Knowing a hero (sans cape) is an experience we all share in. But knowing one that’s nominated to be the hero (still sans cape) in a nationwide contest? That’s just the spot Marshall High School’s Darrell General finds himself in.
General, the cross country and distance team coach for track & field at the Falls Church high school, is one of five finalists in FloTrack’s second annual “Hometown Hero” competition among high school coaches for a chance to win $25,000.
Don’t let General’s low-profile fool you. The modest southeast Washington, D.C. native may work as a custodian by day, but in the realm of competitive distance running, General holds esteemed company: He’s a two-time winner of the Marine Corps marathon, a three-time Army Ten Miler winner, a five-time qualifier for the Olympic Marathon trials and just the second coach to win a state championship of any kind for Marshall.
It’s that last achievement that reifies General’s passion for both running and mentorship. By embracing the students for what they are as individuals, they honor his commitment by pouring themselves into the sport. This two-way street has steered his nearly 17 years at Marshall and is why he made the contest’s shortlist that opened it’s polling period on Nov. 1 and runs until Nov. 16.
“He gave his focus and attention to everyone on the team, from the varsity starters to the people who choose to run as a side activity,” Marshall alumnus Maxwell Carpenter (‘16) said. “He understood that while we were there to run we were also there to grow as people, and running was one of the ways to do that.”
General’s guidance as part coach, part parental figure kept his relationships with the students chummy and their competitive edge sharp. He could chop it up with them about the regular high school hurdles, but expected their best when it came time to lace up the trainers.
The results on the course have been strong for the Statesmen under General as a result. Always a threat to win the National District (just as the Statesmen did last week), the cross country program is two years removed from the boys and girls sweeping Class 5 Region A titles and the girls going on to win Marshall’s first state title since the girls basketball team won in 1976. General has also overseen individual standouts such as state champion Heather Holt (‘18) and nationally ranked runner Mackenzie Haight (‘14), with the former now running at North Carolina State University with her twin sister, Ashley.
Make no mistake: General loves seeing his athletes do well in their races. However, he knows his primary responsibility to the students isn’t getting them to produce wins and losses. It’s about forming them into adults capable of tackling life’s challenges and, ultimately, helping them pursue what makes them happy.
So when Carpenter approached General in the spring of his senior year to say he wanted to do theatre instead of track, General noted that as long as Carpenter had something he was devoted to that’s all that mattered. Or when General named Justin McFaul (‘16) a captain his junior year because he led by example, it gave McFaul the confidence to compete collegiately. General knows just the right buttons to press for each student because he knows who they are and has also lived enough to know what habits breed success.
“I talk to them about some of things that I’ve done and what I went through – not the success part – but the things I didn’t do right that I had to overcome,” General said. “I just wanted to give back and teach the students the do’s and don’ts to help them achieve their goals; that’s the high I get from coaching.”
Found at the core of General’s message is a religious fervor for discipline. It makes sense considering the peak of General’s personal career — from about the late ‘80s to the mid-to-late ‘90s — ran parallel to working at the loading docks by day, a graveyard shift at a grocery store at night, coaching in the afternoons and cramming his own training of 80 – 100 miles a week in the space between.
He’s not expecting the students to encumber themselves with so many obligations, but he’s also not going to cut them slack if he feels they’re shortchanging their ability. Running demands athletes to attack their own doubts, making it the ideal canvas where the art of discipline can be refined and transferred to any experience down the road.
“Running is self challenge. It takes a lot of confidence, dedication and focus out on the course” General added. “The students are competing to win, but they’re shooting for their goals as well. They can’t stop what another person is doing like in other sports. Even if they don’t win the race, as long as they have their own personal goals they’re trying to accomplish they’ll stay driven.”
And that’s just it, isn’t it? Knowing your strengths and interests influences the goals you set. General finds out both of those in each student, so even if they don’t continue running, he gives them the tools to cross their own personal finish line. If that’s not a hero, what is?