On the ride home from Gilman football practice one afternoon last fall, Henry Poggi listened to his father, Greyhounds coach Biff Poggi, go on and on about every little thing that had gone wrong that day with the linebackers.
Finally, Henry said, "But Dad, I'm not a linebacker."
Those scenes weren't all that unusual until this year when Henry, now a senior, started driving himself home from practice. At home, however, things are different. Coach and player become simply father and son. There's not much talk about Gilman football.
Henry can thank his older brothers, Sam and Jim, for that. Their father, who has coached one or two of his sons at Gilman for the past nine years, came to realize it's better to leave football on the field.
"You have to learn that when they talk to you, they're talking to you not as a player, but as your son," Biff Poggi said. "And when they go home, they do not want to go home with a coach. It is a disaster to go home with a coach who's at dinner talking about how we did in drills. That is awful for them. It took me a while to learn that."
Now, Biff Poggi, who also played for Gilman, is savoring this week leading up to the final time he will coach one of his sons in a Greyhounds uniform — Saturday night's Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference championship in which the No. 1 Greyhounds aim to defend their title against No. 2 Calvert Hall at Towson University's Johnny Unitas Stadium.
After that, Henry, an All-Metro defensive tackle rated the nation's No. 5 senior prospect at his position by Rivals.com, will play in the Under Armour All-America Game in January before playing for Michigan next fall. Jim, a 2010 Gilman graduate, was an All-Metro linebacker and now plays at Iowa. Sam, a 2007 Gilman grad who played at Duke, is an assistant Greyhounds coach.
Over the years, Biff Poggi has delicately balanced the roles of father and coach, but there has never been any doubt in the boys' minds which took priority.
"My dad's a dad first. He's a coach second," Henry said. "But a lot of stuff that he does coaching is dad-like stuff. He's always looking out for me. He has my best interest always in mind."
As with any father and teenage son, there has been tension at times, but by all accounts, it has never caused a rift between father and any of his sons.
"It never got to be a detriment," said Gilman assistant coach Stan White, whose son Stan Jr. played for him between 1998 and 2001. "It's tough. You have to be careful to not seem like you're giving your kid any special treatment and they would probably say they got treated worse than the other kids did."
Sam and Jim insist that Henry has it much easier than they did, and Henry won't argue that. Not only has their father changed his approach over the years, but Henry also benefits from his older brothers' advice.
"Jim and I talk to him all the time," Sam said, "and we say, 'Make sure you're always trying hard. That's what he cares about the most and if you do that, it will pretty much take care of everything else.'
"Because I was definitely the least talented of the three," added Sam, "there were many more things that I needed to do better, so the coaching was a little more strenuous on me in particular, but Jim was so much better than me and Henry is so much better than both of us that I guess it's easier when there's less to point out."
Biff Poggi, 52, smiles and shakes his head when he remembers how tough he was on his oldest son, who went on to play for the scout team at Duke. Unlike Jim and Henry, Sam played on the junior varsity team during his freshman year and the coach says he kept Sam from the varsity squad several times before he made it as a sophomore.
"It's very, very hard to coach your own child," Biff Poggi said. "When I started coaching Sam, I was mostly concerned about how he would be perceived, whether any success he had would be perceived as being because of me as his father putting him in that position. Sometimes people can be a little mean-spirited and that's really hard, because you want to make sure, of course, that you're fair to every kid, but you also want to be fair to your own kid."
Gilman senior Miles Norris, who has been friends with Henry since first grade, said he has never seen the coach treat Henry any differently than any other player.
"You would think maybe he might put a little more pressure on him or he treats his son special, but I think he treats us all special." Norris said. "He's taught us all so much and we can all say he's a father figure."
For the Poggi men, football has always been a strong bonding agent. Watching college football is a Saturday ritual. Jim said it always evokes stories from his father about his playing days at Pittsburgh.
"Football just drew us closer," Jim said. "A lot of kids have fathers who work all the time and they don't get to see them. My dad's work was coaching me, so I go to see him every day. Growing up playing for him and sharing that common experience with Sam and Henry opens up a dialogue. Us brothers, we still talk every day."
The boys grew up loving the game, playing it on the front lawn and anticipating the day they would play for their father. Even Biff and Amy Poggi's youngest child, Mary, 9, told her dad she wants to play football. Older daughter Mellie, 15, prefers three other sports at Roland Park.
In 16 years as head coach, Biff Poggi has built the Greyhounds program to national prominence with a 119-36 record and 10 MIAA championships. While that success has been rewarding, what he has appreciated most is coaching his sons.
"One of the biggest things is that you're with them," Biff Poggi said. "People talk a lot about quality time, and this was quantity time. We never did anything spectacular. We weren't going to Disney World and having some blow out time. It was practice, film, meetings and them on the sideline when they were little, them hanging around practice and them on the bus with us going to games. But I think that was very special quantity time and it allowed me as their father to always be there."
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