The hulking shadow stretched across the row of Osbourn High School offensive linemen, shielding them as they took their stances under the sizzling August sun while bearing a weight of unspoken authority.
Sporting a white, school-issued polo shirt, the 6-foot-5 Chris Samuels clutched the itinerary for his first practice and paused before four of the five players, his deep, gravelly voice rising with each repeated instruction.
“Your right foot. . . . PUT your RIGHT foot in front of the board. . . . No, YOUR RIGHT FOOT!”
Upon final surveillance, the first-year coach nodded, wiped the sweat gathering under his white Alabama visor and released the group with a “Go!”
As the next quintet took its mark, a grinning Samuels turned to one of his assistants.
“Woooo, we got a long way to go, bro,” Samuels said through a broad smile. “A long way to go. But today’s a learning day. Everybody is figuring it out.”
School is in session for both Osbourn’s football team and its new leader: Samuels, a celebrated student of the game who retired from the NFL in 2010 following a 10-year stint as an all-pro offensive lineman with the Washington Redskins.
Like Samuels, Osbourn’s football team has tasted success. The Eagles went undefeated en route to the 2006 Virginia AAA state title and were runners-up in 2008. But recent years have brought humbler times. Osbourn has won just nine games since 2012. Meanwhile, Samuels, who hopes to one day be an NFL or collegiate head coach, has commenced his endeavor with stops as an intern with the Redskins, a volunteer offensive coordinator at an Alabama high school and, most recently, an assistant offensive line coach at Alabama, his alma mater, where he endured the rigorous regimen of Coach Nick Saban while completing his degree in physical education.
The Manassas school hired Samuels in January to help return the Eagles to contender status in the region, meaning Friday nights this fall will provide a stage for both Osbourn and Samuels to re-establish themselves as proven winners.
“I’ll be honest with you; I’m not just shooting to win five or six games,” Samuels said. “The goal is to win the whole thing.”
On the morning of his first official practice with Osbourn, Samuels apologized.
“Sorry if I don’t know everyone’s name yet, but I’m going to get it,” Samuels told the 50 boys lining the dew-filled grass during stretches.
A similar sense of unfamiliarity circulated among Osbourn’s team when Samuels was announced as the new coach, replacing Sonny Hagy after three seasons at the helm.
Sure, Samuels’s 320-plus pound frame was a dead giveaway that he had done something in the professional football ranks. But most of the teenage players were more concerned with the Madden NFL video game than actually watching the sport during Samuels’s heyday.
“Once I realized who he was, I was a little starstruck at first,” Eagles senior lineman Jace Moore said. “He’s been to the NFL, so he can show us things that many people have never seen before.”
An alphabet soup of those concepts floated throughout a recent post-practice conversation among Samuels and his hand-picked coaching staff.
“Hey, draw me a two-back with a Y gone and then draw me a two-back with a Y,” Osbourn defensive coordinator and former Redskins linebacker Khary Campbell said. “It’s the same thing you’ve been doing; it’ll just look like Y pro.”
“Yeah,” chimed in Osbourn defensive line coach and former Redskins Pro Bowl linebacker Marcus Washington. “The Y will be on the ball . . .”
“. . . like a true tight end,” Samuels agreed. “I got you.”
While the web of football knowledge woven throughout Samuels’s mind didn’t hurt his cause, the story of how he wound up on a sideline in Manassas began last year at a table in Tuscaloosa.
There, Jamar Eubanks, then an assistant at Freedom-Woodbridge, struck up a conversation with Samuels, who was helping out with Saban’s annual high school coaches clinic.
“I told him I was thinking about getting out of college football, because the schedule was pretty demanding,” said Samuels, whose wife gave birth to their second child in the summer. “By coaching high school, that way I can still enjoy football, build up my experience and still get time with my family.”
When the Osbourn job came open in December, Eubanks alerted Samuels, who then sent his résumé, along with references from Saban, Joe Gibbs and Daniel Snyder, to Osbourn Athletic Director Ira DeGrood.
After receiving assurance from Eubanks that it was indeed Chris Samuels, former Redskins all-pro, DeGrood began the interview process by relaying an important reminder to the six members on the hiring committee.
“The first thing I said was, just because we know Chris Samuels is coming in here, we need to go into this with an open mind and judge everybody evenly,” DeGrood recalled. “There’s more to it than just coaching football. It’s about mentoring kids, leadership, dedication and instilling positive things in those kids. Just because someone played a sport doesn’t necessarily mean they can coach it.
