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Former Pro Bowler Randy Starks embraces challenge of turning around Manassas Park’s football program

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Randy Starks settled into the coaches’ office behind the weight room without any fanfare. And that’s the way he wanted it.

When he accepted the Manassas Park High School head football coaching position, Starks asked only for a working space, somewhere he could set up and start planning his blueprint to turn around the Cougars.

Arriving that afternoon wearing a gray hoodie adorned with the golden Cougars paw print on the left chest, Starks sat at a table by himself and began tackling all the ins and outs of running a program. This was the first day of his first full week on the job, and he had assistant coaches to hire and offseason weightlifting schedules to map out.

If someone wanted to ask him about his time as a standout defensive lineman at the University of Maryland or as an NFL veteran with three different teams, Starks was happy to oblige. If you are a college or pro football fan of a certain age, chances are you might recognize his name. Manassas Park principal Pam Kalso did. She has one of his old football cards.

But if the topic of conversation is up to him, Starks prefers talking about Manassas Park football and becoming as familiar with the area as soon as possible. “Was it Osbourn or Osbourn Park that’s right down the street?” he asked that first day. He needed to know to ensure he spoke correctly.

This all mattered. He was Randy Starks, head coach, not Randy Starks, one-time star player.

Instead of tapping into his extensive college and pro football network to find a coaching opportunity, the 37-year-old Starks wanted to secure a job based on his personality, presentation, passion and level of commitment. This was about the present and not the past. Manassas Park gave him a chance. He wants to deliver.

“To do this myself means a lot,” Starks said. “It’s about what I am doing now.”

UNEXPECTED CANDIDATE

Why would a former Pro Bowler who lives in southern Maryland with no connection to this area or any high school football coaching experience be interested in coaching at a struggling program overshadowed by much larger schools in the region?

Manassas Park activities director Dan Forgas asked himself those questions when he received Starks’ resume in response to an ad seeking an assistant offensive and defensive line coach.

“What’s the deal?” Forgas remembers thinking. “Is this a joke?”

Forgas set aside his skepticism and called Starks immediately to see how serious he was about the job. A 30-minute phone conversation Feb. 7 between the two convinced Forgas to initiate next steps.

Starks drove to the school and interviewed during the week between the Cougars’ first two games Feb. 23 and 28.

Starks said he had interviews with other schools lined up, but cancelled them all after meeting with Forgas. There was no reason to look elsewhere. Starks impressed Forgas with his desire to help rebuild a downtrodden team that has had only one winning season since 2012. The feeling was mutual. Forgas offered Starks the assistant’s job once they finished the interview that day.

During the initial interview, Forgas mentioned another opportunity to Starks.

Mike Kelly would be stepping down as head coach after the season to join his wife and family in Indiana. Forgas needed to begin the search for Kelly’s replacement. Starks told Forgas he was interested.

The day of Manassas Park’s final game, April 8 at Lightridge, Starks interviewed for the head coach opening. Knowing Starks had a game that night, Forgas expected him to be casually dressed. Instead, Starks arrived in a suit and tie. In Forgas’ mind, Starks’ clothing choice underscored how invested he was in presenting himself the right way.

Everything about Starks’ approach allayed any concerns about his lack of experience, level of commitment or ability to adjust to life and the administrative tasks involved with coaching at this level.

“Randy was genuine and real in our conversations with us and what he wants to do,” Forgas said. “He was personable and approachable. By the time the interview was over, it was clear where his passion was.”

AN UPHILL CLIMB

Starks had no interest in coaching at a perennial power. He wanted to coach at a program looking from the ground up. Manassas Park fit the bill.

In his five seasons at the helm, Kelly did an admirable job steering the Cougars through a challenging chapter. But it wasn’t easy.

In 2018, the school played only a junior varsity schedule due to low turnout. That marked the first time a Prince William County area high school had cancelled a full varsity football season since the first local prep football program began at Osbourn in 1939.

In 2019, the Cougars played an independent varsity schedule against similar sized opponents, including five private schools. Manassas Park finished 5-4, its first winning record since 2012.

Safety concerns due to concussions. No youth league. Demographic changes among a student body where football wasn’t as big a deal. Cost and single sport specialization. And a 6-44 record from 2013-2017. All factored in the program’s decline.

The pandemic hurt turnout even more this school year. Kids were unable to play due to COVID-19 concerns or they needed to help out in the household by working after school. When injuries occurred, Manassas Park’s numbers dwindled to the point that the school did not have enough players to field a junior varsity team.

Although the pandemic shortened the schedule, Starks thought Manassas Park might finish strong after defeating Warren County 35-28 for its first win following two opening losses.

The injuries, though, piled up as opponents outscored the Cougars 140-21 over the final four games. Manassas Park, which finished 1-6, had to forfeit its regular-season finale against Brentsville due to a lack of healthy players.

Led by the coaching staff and trainer Erica Dunkelberger, Manassas Park had enough bodies for its last game at Lightridge as part of the VHSL’s “Championships +1” model that allowed non-postseason qualifiers to play one extra game. Still undermanned, the Cougars lost to the first-year Loudoun County high school 35-0.

Obstacles notwithstanding, the season gave Starks a first-hand look at the challenges facing the program.

“The nice part is he stuck through a tough year,” Forgas said of Starks. “He knows what he is walking into. I couldn’t be happier for our program.”

Junior quarterback Jaeden Gorenflo said Starks’ hire created immediate buzz. Gorenflo said he did not know anything about Starks when he was hired, but he looked up Starks online to learn more about him. The results impressed him.

“If you had a high school coach who played 12 years in the NFL and made two Pro Bowls, you will want to come and play for him,” Gorenflo said.

One of the more experienced returners, Gorenflo likes Starks’ intensity and believes it will rub off on the players.

