For 25 years, Donny Graef led Queen Anne’s County High football. He was highly successful, amassing a 176-95 record.
By all accounts, he fronted a well-run program.
Graef had a strong impact on Queen Anne’s — and not just the football team. He’s an icon at the school.
“He’s like a celebrity in the school,” senior wide receiver and strong safety Xavior Jones said. “Everybody loves coach Graef. Even if you’re not a football player, (people go up to him and say) ‘Hey coach.’ He does anything for you. It’s crazy. He’s a legend in the school.”
Graef stepped down as Lions head coach on Tuesday, sharing the news in emails to administration and his players.
That news elicited varying reactions.
Some could sense he would step down in the near future. Senior guard and defensive tackle Mitch Gunther was more surprised by the timing of Graef’s announcement than the announcement itself.
Others were caught completely off-guard by the news. Junior fullback and linebacker Gene Trice said it actually hurt him and it was hard to describe the emotion he felt in seeing his coach step down.
Queen Anne’s athletic director Dave Wagner had conversations with Graef about it in the past, wondering how long he’d keep doing it — not because either wanted out of the partnership. The news still caught Wagner off-guard, but he thought it made sense for him to step down.
Wagner sensed Graef’s celebrity around Queen Anne’s as well as anyone.
“The kids always refer to him as the G.O.A.T., the greatest of all time. And in talking with a couple coaches today and them chiming in to see if it was real, he’s just iconic in what he’s represented to the school,” Wagner said. “I can very confidently say that he has been a mentor and, dare I say, a father figure to young men in Queen Anne’s County for decades.”
Father figure is a term commonly used to describe Graef. That’s how his players truly felt about their coach.
It was always about more than just football. He taught them invaluable life lessons about perseverance and overcoming adversity, and he taught them how to become better men.
“I learned a lot from him,” Trice said. “I learned that there’s a lot in me that I didn’t know I had when I was younger and not playing for coach Graef. And that I can’t just give up when something’s not going right. I have to keep pushing forward.”
“Coach Graef wasn’t just a coach to me. He was a role model to me,” junior quarterback SyRus McGowan said. “He taught me a lot of life lessons, way more than just football. It’s definitely not just a football player-coach relationship. It’s deeper than that. I can text him when I need to. You just know it’s genuine love between that man and his players.”
Jones’ relationship with Graef grew in the weight room. In addition to coaching football, Graef teaches physical education at Queen Anne’s County High — something he’ll continue doing.
Jones took a weight-lifting class taught by Graef, and the coach took a hands-on approach to inspire Jones in class.
“He was my lifting partner. I was the football guy (in the class), so I was stronger than everybody,” Jones said. “So he would lift with me, and we would challenge each other. He would motivate me, actually. He got me stronger. We just bettered our relationship with that.”
Others remember more light-hearted moments of Graef. Gunther thought of a practice when Graef told his players they’d have a team talent show at the end of the week, and to form groups and come up with an act.
Gunther’s group decided to do impersonations, and Gunther was tabbed with impersonating his coach.
“I happened to be the one that was impersonating him,” Gunther said. “And once that happened, all I could see was a smile on his face, laughing and everything. That was kind of a good moment for me and him.”
Those types of relationships go beyond the team. Wagner recalled when he was starting as athletic director three years ago, he butted heads with Graef on multiple occasions as he settled into the role and tried to implement his way of doing things.
He came to appreciate Graef’s experience and perspective and put those issues behind him.
“We’ve had a couple good laughs along the way as kids did funny things,” Wagner said. “And he puts more hours into that building than I think anybody does. He does year-round conditioning, not even just with the football team but with athletes in general. He’s always got film up. He always has football players around that he’s touching base with and making sure things are going well. He knows how to run a program. He’s run an amazing one.”
Graef built strong relationships with his entire team. Some had stories that stuck out like Jones and Gunther. For others, it was the little things. McGowan said he’d never forget the look and reaction Graef gave him when he scored his first touchdown as a freshman.
The players are left to ponder what Queen Anne’s football will be without its G.O.A.T. and weighing what their former coach meant to them.
“He’s done a lot for me,” Jones said. “I just want to thank him for everything he’s done for me and welcoming me from transferring (from Kent County High) and making me feel like home, and just making me into a better man and a better player than (I was) before I got there.”
“I would say that the football program will definitely miss him and he did a very good job,” senior quarterback Zach Brown said. “I think he can walk out of there with his head held high.”
Follow me on Twitter @SethTow. Follow us on Instagram @StarDem_Sports.