The announcement sat on his computer for two days.
It wasn’t until Tuesday morning that Donny Graef hit the send button, announcing his decision to step down as Queen Anne’s County High’s head football coach after 25 years.
“I actually typed up an announcement to (Queen Anne’s County High athletic director David Wagner), his boss (Director of Athletics for Queen Anne’s County Sid Pinder) and Amy Hudock, my principal (at Queen Anne’s County High),” Graef said Tuesday afternoon. “And it sat there on my computer for, oh, 48 hours before I hit send.
“I just had to keep thinking it through,” the 59-year-old Graef said. “My wife Bobbi kept saying, ‘Do what you want to do. I don’t want you making a decision based on what’s happened with my family.’ I struggled with it. And then when I woke up this morning, I hit send.”
The winningest coach in the program’s history, Graef compiled a 176-95 record at Queen Anne’s, which included 14 postseason appearances. The Lions were 9-13 in the playoffs under Graef, reaching the state semifinals three times and the state championship once, where they lost to Eastern Tech, 16-8, in the 2009 Class 2A final.
But over the past two years, Bobbi Graef’s mother, father and sister have died, losses that impacted her husband’s decision to step down.
“Her and I have talked it over for the last few days,” Donny Graef said. “I look at this way. To me to be a head coach it’s either got to be a commitment or it’s just an interest; it’s just something you want to do. And to me it’s always been a commitment.
“With that said, it’s 365 days,” Donny Graef continued. “It’s never been three and a half months and then, ‘Hey, I’ll see you next August.’ It’s all the other parts to it. The weightlifting. Booster meetings. Ordering equipment. It’s like every day would go by, even when the season was over with I’d still be thinking about football. It could be something as simple as Bobbi might say, ‘Hey let’s go do this, go do that.’ And I would feel like, “Nah, I’ve got to do this. I’ve got to look at that,’ related to football. It’s all those other things and I just need to get away from all that. I want to spend more time doing things with her.
“And after what she’s been through the last couple of years, it’s important to me that I just don’t want to be selfish with my time. She’s talked to me and obviously she’s left the decision up to me. And she’s even told me, ‘Now, I don’t want to be the reason why you don’t coach,’ which she isn’t. But at the same time I know what’s right also. And it’s important that I do what’s right.”
Graef has been involved with football since he started playing at age six. A 1978 graduate of Cambridge-South Dorchester High, he played inside linebacker under legendary Viking head coach Gorton McWilliams. He went on to play outside linebacker at Salisbury State, graduated, and got his first coaching job at Queen Anne’s County in 1983, the first season the Lions were under the direction of head coach David Cooper.
“I learned a tremendous amount from him as far as how to deal with people,” Graef said of Cooper. “Not that Dave was that much older, but I was a young guy, and I thought I knew it all. But Dave taught me so much. I’ll be forever in his debt as far as getting (started in) coaching.”
Cooper stepped down as head coach after the 1994 season and Graef took over and embarked on the winningest coaching career in program history.
“I had a real love for coaching football,” Graef said. “I didn’t even see a time limit on it. I know when my son Garrett, when he graduated (in 2013), a lot of people thought, ‘Well, that’s going to be it.’ And I was telling people just jokingly, ‘Hey, they’re going to have to bury me right here on the 50-yard line because I’m going to keep right on going.’
“I never really had a set date, or an idea when I wanted to stop,” Graef continued. “It’s just a feeling I had. The commitment level wasn’t as strong as what it needed to be to be successful in my mind. I think when you’re not in that full commitment mode, I think you’ve got to be fair to the kids, too. If I went in there not giving it 100 percent commitment obviously I wouldn’t be being fair to the kids. And I think they deserve that.”
Graef, who will continue to teach physical education at Queen Anne’s, said he had two announcements prepared, one for school administrators, and the other for his players.
“I didn’t want them hearing it from somebody else. I guess my one drawback is I couldn’t see them in person,” Graef said in regard to the coronavirus shutting down all schools and prohibiting any sort of team meeting. “But I hit them up in a group email and let them know. And then told my kids because coaching’s always been a real big deal to my three children (Garrett, Casey and Kelsey).
“My youngest daughter (Kelsey), when she was probably eight, nine years old she used to draw up plays on a piece of paper. She reminded me of that this morning and would stick ‘em in my pocket and say, ‘Daddy make sure you run this play today.’ Those memories and stuff like that, kind of tough.
“Lot of emotions,” Graef continued. “The text messages from the kids, the other coaches, people I’ve coached with, people I haven’t talked to for years. It’s been a very emotional day. And it’s been tough. But deep down I also know it’s the right decision.”