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As Gilman preps for McDonogh, Russell and Roger Wrenn relishing chance to coach together

Roger and Russell Wrenn are assistant football coaches at Gilman. They are also father and son. (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun video)

When Russell Wrenn joined the Gilman football coaching staff as offensive coordinator this past summer, he was thrilled to have beside him the "world's most overqualified offensive line coach."

Roger Wrenn, a Baltimore high school coaching legend at Patterson and Poly, came out of retirement to work with his son for the first time. The two hadn't been on the same team since Russell was a little guy running around the Patterson sideline.

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"Before I took this job," Roger said, "I talked with [former McDonogh coach] Mike Working, who coached with his dad, and I talked to Nick Schloeder, who got a chance to coach with his father [at Gilman] and both said, 'Don't turn that opportunity down. It'll really be something special for you and you'll cherish those memories.'"

After just a few months, father and son already appreciate the memories they've made in such a short time and there will surely be a few more when they coach together in the 101st Gilman-McDonogh game Saturday at 1 p.m. at Gilman.

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Russell, a Gilman graduate, hasn't been to the rivalry game since he played in it his senior year, 1995. A lot of alums have coached in the game, but Roger could be the first to have coached in the 128-year-old City-Poly rivalry and the Gilman-McDonogh game. As he said, no one knows for sure because the games date back so far.

For Russell, being on the sideline with his father is especially enjoyable, because he never had the chance to be coached by his father, whose 284 wins rank fourth on Maryland's all-time high school football coaching list. While Russell played football, basketball and baseball at Gilman, Roger was busy coaching football and baseball at Patterson.

On the field, however, they did cross paths twice. Gilman played Patterson in baseball during Russell's junior and senior years. The Greyhounds won both, thanks in part to Russell's clutch hitting.

Although Russell would have liked more time with his father, he said he never resented the time Roger spent coaching other people's kids. Some of those other boys probably needed the attention more, Russell said, because not only did he have his father at home but he also had plenty of good coaches and all the attention he needed at Gilman.

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Father and son still bonded over sports, but most of those experiences were going to Orioles games, watching sports on TV and talking about the stories in "Texas High School Football Coach," a magazine Roger subscribed to and 12-year-old Russell devoured.

"I tell everybody we have a great relationship today because I never played for him and he never coached me," Russell said. "I think there's some truth to that, so this is a really neat way for us to be able to combine and do something that for both of us has been a really incredible and important part of our lives."

For Russell, 38, coaching seemed to course through his veins. For a time, because he had been give the chance to attend Gilman where he was a 4.0 student, he thought he owed his parents something more than being the teacher/coach his father was or the teacher his mother, Linda, was. His younger brother, Alex, works in cyber security and Russell earned a law degree.

But the calling to coach just never left Russell and after college, he had two stints coaching football and baseball at Dickinson with a couple of years in between at Johns Hopkins. After getting married in 2006, his wife's job took them to Atlanta, where he started teaching and coaching at The Westminster Schools.

Last year, he was offensive coordinator for the football team that won a state championship for the first time in 37 years and head coach of the baseball team that won a state championship for the first time in 41 years.

"It was a great way to go out," said Russell, who couldn't resist the chance to return to his alma mater but said coaching in Georgia was invaluable.

"I had to go far enough away where people wouldn't accidentally call me Roger Wrenn or write my name as Roger Wrenn, and where I had to make my own reputation, and that's been one of the neat things about coming back. All of a sudden, I'm Roger's son again as opposed to just Coach Wrenn of Westminster. I'm appreciative of that."

Almost as soon as athletic director Tim Holley took over the Greyhounds football program after Biff Poggi and most of his staff departed, the longtime Gilman administrator wanted Russell to run his offense. He had known Russell since he was in eighth grade and was his academic adviser as a freshman and sophomore. Once he had Russell on board, he had another idea.

"I said to Russell, 'Do you think your dad would want to come back?'" Holley said.

"He said, 'No way. Dad's retired. His wife's not going to let him do it. He's not budging.'"

Still, Holley took a shot when he sat next to Roger at a Baltimore Touchdown Club meeting.

"We were catching up and he said … how excited he is Russell's going to be coaching at Gilman," Holley said. "Then I said, 'Well Roger, what if you joined us? We need an offensive line coach.' He goes, 'I'm not sure that my wife is going to like this.'"

Roger, 69, and his wife, Donna, had been traveling the United States and Europe a lot since Roger left Poly in 2011, but he convinced her to let him come back to coach for a while with Russell.

So he took over an offensive line of players who had no idea of his legendary status.

"I had never heard of him," senior center Will Weinfeld said, but his father, Michael, had. "He knew Russell Wrenn because he was an alumnus and he played against Roger Wrenn's teams back in the MSA days. He was very excited."

While Weinfeld has gotten to like Roger as the offensive line coach, especially his old-school style, it wasn't until the last weekend in September that he realized just how well-known Roger is. The coach was with the team during a community service project with the Living Classrooms program in the City Springs neighborhood.

"We were walking around picking up trash," Weinfeld said, "and it seemed like every other person we'd see would come up to Coach and say like, 'Hey, Coach. I remember when I played for you back in whenever,' because it's a feeder area for Patterson. He seemed to know everyone and that's when I was like, 'This guy is really a big deal.' I understood that he's got a lot of wins and he's coached for a long time, but I didn't quite realize the impact he had on Baltimore."

By joining Holley as they transition Gilman's program, the Wrenns hope to have a big impact on the Greyhounds as well. Even though they're 2-8 overall with only one win in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference this fall, they've been within two touchdowns of every league team except for No. 2 Archbishop Spalding, to whom they lost 42-0. Against No. 1 St. Frances, Gilman scored the first 10 points before falling, 26-10.

"I hate it for the kids," Russell said of the record after the Greyhounds won the A Conference last season. "I want everyone to experience success and we certainly need to experience some to validate what we're trying to do. There's no doubt we've gotten better each and every week and that's sort of the way we have to judge ourselves."

Every Sunday morning, the Wrenns have been at the table for another coaches' strategy session. Russell's offense is a bit different from what Roger ran, but the father was eager to learn and contribute whatever he hadn't already to his son's offense.

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"For me, he's a sounding board," Russell said. "Usually we tend to come in on Sunday mornings with similar thoughts and that's kind of reassuring. Over the years, there's plenty that I've borrowed or outright stolen from him. In Georgia, we were well-known for the single wing spin series we ran, and that's straight out of the Roger Wrenn playbook."

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While Russell will be back with Holley next fall, Roger will wait and see.

"I told them if they find somebody else, I will gladly step aside," Roger said, "but I don't make coaching decisions until a month after the season ends. I've given that advice to other coaches before, and I just think that's the smart thing to do."

twitter.com/kdunnsun

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