WASHINGTON - The Thursday afternoon gathering of male students outside Natalie Randolph's first-floor environmental science classroom at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School is hard to ignore.
Even after the final dismissal bell, the rowdy group of boys is not quick to leave the Northwest D.C. campus.
Instead, they meet outside Randolph's classroom in a hallway that stretches endlessly with orange lockers.
Some of the boys joke around with each other and occasionally yell out to Randolph, who ever-so-casually tells them to go to study hall.
Others drift in and out of Randolph's classroom with actual questions. And one of the teens, visibly upset, comes to Randolph to seek advice behind a closed door.
"I always told the kids they were my children," says Randolph, who has taught at the school for six years.
To these high school students, Randolph is more than a teacher and a role model. Until recently, she was their football coach. And even though she resigned two weeks ago after the school's last game of the season, her role as "coach" has not subsided.
Four years ago, Randolph, who grew up in D.C. and received her bachelor's degree from the University of Virginia, took on the role of what many say was the first female high school football coach in the country. But if you ask Randolph, she says it was all an accident.
Calvin Coolidge Senior High School gets a female football coach
"I said 'No' several times," says Randolph, who explains the school asked her to take the position because the administration wanted somebody who would put an emphasis on academics.
Natalie Randolph stands in her science classroom at Calvin Coolidge Senior High School. (WTOP/Rachel Nania)
However, after talking to friends, both in school and outside of school, Randolph agreed to take the position.
"It was an accident, a happy accident," she says.
Football is a sport in which Randolph did not need a crash course. The 33-year-old formerly worked as an assistant football coach at H.D. Woodson High School in Northeast D.C., and played wide receiver for six years on the District's professional football team, D.C. Divas.
"So I knew about football," Randolph says. "And I can say now that I know a lot more about football than I did when I started."
While many parents and students were receptive to the idea of a woman taking on the role of head coach, Randolph says three players expressed hesitation.
"They came to me and they spoke frankly about it, they were open and honest," Randolph says. Ironically, Randolph ended up establishing close friendships with each of those players. Even though they are in college now, they still call to check in on "coach."
The playbook: School comes first
Instead of diving into the role with the goal of clinching a championship, Randolph put academics ahead of the game. She enforced study hall hours and made her players use assignment logs and turn in progress sheets.
"I tried to make sure that they understood that (school) was the most important part of it. And they needed that in order to move on to the next level in college," she says. "I stayed on them … A huge piece of the effort that I put into the program was on the academic side."
Randolph's focus on academics has paid off. When asked about success stories with players who have since graduated, she says, "We've got plenty."
Several have gone on to play college football at schools, such as Clemson, Morehouse College, University of San Diego and North Carolina Central.
"I try to make sure all of them do something after high school. Whether it's four- year university, a prep school, fire, EMS, wherever it may be," Randolph says.
The time commitment of a coach
When Randolph announced her resignation after the season ended on Nov. 8, she told the players, parents and school staff that she needed some more "me" time, as well as more time to spend with family.
When she broke the news to the team, she said some of the kids were taken aback and visibly upset -- a reaction the modest coach wasn't expecting.
"One of (the players) said, ‘Well when you get yourself together, are you going to come back for my senior year?'"
However, Randolph will tell you, it has less to do with "getting herself together" and more with getting some rest.
Before she started coaching, a typical school day for Randolph, who teaches five sections of regular environmental science and one section of AP, began at 8 a.m. and finished around 7 or 8 p.m. Once she began coaching, those 12 hour workdays were a thing of the past for Randolph.
"I had a whole new cohort of kids to keep track of. You have to make sure they have their medical paperwork, make sure they have their academic stuff taken care of, make sure they do study hall … and then you've got practice to prepare for and run and then you've got games to prepare for and coach," she says.
During the season, her typical day began at 8 a.m. and ended at 2 or 3 a.m. After a full day of teaching, the players would come in around 3:15 p.m. for study hall, where Randolph would give them a snack and help them with their assignments. The team would go down to the fields for practice around 4:30 or 5 p.m. and then finish up around 7:30 or 8 p.m.
Randolph would put the equipment away, make sure the kids got out of the locker room and then would finish up any last-minute work in the building until 10 p.m., when she would get kicked out. She'd head home, eat, feed her dog, shower and then do school work for the next day until the early hours of the morning.
Randolph explains her job as a coach is year-round -- even the off-season is filled with college recruiting, spring scrimmages, off-season workouts and pre-season camp.
"I do need to step back. If I don't step back, the kids won't be getting 100 percent of me, which is not fair, so I need to go ahead and just step down … It's best that I let someone else give it a try," says Randolph, who adds she will still be at next year's games to cheer on her kids.
"But I told them I'm not going anywhere, I'm still here, I'm still accessible to all of them, individually for whatever they need."
Judging by the crowd outside of Randolph's classroom, it's obvious the players took her promise to heart.
Lessons aren't just for students
When asked if she'd ever consider returning to her role as the head coach for a high school football team, Randolph says it's possible she'd do it again in the future, but that's not her goal.
"Things become clearer once you step away," Randolph says. "Through this whole experience I've been able to see first-hand some of the problems that we have, so my next move is to still keep those problems in mind and do something that would go in the direction of trying to solve some of them."
Randolph says the problems she faced while coaching are similar to a lot of the challenges other coaches face -- she had to fulfill the requirements of the school system and the athletic department, while "trying to make sure we fight for the best interest of the kids."
"It gets tiring dealing with the ins-and-outs of the administration and keeping the program afloat, getting everything you need for the program, raising money, communicating with parents, all of that," she says.
Randolph experienced one of her biggest challenges when one of the regular season games was moved to a Saturday -- a Saturday during which a handful of her players were signed up to take the SATs. She fought to get the game moved to a later time, but nothing was done, and those players had to miss the game.
"It was frustrating trying to push the whole academic message and then having to break it to the kids that we can't move the game," Randolph says.
For now, Randolph is thinking about the future. She wants to go back to school, possibly to study neuroscience and education.
"I cherish what I was able to teach the kids and what they taught me. I mean, I learned quite a bit from them. I'm going to miss it, and it is difficult to let it go completely, but I think I spent my time well and I am looking forward to the next part of my life," she says.
"I have no regrets, whatsoever. This has been one of the greatest, probably the greatest, experience of my life, and probably will be a huge competition for other things in my life. This was very, very cool."
© 2013 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.