DONNY GRAEF

Queen Anne’s head football coach Donny Graef, left, questions a penalty during a Lions’ victory over Kent County in 2016.

It’s hard to picture Queen Anne’s County High football without Donny Graef.

After coaching in the program for 35 years — the last 25 as head coach — he’s become a fixture in Centreville. When people think of Lions football, they think of Graef.

His players adore him. Young kids playing youth football in Queen Anne’s County aspired to play for him.

“Growing up, he was always the one person you wanted to play for,” senior quarterback Zach Brown said. “Ever since I was a little kid playing UQA around here, that was the dream, to be varsity and play under coach Graef. Everybody looked up to him. We all did what we could to earn his respect and earn the position to play under him.”

Graef stepped down as head coach Tuesday, leaving the program to ponder a difficult question: how do you replace a legend?

It’s not an easy task. Players struggle to imagine what it’ll be like playing for a new coach next year.

“I can’t picture (playing for a new coach),” junior fullback and linebacker Gene Trice said. “It’s going to be hard not having coach Graef there pushing all of us to an extent that we know that we haven’t been pushed before. But we’ve just got to keep moving forward, and we know that he’s going to be there for us if we need him.”

Graef has had that type of impact on players for multiple generations. Senior guard and defensive tackle Mitch Gunther is the second in his family to play for Graef, after his father, Challice.

As he approached high school and played in high school, Challice told Mitch how good a coach Graef was and how lucky he’d be to play for him.

Gunther said it was special to play for the same high school football coach his father did.

“You can kind of feel the family, feel the energy on the football field and feel like, ‘Wow, this is where my dad played and my grandfather played,’” Gunther said. “And now my brother played too. It’s just kind of a special moment to you. You kind of sit there and take it all in for a second.”

The program knows it has a lot of work to do. Filling shoes of a legend takes time.

Queen Anne’s athletic director Dave Wagner is happy for Graef in that he’ll get to spend more time with his family. But he’ll miss Graef’s experience and role as a sounding board, and said his retirement as coach will shake the foundation of Lions sports.

“Donny Graef has built a heck of a program at Queen Anne’s County over the past couple decades. And to think that somebody’s going to be able to step right up into that, that’s a tall order for anybody to do, even the most experienced coach,” Wagner said. “That’s kind of our next step is to figure out who might be the next greatest of all time.”

The timeline for Queen Anne’s’ search for a new coach will be affected by the COVID-19 crisis. The school’s administration and athletic department have to figure out where to go from here while working from home.

The first football head coaching search in 25 years is already an abnormal process for the Lions; conducting it during a pandemic is all the more irregular.

The search may not be officially underway yet (the job isn’t listed on the Queen Anne’s County Public Schools site as of Thursday April 23), but the program knows it needs to move quickly.

“If somebody wanted to email me today and start talking about it, I’d be happy to,” Wagner said. “The fall comes fast. Timeline-wise, we’re going to work pretty quickly to get a new coach that’s ready to establish another awesome program and continue what Donny’s built. It’ll shake the foundation. We have a couple other coaches who are planning to leave with Donny as well. It’ll be a new era of Queen Anne’s County football in that way.”

But no matter who the Lions tab as their next head coach, the first football game without Donny Graef on the sideline won’t be the same.

“It’ll definitely be different,” Brown said. “Every time you hear Queen Anne’s football, you think of coach Graef, as long as he’s been there and all the time and dedication he puts into the program. It’s definitely going to be different.”

Follow me on Twitter @SethTow. Follow us on Instagram @StarDem_Sports.

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