Ask Marquenta Taylor what it's like to be called "coach" by Meade High football players, and the normally loquacious woman takes a beat to ponder the question, as if you're asking what it's like to walk on the moon.
Increasingly, though, the sound of the words "Coach Taylor" is becoming more familiar.
"Now, some of the older guys call me coach. I'm waiting to see what happens the first time they see me in public. Like, if I go to the mall and somebody says, 'What's up, Coach?' " said Taylor, a guidance counselor at the Anne Arundel County high school.
If being called coach is foreign to Taylor, who handles the defensive line and makes the defensive game calls for the Mustangs' junior varsity team, she is already familiar with the essentials of being a coach, from what schemes to use to making a point by getting into the face of a headstrong player.
Along the way, Taylor, who has been at Meade for five years, has gained the attention and the respect of her players.
"They treat her just like a male coach," said sophomore Leon Jonas, a safety, receiver and running back on the JV team. "They don't give her any special treatment. She's Coach Taylor. ... [The players] give her the right respect that she deserves as a coach."
For women, the odds of coaching a football team are just slightly higher than taking a stroll on the Sea of Tranquility. After all, the female presence on most football sidelines is usually limited to team managers or cheerleaders.
Taylor, 33, isn't the first woman to serve as a high school assistant football coach in the state or even in the Baltimore area. Mary Ann Smith was an assistant for the Joppatowne team in the mid-1990s, before leaving to take a similar post at a high school in Ohio.
However, Taylor is believed to be the first female assistant in football-mad Anne Arundel County, and her path to the sideline is an unusual one.
She attended St. Nicholas of Tolentine High School in New York, the school that produced basketball phenoms Malik Sealy and Adrian Autry but didn't have a football team. And she graduated from Old Dominion, a school that is scheduled to get a Division I-AA football team in 2009 but didn't have a squad when Taylor was there.
Increasingly, however, not having playing experience on your resume is not as much of a barrier to becoming a coach as it used to be. Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis never played the game, though he was offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots when they won three Super Bowls in four years.
"It's not a game anymore where it's just somebody who played the game is now a coach and because they played it, now they're a good coach," said John Hawk, who coaches the Meade JV offense. "Now, people who studied the game but never played it before are coaches. That's why I see more women probably getting involved in football as well."
Taylor, who swam and played basketball in high school, said she regularly attended Meade games and used to rag on varsity coach Andrew Smith about the lack of female coaches. Smith used to reply that no women applied, but when there was an opening this year, Smith called Taylor's bluff and asked her if she was interested.
"I went back to her and I said, 'Were you serious about giving this thing a shot?' Smith said. "She said, 'Yeah, Coach, I'll give it a shot.' I said, 'How hard are you willing to work?' Not everyone is allowed the opportunity to just be around football and learn. Someone has to open the door for them, give them a shot and see how it works out. It's worked out well for us."
Taylor, who played right tackle on a women's "powder puff" dorm team at Siena, the first college she attended, said she learned the intricacies of football by playing the Madden video game on the Sega Genesis system ("We didn't have Xbox or PlayStation," she said, laughing).
So far, things have worked well for the Mustangs, who are 1-1, entering tomorrow's game with Old Mill. Taylor said she has learned what to call in certain circumstances, but not necessarily why she's calling it.
"I know all my plays," Taylor said. "I know my blitzes. I know what they are, and I know how to run them and why I'm running them. I haven't learned the offensive strategy like chess. When they set up this, what do I exactly need to do? I know what I need to do, but I'm still learning why. I still don't understand the why I had to do it."
Toward that end, Taylor, who has expressed interest in coaching the school's swim team this winter, has been tagging along with Brian Henderson, the varsity team's defensive coordinator. The two sit together in the press box during varsity games, as Taylor observes what Henderson calls through his headset.
"It's still a learning experience as far as learning different things, and watching the sport as opposed to coaching the sport and seeing certain things," said Taylor, a varsity girls assistant basketball coach last winter. "The chess game part of it, in terms of having to know what to do, is a new challenge. That's something I have to learn to do, as opposed to watching the game and screaming at the TV."
There's one thing Taylor has quickly learned about coaching football, namely how to keep secrets. For instance, ask her what defense she runs, and Taylor is as talkative as when you ask her what it's like to be called coach.
"We run a 4-3 defense. And I'm not giving you my secrets," Taylor said with a laugh. "And you can say that I knew that with confidence."
Spoken like a real football coach.