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Legends shouldn’t walk away so quietly. But among the issues slated for discussion at the upcoming caucus of Washington Catholic Athletic Conference administrators is the hiring of a new commissioner. The current job holder, Bob Hardage, has told the member schools that as soon as a replacement is found, he’s outta here.

“My house is on the market. I’m leaving,” says Hardage, who plans to spend his retirement in southeastern Virginia.

Commissioners rarely get to play anything but the bad guy, enforcing rules made by adults that punish kids. But Hardage’s legacy, built over pretty much an entire life devoted to area high-school sports as a player, coach, and administrator, will have nothing to do with being a bad guy.

“As far as having an impact on lives, he himself has shaped more individuals, molded more young men into being of good character, being responsible adults, than anybody I know of,” says Mark Cox, who played for Hardage’s Annandale High School Atoms and is now the head football coach at Battlefield High in Prince William County. “I try to model myself after him, copy everything about him, everything I saw him do. I wish I was a lot further along. I know I’ll never add up to what he was, but if I can do half as much, well—”

It was during Hardage’s long run at Annandale, where he was an assistant or head football coach from 1958 to 1989, that most of his molding took place.

Hardage grew up in Alexandria, but as those who know him can attest, he didn’t grow up big. His lack of size didn’t keep him from being a multisport star at Mount Vernon High School, where he quarterbacked the football team to a regional championship in 1952. His physical stature, however, did prevent him from staying in the game as a player beyond his days quarterbacking the squad at the College of William and Mary. He joined the military after graduation in 1958, and during his spare hours, he assisted the program at Annandale, which was at the time being run by his old high-school coach, Ed Henry.

Upon completing a two-year service obligation in 1960, Hardage got a teaching job at Annandale and officially joined Henry’s staff. Henry left in 1966 for a college coaching position, and Hardage took over the program. The Atoms didn’t lose a game until Hardage’s third season.

His school was never among the biggest in the area, and his players weren’t the biggest or most gifted, either—no player Hardage ever coached ever made it to the NFL. But, like their coach, the Atoms always proved that size didn’t really matter. The region’s never seen a high-school program like the one Hardage ran at Annandale for 24 seasons.

“Bob Hardage was the best, most successful football coach in Northern Virginia history,” says Greg Paspatis, a former president of the Alexandria Sportsmen’s Association and a scholar of the area’s schoolboy athletic past. “Nobody else is really in contention.”

Hardage’s teams won state titles in 1967, 1972, and 1978. No other football coach in the region has ever won three state titles at the same school.

Hardage had just one losing season in nearly a quarter century at Annandale. But ask him to cite his most memorable games, and he brings up a loss: the 1971 regional final, when Annandale was pounded 28-0 by eventual state champion T.C. Williams, the very team fictionalized in Remember the Titans. The real-world Titans gained 320 rushing yards and caused Hardage to rethink his whole defensive strategy.

“That loss in 1971 was a huge motivator,” Hardage says. “It propelled us to spend a lot of time in the off-season coming up with a way to stop T.C. Williams.”

The extra work paid off. In one of the biggest high-school games to ever take place in Virginia, the Atoms opened the 1972 season with a 24-15 win at home over T.C. Williams in front of 10,000 fans. (Hardage posted a 4-3 career record against immortalized Titans coach Herman Boone.) Annandale went undefeated and won Hardage a second state title that year.

“That was a very satisfying win and a very satisfying team, with a lot of guys with big hearts who weren’t big,” Hardage says of the 1972 squad. “I know our safety might have weighed 135, our receiver was smaller than me—and I’m a right small guy—and our middle guard weighed 145 pounds and he was all-state.”

Hardage left Annandale after the 1989 season for reasons unrelated to football. Because of quirks in state and county retirement laws that were in place at the time, he would have essentially had to pay to keep his teaching job.

“If I stayed another day on the job, I would have lost benefits,” says Hardage. “I’m not a rocket scientist, but I knew that wasn’t a good deal.”

And since county rules then required that head coaches also be employed by the school system, the greatest gridiron mentor that Northern Virginia ever produced walked away from the program that he’d built into a powerhouse.

Asked why his teams at the school were so rarely beatable, Hardage mentions being blessed with great assistants and kids who “grew up wanting to play for Annandale,” then changes the subject.

But that was a question I didn’t need to ask. It was answered for me in November 1989, when I was assigned to cover a playoff game between Annandale and undefeated and eventual state champion West Potomac. For journalistic and personal reasons, I spent the halftime of that game with the Atoms. I had grown up in Falls Church, a few neighborhoods over from the Annandale campus and, like everybody who followed Northern Virginia schoolboy sports, was in awe of Hardage by the time he called it quits there. (Full disclosure: His ’78 Atoms, who would go on to an undefeated season and be ranked as the top team in the whole country, crushed my Falls Church Jaguars 37-0. We were already down 30-0 at halftime and desperate for guidance when our coach delivered as bad a pep talk as has ever been delivered: “Guys, I feel like shit,” he said, then left the locker room without us.)

For most of the halftime of the West Potomac game, which would turn out to be his final game as Annandale coach, Hardage was out of sight. His players sat on benches eating oranges and talking Xs and Os with assistants, until Hardage walked in just before the break ended and the room went quiet.

“Keep your poise,” Hardage said, slowly and almost whispering. “Play the game the way you were taught to play it.” After a short pause, he said the same two sentences again, though a bit louder. And then again and again and again, louder each time. The speech made the Gettysburg address seem bloated, and to this day, it’s the most thrilling spoken-word performance I’ve ever witnessed. I remember driving home that night feeling I finally knew why Annandale kicked everybody’s ass.

—Dave McKenna