“Who has the cooler of watermelon?” John Kelley asked.
After a sloppy half of football on Friday night in Clarksburg, it was unclear how many people were even listening, or cared. Coaches stood around in the hallway looking down at their shoes, going over everything that had gone wrong in the first half. Players sat in the locker room and didn’t talk to one another, faces buried in their hands.
Kelley could have been thinking about the special teams blunders, the costly penalties, making a wrong call on defense, but something else irked him.
“Where is the cooler with watermelon?” Kelley asked again, more frustrated this time. Still no answers.
This was Kelley’s first game as a head coach, his first time realizing that even watermelon was his responsibility, the first time something didn’t go according to plan. This was the moment he started to look overwhelmed taking over a program that has reached three Maryland 4A state finals in seven years and won the 2007 title.
He paced into the locker room, then back to the hallway and again into the locker room.
He yelled about every mistake the team had made in the first half.
“Where is the cooler with the watermelon?” he muttered again. It was hot, kids had been cramping, and Kelley wanted the players to have stamina. What if it made the difference in the game?
“We’re going to find out a lot about our football team in the second half,” Kelley said. “We’re going to find out a whole lot.”
Kelley didn’t sleep much the night before the game, lying in bed awake for hours as Thursday night became Friday morning. He woke up at 5 a.m. for a four-mile run.
He’d thought about this day for six months, since he had been promoted from defensive coordinator at age 33 to replace Dave Mencarini , who had a 107-18 record at Quince Orchard. As the first game neared, there was more to prove. Under its first-year coach, Quince Orchard returned just four starters, and Kelley’s first game was against a Montgomery 4A West rival that had the majority of its offense back.
Kelley met special teams coordinator Aaron Moxley for breakfast, and his mind wandered. He thought of how humid it was on his run. Kids were going to cramp in this heat, and although there were reminders all week to hydrate, could Kelley have done more?
He walked into Quince Orchard at 7 a.m., where an assistant principal greeted him.
“No pressure,” Ronnie Heller said.
“Yeah, no pressure,” Kelley said with a laugh.
His history students hounded him, leaning forward in their desks as he passed out their assignment.
“Are you nervous, Coach Kelley?”
“You ready, Coach Kelley?”
“Excited, Coach Kelley?”
He looked down at his phone and saw a text from running back Kyle Green, telling him to keep his head up.
“Coach, it’s your first game,” the text read.
In Kelley’s first coaching job, when he was a student assistant at Towson, he just had to make sure he had all of the call sheets and that the pencils were sharpened.
Kelley is responsible for so much more now, from making sure there were enough cafeteria tables set up for the team meal to telling the other coaches to wear red shirts.
He spent his planning period creating a photo slide show, and the players were silent as he scrolled through the images of the team’s offseason workouts, photos from when it was still cold to the ones from when players were shirtless because it was so hot, months of preparation for this season.
Then Kelley wanted to be alone to focus, the same as when he was a player at Seneca Valley High and in college at Towson. As he walked through the school, his pace was brisk, as if he could speed up the start of the game. He passed the trophy case en route to his office, his eyes lingering on the state championship footballs.
Kelley kept going to the bathroom, again and again, and checking the weather.
Soon he would change into his red Quince Orchard polo and matching red and white sneakers. He had gotten a buzz cut the day before. He would talk to his wife, Jill, on the phone and she would wish him good luck. For now, though, he put on the Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones,” reclining in his chair and, for the next hour, closed his eyes.
I am going to be nice to the officials.
That was new for Kelley, and he repeated it to himself over and over through warmups. As the defensive coordinator for five seasons, he could voice his disapproval with the calls. As a head coach, he didn’t want to be on the bad side of the referees.
The combination of overhydration and nerves made the trips to the bathroom more frequent closer to kickoff. He stuffed five pieces of gum into his mouth at once.
The assistant coaches stood around in the hallway before the game, while players stayed in the visiting locker room. They stared at the ground and took slow breaths until one of the coaches made fun of Moxley’s golf pants with fancy outlined pockets. Laughter echoed through the hallway, easing the tension, but then Kelley was back.
“I hope we’re laughing like this in three hours,” he said gruffly.
Ten seconds into Kelley’s head coaching career, Green scored on a 79-yard touchdown run. Kelley’s first play had reached the end zone, and while players screamed and celebrated, Kelley allowed himself only a fist pump.
When Clarksburg tied the game on the next kickoff, running it back for a touchdown, Kelley’s expression was unchanged, though the rest of his sideline was visibly deflated.
He grew most heated when he couldn’t get the attention of the defense, shouting while the safeties coach put a hand on his back. It occurred to him he was the head coach when an assistant coach tried to call a timeout and couldn’t without Kelley, because only the head coach can call timeout.
To Kelley’s relief, the long-lost watermelon was on the sideline after halftime, and players just ate it on the field. Things were already looking up.
When Quince Orchard scored its third and final touchdown, Kelley’s white hat ended up on the ground, his excitement starting to show as the end of the game neared. The defense protected the lead, intercepting a Clarksburg pass in the end zone in the fourth quarter.
Quince Orchard won Kelley’s first game as a head coach, 22-19.
With his team in victory formation, Kelley pulled his coaches into aggressive hugs. He and Moxley joyfully jumped and hugged at the same time. With his family on the field — his wife, his three young children, his two brothers, his football team — Kelley was teary when speaking to the media after the game.
“We are a reflection of our coach, and he fought,” defensive lineman Adam McLean said. “This win was definitely for him.”
The Clarksburg stands were empty. The Cougars were on the bus. But Kelley took his time on the field, standing around with his family. The team wasn’t going anywhere without him, and he wanted to take it all in, to savor his first game as a head coach.
He’d assert his authority again on the bus ride back, telling the driver which back roads to take to avoid traffic. This was his job now: to lead, to handle the discomfort and the emotions, to make the decisions he thought were best. He’d pick the spot for the coaches to go celebrate. The stress of the day gone, now he could look forward to taking it easy. That is, until a new week began.
He’d press palms to his forehead and sigh, “Oh my God.”
But for the first time all day, he was in no rush to get there.
“I just want to stay out here,” he said.