As a child, Patrice Irby pestered her big brother, Burnell, like most little sisters do. She tagged along when he and his friends went to play sandlot football in their Northwest neighborhood of Brightwood. When the Irby siblings challenged each other to running races, Patrice always finished right behind Burnell.
So it was only natural for Patrice to follow Burnell to Eastern High as a coach three years ago. Burnell took over as the Ramblers' football coach in 1996; Patrice came shortly thereafter as the school's indoor and outdoor track coach.
By then, both brother and sister, part of a large District family with deep roots equally strong in athletics and education, had more than simply carved out a niche for themselves. They had become coaches and educators in their own right, students of their respective sports, and leaders for student-athletes in and out of the classroom. Burnell teaches world history at Eastern; Patrice is on schedule to graduate with a degree in physical education from the University of the District of Columbia in May.
When Burnell leads Eastern against Dunbar in next Thursday's D.C. Interscholastic Athletic Association championship game, Patrice again will not be far from her brother's side. She is the team's de facto assistant coach in charge of videotaping Ramblers games. The family ties also extend to another sister, Melissa, who keeps the team's offensive statistics. Brother Keith is a high school football official (he does not work Eastern games).
To explain their passion for education and sports, Burnell and Patrice look no farther than their parents, who have taught in the District's public school system for nearly 40 years. Their father, Burnell E. Irby (the middle initial is how the family distinguishes father from son), played fullback and middle linebacker at the defunct D.C. Teachers College, where he lettered in football and basketball.
"Education and sports go hand-in-hand," said Burnell K., 39, whose team has won the past two DCIAA East Division titles after going 2-6 in his first year at Eastern. "Some have an archaic attitude that the two don't mix. But they're dinosaurs. It's a part of making a kid a well-rounded and complete person."
Patrice and Burnell aren't the only Irbys to follow their parents into careers as educators. A brother, Vinson, 35, is an art teacher at Aiton Elementary School in Northeast; sister Karen, 34, teaches kindergarten at Seaton Elementary in Northwest.
"Look, I didn't make a whole lot of money, but I was able to buy this big beautiful house and [the kids] were never wanting for anything," said Burnell E., who lives in the same house the kids grew up in. He retired as a special education teacher in 1992 after working in District schools for 25 years. "We are a family of educators. They saw how education was important to developing a thinking process."
The coaching thread runs through the extended family. Cousin Neil Downing is an assistant football coach at Howard University. Another cousin, Ron Springs, is a former assistant at Howard (now out of coaching). Yet another cousin, Stephanie Ready, 23, is the volleyball coach at Coppin State College in Baltimore and, in September, became the youngest woman in the NCAA to be named an assistant coach of a Division I men's basketball program.
"Sports gave [my children] clear insight in the area of competition," the elder Irby said. ". . . Athletics does lay out a discipline where you must hear. And if you want to play, you take what you hear and practice it so it will work for you."
Both the younger Burnell and Patrice Irby have taken the father's philosophy and passed it on to the athletes, hoping that what they learn on the field can be applied to all facets of their lives. Players say he constantly checks up on them to make sure they're keeping up their grades and going the extra mile to find tutors for anyone who needs help.
"He tells us to play the game from the neck up," said senior place kicker-flanker Calvin Gorham. "And you know he totally means it."
Senior Lawrence Wade competes under both Burnell and Patrice Irby. On the football field, the running back is the fuel that makes the Ramblers offense move. He rushed for 308 yards in Eastern's 54-24 DCIAA playoff victory over Wilson, which earned it a berth in the league's championship game, and led the DCIAA in rushing during the regular season with 1,856 yards. He also is a sprinter on the track team. He said that both coaches have an understated way that allows them to teach through athletics.
"I'm used to coaches yelling and screaming, but they are calm," Wade said. "They treat you the way you want to be treated. They let you know what they want you to do and guide you."
In Burnell's case, that could be because he was a player himself. All of the Irby boys played football at Theodore Roosevelt High School, but it was Burnell who took it the most seriously. At age 8, his father said, the younger Burnell sat glued in front of the television watching professional and college football.
Burnell would go on to become a standout fullback at Roosevelt and at Howard before being switched to offensive lineman in his senior year. During his time at Roosevelt, his parents made his weekly games a family outing to watch him and his sisters, who were on the cheerleading squad. The DCIAA's championship game, known as the Turkey Bowl because of the day on which it traditionally is played, frequently brought the extended family to the Irby home.
"All the kids went to the football game," Ready recalled. "We had cousins playing in those games. The moms would stay home because we were anticipating dinner."
After graduating from Howard, Irby didn't set out to become a high school coach. He was teaching at Elliot Junior High School in Northeast in 1985 when Cardozo Coach Bobby Richards hired him as a football assistant. In 12 years as an offensive coordinator, Irby gained a reputation for schooling players in the basics.
"Good coaches are good teachers," Richards said. "All the guys who are successful were good teachers. Burnell has those qualities."
Irby relies heavily on videotape, amassing a library of Patrice's work. "He really has become a student of the game in regards to learning the finer points of offensive and defensive football," said Anacostia Coach Willie Stewart, who has coached with Irby in DCIAA all-star games. "Some guys scratch the surface. He is a technician."
Before Patrice Irby got behind the camera at Eastern games, however, she had already established herself in track. She set school and district records in the 100- and 300-meter hurdles and high jump at Lafayette High School in Williamsburg, and later became an all-American in the 55-meter hurdles at UDC.
In Williamsburg, where Patrice and her two sisters moved after their parents divorced in 1980, her running began to flourish. After 13 years of taking care of her family and earning a degree in early childhood education from UDC, Patrice's mother, Carol Hill, began teaching kindergarten at a local elementary school.
"Patrice has always been laid-back," said Hill, who has since returned to the city to teach kindergarten in the District. "At the track meet, she would quietly sit in the warmup area. When it was time to run, she would step out of her warmups and move into her run all in the same motion. I was in awe when I would watch her coming around the turn."
Success followed her to Eastern where, in her first year of coaching in 1996, the boys team won the DCIAA indoor championship.
"I just love sports, and enjoy working with the kids," Patrice Irby said. "There are some days when I'm so tired from the day that I look forward to going out to practice. Hopefully, I can be an influence on their lives."