“We all have the same goal – to make the playoffs and go even farther,” Gorenflo said. “All you have to do is put in the hard work and the hard work will pay off.”

Freshman Jonathan Alvarado, the team’s starting center in 2021, was at a loss for words in describing Starks’ hire.

“All I can say is it’s crazy,” Alvardo said. “He motivates me during workouts.”

Starks has some experience with coaching a struggling team.

After retiring from the NFL in 2016 when he was released by the Cleveland Browns, Starks and his son, Trey, moved to the Dominican Republic. Starks liked the area and wanted his son to learn Spanish.

While there, Starks was given the opportunity to coach a boys basketball team at a school in Sosúa. A former basketball standout at Westlake High School in Waldorf, Md., Starks accepted.

After he and the school had a difference of opinion about how to run the program, Starks formed a club team with the same players, dubbed the Sosúa Rebels, to compete against other teams on the island.

The team lost its first game 60-10, but soon turned things around to finish among the top three in its age group.

Starks credits patience and diligent instruction for the turnaround. It’s the same approach he plans to apply at Manassas Park.

He understands certain limitations are in place. Based on its location, the school’s enrollment of 1,100 students is expected to remain the same, as is its demographic makeup.

But Starks still sees opportunity, as he saw in the Dominican Republic. The players may initially lack knowledge of the game, but Starks will do whatever he can to educate them.

“I’m here to build something,” Starks said. “I expect to see a difference this year. You have to trust the process.”

PRESSING ON

Starks’ experience in the Dominican Republic did more than just turn the boys basketball team around. It also prompted him to stay in coaching after he returned to the United States in late February 2020 to broadcast some NFL events. He expected a brief stay, but then the pandemic hit and shut everything down. Instead of going back to the Dominican Republic, Starks looked for opportunities here.

He originally planned to work as an assistant football coach closer to home at Lackey High School in Charles County. But Charles County elected not to play football this school year.

In search of another opportunity, Starks saw the Manassas Park opening online.

Forgas said the school received over 40 applications for the position. While not the main reason the school hired Starks, his pedigree is an added bonus, Forgas said.

“It gives him automatic credibility,” Forgas said. “The kids can benefit from him.”

Starks sees the same thing.

“I’ve lived it; I’ve done it,” Starks said of playing at football’s highest levels.

Manassas Park is the second local high school to hire a former NFL player with no high school head coaching experience. In January 2015, Osbourn named former Washington Football Team standout Chris Samuels as its head coach. Samuels led the Eagles for two seasons, going 6-14 overall before taking a job as the offensive coordinator at Churchill High School in Maryland.

Even though he stopped playing five years ago, Starks still taps into a vast NFL network.

Starks considers Kacy Rodgers his main coaching influence. Rodgers was Starks’ defensive line coach with the Miami Dolphins and now holds the same position in Tampa Bay, where he was the NFL’s John Teerlinck Defensive Line Coach of the Year.

Rodgers helped Starks consider coaching football when the two worked alongside each other with the New York Jets in the summer of 2018. Rodgers was the Jets’ defensive coordinator and Starks a Jets coaching intern as part of the NFL’s Bill Walsh Diversity Coaching Fellowship Program. Starks had an opportunity for another internship with the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers last summer, but the pandemic prevented that from happening.

Rodgers was the first person to contact Starks and congratulate him on his new job.

He taught me to “pay attention to detail and make sure everyone is on the same page,” Starks said of Rodgers. “He pushed me, and we’d get into it, but we still respected each other.”

PUTTING IN THE TIME

On a rainy Friday, Starks moves from station to station inside the Cougars’ weight room, offering encouragement and instruction to the players. After only five players attended the first day of weightlifting on that Monday, around 15 showed up on the Friday. The increase in numbers encourages Starks.

Tyrice Henry works the room as well. A T.C. Williams graduate and former standout defensive back at Bluefield College, Henry is Starks’ first official staff hire. He, too, is starting out as a high school coach. Henry knew nothing about the program before he arrived but sees an opportunity to help Starks build a winning culture at Manassas Park.

“It’s time to put things on the map,” Henry said.

The Miami Dolphins' Randy Starks during a preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Sun Life Stadium.

Starks doesn’t plan to take any time off this summer so he can ensure everything’s in place when practice officially begins July 29. The Cougars’ first scrimmage is against Class 6 Colgan, and their first regular-season game is Aug. 27 against visiting Osbourn.

In the meantime, he will continue to make the 90-minute one-way drive to Manassas Park to oversee weightlifting sessions until school is out. And as another way to connect with the players, he plans to go door to door with Kelly to hand out awards and letters because there’s no team banquet.

Then there’s his own graduation.

As time passed once he retired from pro football, Starks realized he needed to finish his college degree. It’s something his mother always wanted. It’s something colleges required if he ever wants to coach at that level. And it’s something he wants to say he accomplished if he is urging kids to do the same.

When it became clear Starks could not return to the Dominican Republic, he went all in to complete his academic requirements. He spent most of his time online since Maryland’s campus was shut down due to the pandemic. He took six classes this spring, including a timely one on coaching.

It’s taken over 15 years to reach this point after he left college early for the NFL. But on May 21, Starks will receive his bachelor’s degree in family science from the University of Maryland.

Starks’ commitment toward graduating from Maryland is the same commitment Forgas believes Starks will give Manassas Park. The team may not reach all its goals overnight, but it won’t give up, either. Starks refuses to settle for anything less.

“He’s in it for the long haul,” Forgas said. “This is not a one-and-done. He wants to make a difference. I told him, he has the ability to put a stamp on this program.”

David Fawcett is the sports editor for InsideNoVa.com. Reach him at dfawcett@insidenova.com

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