There’s just one word for Howard D. Woodson Senior High School: ugly. A gray slab of building in Washington, D.C., the school was built back in the early 1970’s, when concrete was all the rage and many architects seemed to forget that buildings were supposed to be designed for people. Woodson, set in a low-income area in the city’s northeast section, looks more like a housing project than a high school, and, in fact, there are three projects in the neighborhood. Clearly, Woodson isn’t going to win any design award, but then, who needs aesthetics when you’ve got Bob Headon?
Headon—health and physical education teacher, boys’ football coach, and girls’ basketball coach—has been at Woodson since day one, and to say he’s a legend is an understatement. “He’s not just a great coach,” gushes one student, a guard on the football team, “he’s the best coach.” Adds one of Headon’s assistant coaches: “He’s like a godfather. It’s a funny thing-there’s so much respect for him, it’s almost like a fear thing.” Another assistant coach, a Woodson graduate, puts it this way: “I’m loyal to the man.”
Who is this man Headon? He’s a man so revered that some of his students actually call him Dad. A man who has eight assistant football coaches, six of whom he coached in high school and seven of whom went to college. A man who will walk into drug areas looking for students who have gone “dirty.’' A man who insists that academics must come before athletics. A man who has seen several of his players go on to play in the National Football League. A man who picks up some of his students on his way to school every day and drops them off on his way home. A man who has been named National Coach of the Year (three times for girls’ basketball, twice for boys’ football) by the National High School Athletic Coaches Association. A man who runs a summer basketball and reading program for inner-city youths. A man who has cosigned loans, bought clothes for needy students, and even gotten kids out of jail.
“I’m probably the only teacher in the building who, on the first day of school, puts my name up on the blackboard with my home phone number next to it,’' he says. “People say, ‘You’ve got to be crazy to do that.’ But I tell my students, ‘Don’t call me and tell me my refrigerator is running.’ I say, ‘You call me if you want to talk to somebody, if you’re having problems. That’s the purpose of this number. As long as you’ve been in high school, no teacher has given you his number. You would have loved to have had a teacher’s number so you could get on the phone and talk to him. But don’t play with me.’'
Headon says students often make use of that number, especially around the holidays and when their grades come out. “If they can’t talk to their mother or father, they can talk to me,’' he says. “I’m one of the best friends they can have.’'
It’s not only the athletes who call the coach; students who are not on the team turn to him, too. And often parents are at the other end of the telephone line seeking his advice. “When they can’t handle [their kids], they call me,’' Headon says with a certain pride. He recalls advising one mother with a disobedient son to stop cooking meals for him and to move the TV to a neighbor’s house. The lesson worked; the mother later told Headon her son’s attitude had improved.
Headon, who just turned 50, has been teaching and coaching for 17 years, and for as long as he can remember he has been a surrogate father to many of his students and players. “A lot of my kids don’t have a father at home, so I end up playing that role.’' Headon, a burly man with a gentle face, thinks for a minute. Of the 12 girls on the basketball team this year, only one has a father at home, and of the 35 boys on the football team, about half have grown up fatherless.
“I always end up with one or two kids who really need help,’' he says. One of his basketball players, an All-American, comes to mind. “I doubt if her mother has seen her play more than twice. I’ve never met her father. She needs a lot of help. She lives in an area where there’s a lot of drugs and things of that nature. So my wife and I took a liking to her, and we’ve been working with her. She’s a senior this year, and she’s getting all kinds of offers from different colleges.’'
Headon knows that athletics continue to be a source of motivation and inspiration for inner-city blacks, but he also knows that few of his players will end up in the pros--despite their hopes and dreams. So he makes sure all his athletes are making at least the C average required by the D.C. school district for students to participate in sports. In fact, many of his players do much better than that. Headon requires them to attend study hall for an hour before each practice and asks that their teachers fill out an academic progress sheet once a week. If they slip behind, he may not let them play in the next game. Of his athletes who complete high school, Headon estimates that about 90 percent of the girls and 75 percent of the boys go on to college.
“I tell my kids, look, you can be an athlete,’' says Headon. “You can be a good athlete. But use that university or college to get an education, because they’re using you as an athlete. Always remember that. And when you call me, don’t tell me how many touchdowns you ran or how many points you scored. I want to know, ‘What did you get in English? What did you get in math?’ Tell me that. I know you can play. That’s why you’re in school. Just tell me what kind of grades you made.’'
When you consider that the District of Columbia has a drop-out rate of 40 percent and one of the most violent drug cultures in the country, Headon’s success is all the more amazing. He knows what he’s up against. “The drugs have stepped in,’' he says. “I can offer my kids a dream of going to college, getting a good education, getting a good job. But the drug man says, ‘I’m gonna give it to you now. Don’t worry about what’s gonna happen--even though you ain’t guaranteed to live two days from now.’ So you’ve got a kid who looks at what I’ve got to offer, and what the drug man has to offer, and they look at all that money, and they say, ‘I’m not gonna use no drugs, I’m just gonna sell them, you understand.’ And once you get involved, that’s it. Even if you’re buying drugs just for your friends. Once you get involved, you’re in. You just don’t get out, because then they’re worried about you telling.’'
On a crisp fall afternoon, Headon is running drills with his linebackers on Woodson’s practice field. “Come on, son,’' he says, firmly but gently, to one of his players. “Put your mouthpiece in, son,’' he tells another. The players respond without question or complaint, as if they are afraid they might displease their mentor.
After the practice, two players, Derrick Mills and Antoine James, talk about the positive effect Headon has had on their lives. Both will catch a ride home with their coach. “He said there was no sense in us having our own cars,’' says 17-year-old Antoine, “because we might go somewhere else and get into trouble. And that’s true.’' He adds: “I look up to him a lot. He coached my father and my two uncles.’' Derrick, 16, says: “We all look up to him.’'
A version of this article appeared in the December 01, 1989 edition of Teacher as Coach Dad