“But honestly, when Chris got done with the interview, he truly was the best applicant. He answered the football questions great, but it was everything else he said that put him over the edge.”
Tabbed as the new coach over two other finalists, Samuels was approved by the Manassas City School Board on Jan. 27 and introduced to prospective players the next day during a meeting in Osbourn’s auditorium. Though he won’t have an official job in the school building, Samuels plans to make the 35-minute trip from his Vienna home each morning to help with lunch supervision and other duties. As for his coaching stipend, Samuels invested that, along with a generous personal donation, back into the football team, according to DeGrood.
Privately, however, Samuels briefly wrestled with the notion of stepping down. Not even a week after taking the job, Samuels got a call from Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Lovie Smith about interviewing as a second offensive line coach. But Samuels ultimately declined.
A few days later, another call came from the NFL. Chicago Bears wide receivers coach Mike Groh, who had worked with Samuels at Alabama, was also searching for an offensive assistant and this time, there was no interview. The job was Samuels’s if he wanted it.
“I’ve always dreamed of coaching in the NFL, but I made a commitment to these kids and I wasn’t going to back out on them,” Samuels said.
The budding bond with his Osbourn players weighed on Samuels as he drove his white pickup truck from the practice field back to the school following the first session of August two-a-days.
After catching two players horsing around during 11-on-11 drills, Samuels loudly voiced his displeasure with the team’s discipline. Then, almost in mid-sentence, he dialed down his tone, calmly emphasizing how a lack of focus can often serve as the fine line between wins and losses.
“Man, I don’t want to be that guy,” Samuels said while shaking his head, one hand on the steering wheel and the other holding a bottle of Gatorade. “Coming from the NFL culture, when I coached high school in Alabama, I was relentless; I fussed about everything. To this day, I still feel bad and apologize to those guys. It’s just tough to figure out that line between being hard on them and relating to them.”
The fragile dynamic is one that Samuels had in mind when he put together his coaching staff, beginning with Campbell. Already serving as a coach in the NFL’s Prep 100 Series for high school athletes, Campbell told Samuels if his good friend ever landed a head coaching gig, he would serve as defensive coordinator.
More NFL savvy came by way of a random encounter with Marcus Washington at a Wizards basketball game. After hearing of Washington’s experience working with Loudoun County’s freshman team last year, Samuels offered him the keys to run Osbourn’s defensive line.
“You try to tell them, just because we played don’t mean anything,” Washington said. “Our playing days are over, and it’s not going to happen by magic. Ultimately, it’s up to the players to get out what they put in.”
Samuels also interviewed holdovers from Osbourn’s staff, plucking mainstays such as wide receivers/defensive backs coach Justin Fisher and offensive line coach Rich McCleskey to help build a bridge of trust rather than have a complete overhaul.
Perhaps his most important catch, however, was Steve Schultze. It was Schultze who in 2002 took over an Osbourn football team mired in a 28-game losing streak and turned it into a state champion before retiring in 2011.
“I’m at the point in my career where I didn’t want to be a head coach again but I did want to get back on staff, so I’m excited to be working with a great football mind like Chris,” said Schultze, the team’s offensive coordinator who also serves as Osbourn’s assistant athletic director. “I have a type A, head coach personality, so Chris knows he can shut me up whenever. It’s all about loyalty; that’s your number one job as an assistant.”
That translated to the first practice, when Schultze, who has merged his spread offense with Samuels’s no-huddle spread scheme, memorized most of the new play signals, streamlining the progress of the players and new coaching regime.
“It’s a lot like Auburn’s offense and the plays sound like they’re from the NFL, so he’s really challenging and teaching us. He wants to bring Osbourn back to the top,” Eagles quarterback Anthony Pearson said. “He can be hard on us, but it’s in a good way and we respect that because, like he says, if we’re disciplined and listen, we’re going to do things the right way and we’re going to win.”
Samuels has an accountability partner of sorts in Schultze, whose knowledge of the tedious administrative work allows him to focus more of his efforts on team building. Thanks to frequent texts, quizzes with cash prizes and visits to the homes of absent players, the attendance for offseason workouts spiked from an average of 15 last year to about 40 this year, according to Schultze.
As the two men wrapped up their first day as fellow coaches following the first two-a-day, the conversation drifted to another commonality: family. One of Schultze’s kids had seen Samuels at a Wal-Mart but was too shy to say hello.
“Aww man, I’m nothing special,” Samuels said with a chuckle. “I’m just a high school football coach.”