Friday, November 21, 2008

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Putting a face to the voice

FLOYD -- If you want to learn science, take an English class. That's been the running joke at Floyd County High School for years.

But it doesn't have to be English. Sit in on history or home economics or shop and get the same benefit.

Because they say no matter where you are in this building, you can hear it: The booming voice of science teacher and football coach Winfred Beale, echoing through the halls.

All bass, no treble, complete with a hometown drawl. Warm yet authoritative, pointed but never hurried, Beale's voice has been delivering the same orders here for three decades. Staaaay low! Tallllk with your paaaaads! Wraaaaap up! Hiiit somebodddddy!

In many ways, Beale embodies the values of this small, bucolic town. He was born here. He played here. And for 28 years, he's been the head coach here, winning way more often than he's lost, building relationships that last long after the players graduate, earning respect and admiration throughout the community.

As one player's father put it: "If you don't know Winfred Beale, it's your loss."

And that's the best part: There have been no losses this year. Not yet, anyway. This year, Beale's Buffaloes are 11-0. Tonight, they'll host Chilhowie in the Region C Division 2 playoffs.

The former players will flock home to see it. The fans will pack the bleachers.

And that voice -- that commanding yet caring voice -- will rise above it all.

n n n

"Those famous last words," Beale calls them: I will never come back.

When he graduated from American University with a degree in biology and a teaching certificate in 1974, that's what Beale assumed: That he would never return to Floyd County High, his alma mater.

He got a job as an assistant coach at Galax. But when Floyd called him and offered him an assistant position and teaching job that same year, he couldn't resist.

How could he? His mother had been an elementary school teacher in the county. Beale himself had been a fleet running back and standout sprinter for the Buffaloes. The roots ran too deep to deny them.

"Well, I'll only stay about three or four years," Beale remembers thinking. "Just to get my feet wet and learn the game."

He smiled.

"Now it's been 30-some years and I'm still here."

The school and the community have been better for it. Since taking the head job in 1981, Beale has compiled a 178-114-4 record at Floyd County. The Buffaloes have made the state finals twice, in 1999 and 2001, falling both times in competitive games. And they've forged a reputation as a physical, fundamentally sound team, year after year.

"He's blue-collar, and it definitely pays off on Fridays," senior quarterback Luke Harris said. "You can definitely tell we're more physical than some other teams."

Players say Beale is fair but never lets a minor error go. That's by design, the coach says.

"If you're not good at the little things, it's going to be very hard to do the big things well," Beale explained. "That's what we really emphasize. Football's a game of blocking and tackling, which is not a common thing for people to do. We want to be good at that.

"I don't think you can play this game without a chip-on-your-shoulder type of attitude. You've got to be physical."

n n n

Beale is the only black head football coach currently in Timesland, and he's doing it in a county without a large black population.

"It's ironic," he said. "When I was in high school here, there were probably more African-Americans here than there is now -- and there wasn't a lot then.

"But from the day I got the job, I've never heard anybody say, 'Well, he's the black coach' or used race associated with it. And I've never had any player make any kind of racial remarks in any form or fashion. ... For the most part, sports sort of transcend that color barrier. They just think of themselves as being a Buffalo football player."

Actually, many of them view the relationship as much more than that.

"We are his family," senior wide receiver Brett Holman said. "The football team, all the coaches, that is his family, all the time. That's what he does 24-7. It's all about us. He's like our little dad."

Beale's summer Saturdays are usually booked tight with weddings of former players. Many alums come back to visit Beale during the week or call him after a big win.

These are the types of relationships Beale cherishes. It's why he never got into administration despite earning a graduate degree from Virginia Tech in 1993. And it's why retirement is not even on his radar, despite more than 30 years in teaching and the potentially draining, year-round commitment required to coach football and track.

"I still enjoy what I'm doing," Beale said. "I don't want to sound corny, but I like the teaching and I like the coaching, being around the kids. I'm not a real deep person, I guess, because I don't have all these other interests drawing me out to want to do 'em."

Besides, where would Floyd possibly find another voice like his? It certainly doesn't match his slim, 5-foot-7 frame, but it's become an institution.

"I hate to hear it," a smiling Beale said of his own voice. "I think, 'Do I really sound that bad?' It's one of those things that I guess just sort of evolved. I'm not intentionally trying to talk loud, but it all just comes out loud. One of those deals that I'm stuck with it one way or the other.

"A lot of kids, students as well as football players, will sort of imitate me: 'RAHHHHR, RAHHHHR! I'M COACH BEALE!'"

They should be so lucky.

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