids," Chin said. "Some people may not like Bob or some things he has done. But he is a good person to those kids and he is there for them. Overall, that is the main thing."
And it has been the main thing from the start of his days as a coach. One of the first rules he taught his assistants was they were not to yell at a player until they knew something about him or her--like whether they had had anything to eat that day or what things were like for them at home.
"Bob used to pass out phone lists with the kids' names on them," said Mo Warren, who had coached with Headen since 1974. "He always wanted to know what was going on with the kids."
Sometimes the players let him know. Headen runs a car pool for players who need rides home after practice. A few years ago, the car pool included a player who was homeless--but had asked Headen not to tell his teammates.
So instead of dropping the player off at the homeless shelter, Headen would drop him off at a fast-food restaurant a couple of blocks away.
"Here you go, just in time to go to work," Headen would say to him. As Headen pulled out of the parking lot, the player would go through the restaurant, out the back door and to the shelter.
Headen could be just as effective without the players knowing about it. In 1984 he discovered a 6-foot-6, 435-pound Woodson student named Raymond "World" Smith. Smith wanted to try out for football but there were no uniform pants large enough to fit him. So Headen cut two sets of uniform pants in half and sewed them together.
Getting Smith to fit in at school was another matter. Headen noticed Smith would eat lunch in a corner of the cafeteria, alone, though never far away from the disbelieving stares of schoolmates.
Smith "was a bright kid and real nice, but he was too quiet and no one was taking the time to get to know him," Headen said. "Finally I got the two prettiest girls in school to go and talk to him during lunch one day. The kids began to think he must have something going on for him if those pretty girls are talking to him."
Headen's loyalty is not forgotten by his former Woodson players. In 1997, the start of the DCIAA season was almost delayed because there was no money in the league's budget for the mandatory reconditioning of helmets and other equipment. But Woodson was the only team not affected by the crisis. Headen said former Woodson All-Met and current Cleveland Browns lineman Orlando Brown donated enough money to cover the reconditioning.
There was a large turnout of former Woodson players at yesterday's game. They brought their children and their memories and chatted with Headen as they entered the stadium.
"It is real strange being here and not seeing Coach Headen down on the sidelines," said Kevin Robbins, who played at Woodson in the mid-1980s before playing at Michigan State and then spending seven seasons in the NFL. "That is why I came today, to see him. I never played football until the 12th grade, and only then because Coach Headen kept after me to try out."
Those former players who live too far away to see him in person still find ways to keep in touch. The Headens used to encourage them to call collect, anytime, but the bills became astronomical.
So Headen got a toll-free 800-number.
Not everyone, however, has such positive memories of Headen.
In December 1990, he was suspended for one year after it was discovered one of his players was 20 years old, one year older than the DCIAA allowed. The infraction was discovered the week the 11-0 Warriors were supposed to play Wilson for the DCIAA title. The team forfeited its victories and its place in the title game. Headen served most of the suspension before it was overturned in November of 1991.
Headen was suspended three other times for using ineligible football players and girls basketball players, including sitting out the entire 1988-89 basketball season.
"Those suspensions really hurt," said Headen, who added he did not knowingly use ineligible players. "It is something when your mother and family are bragging about you and then they turn on the TV and see your name being associated with something bad."
Headen, an only child, grew up in the area around 17th Street and Kalorama Road in Northwest with his mother, Ethel, who was a housekeeper at a local hotel. While at Cardozo High in the late-1950s (he went to school there with the late Marvin Gaye), Headen played quarterback for legendary coach Sal Hall. He later played at St. Augustine's College in North Carolina and spent the 1963 preseason with the Denver Broncos as a defensive back before returning to Washington.
After three seasons at Cardozo, Headen left coaching for a few months before taking a job as an assistant at H.D. Woodson under head coach John Thompson (not the former Georgetown basketball coach). On the second day of practice, Headen arrived to find Thompson had taken another job.
So Headen became H.D. Woodson's second coach in as many days. And he stayed until last winter. His eight league titles are one more than current Anacostia coach Willie Stewart.
"Bob was a tremendous competitor," Stewart said. "I enjoyed coaching against him because he really brought out the best in you. I will miss his competitiveness and I will miss our rivalry very much."
Woodson's players, however, do not miss him.
"I cannot miss Coach Headen because he is still around here all the time," said Solomon Adderly, a senior starting defensive back. "He used to holler at us, but we knew it was for our own good. I really loved playing for him."
November 1997: With a coaching staff that included five former Woodson players, the Warriors won Headen's record eighth D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association title by defeating Anacostia, 14-8.
1993-94: Woodson won back-to-back DCIAA titles becoming the first school to do so since Anacostia in 1988-89.
November 1991: Headen was reinstated to coach football and girls basketball.
December 1990: Headen was suspended for one year by the DCIAA and the Warriors were forced to forfeit 10 wins from an 11-0 season--and their place in the DCIAA title game--after it was discovered the team used an overage player. Former assistant Toby Madison was named interim coach.
November 1968: Headen, then coaching Cardozo, won his first DCIAA title when the Clerks defeated McKinley, 24-19.