With his 65th birthday coming into clearer view on the horizon at the end of August, Doug Williams drove from his Thurmont home to Frederick to apply for Medicare.
That moment, filling out the paperwork and submitting the application, grabbed his attention for a few minutes.
“Man, I am getting pretty old,” Williams thought to himself. “I don’t feel old. But holy smokes! I’ve got to be thinking about retirement soon.”
In truth, retirement had already crossed Williams’ mind. He first gave earnest thought to leaving his long-time jobs as a physical education teacher and the varsity football coach at Catoctin High School in July, and the Medicare application nudged him further in that direction.
On Saturday afternoon, Williams officially announced what he had known for some time, even weeks before the Cougars’ capped a 13-1 season and won their second state championship on Dec. 7. He was finished as Catoctin’s football coach after 29 years. He will remain in his teaching job until the end of the school year.
“It was a tough decision, but, man, this is a young man’s game,” Williams said over the phone Saturday evening. “What I mean by that is not necessarily Xs and Os and the way the game is taught. It’s just a very demanding job [in terms of time]. Very, very demanding. My thinking was, ‘Do I want to spend time doing it and continue doing it?’
“Even before we had a successful year, I thought this was going to be the last one.”
The current state of the Catoctin team factored heavily into Williams’ decision.
“I didn’t want to leave with the cupboard bare,” he said. “We have a pretty good team coming back next year. It was a good time for me to walk away.”
Williams started to pass along official word to his assistant coaches and administrators at Catoctin earlier in the week, and he was trying to find the ideal time and place to tell his players, who had all gone their separate ways more than a month ago.
“I didn’t want to do it during the season because I did not want to distract one single bit from this amazing team,” he said. “And I didn’t want to do it at our banquet because I did not want all of the attention to be on me.”
The perfect chance presented itself Saturday, as the Catoctin football team was honored at Mount St. Mary’s prior to the start of the 4 p.m. men’s basketball game against Central Connecticut State.
Most of the players were going to be there, despite the weather and poor road conditions. So, Williams pulled them all into a side room at Knott Arena a few minutes prior to their ceremony and informed them he was leaving.
“I wanted to make it real short and quick,” he said. “So, I had a quick meeting about 10 minutes prior to the start of the basketball game, and then we had to get out there for the ceremony. It worked out good. It was time to move on.”
For some of the players, though, particularly the ones who will be back next season, it was not that simple.
“I am pretty shocked to say the least,” said Carson Sickeri, who rushed for more than 2,300 yards this season and scored 41 touchdowns, a single-season record for a Frederick County player, as a junior running back this season.
“We were already talking about next year. I didn’t think he was going to leave. It will be a big speed bump for our program not having him on the sideline next year.”
Sickeri added that he was happy Williams will get a chance to enjoy his life away from football and said the coach significantly influenced him as a player and a person.
“It’s going to be pretty weird not having him there with us next season,” Sickeri said.
Williams, who turned 65 on October 27, said he is not sure what he will do next other than picking up another job of some sort.
“I won’t be playing golf, and I won’t be sitting around the house all day,” he said.
Would he consider helping out the Catoctin football program in a lesser role or serve as an assistant coach at another school?
“My plans right now are not to,” he said.
Replacing Williams will be an enormous undertaking, given the thousands of lives he touched over the course of his career.
It would be an unfair burden to place solely on the next coach.
“I don’t think in the 16 years that I have been coaching and the 30-plus years I have been involved with football that I have ever come across a better person,” said Oakdale coach Kurt Stein, who was offered his first coaching job by Williams in the front seat of the coach’s van in the summer of 2004.
Stein served as an assistant to Williams for six seasons, primarily working with the junior varsity team, before leaving for Oakdale in 2010 to start a program from scratch.
“Frederick County football is not better without Doug Williams,” Stein said. “He was a good football coach and an even better man.”
Jerry Smith has opposed Williams for the past three seasons as the head coach of Catoctin’s archrival, Brunswick.
“I always appreciated the way he ran his program with humility and honesty,” Smith said. “It’s hard to find coaches like Doug. He’s going to be greatly missed. It’s going to be a change of landscape [in the county] with him not there.”
Smith was struck by a particular quality of all Williams’ teams. They always seemed like a family.
“His teams were always really, really tight,” Smith said. “Really, I want my program to resemble his. He was the whole embodiment of that program.”
Williams’ coaching career spanned 42 years, and he did the job while raising nine children with his wife, Susan.
After graduating from A.I. DuPont High School in Wilmington, Delaware, Williams took his first coaching job with one of the youth organizations in the area.
“That’s where I caught the bug,” he said.
Since he was no longer going to be able to play the game that he loved, he thought the next best thing was to coach it.
He attended Wesley Junior College in Dover, Delaware and later went to Towson.
In 1979, he accepted a position as the defensive line coach at Calvert Hall High School in Baltimore, where he spent five seasons.
In 1984, Severn School in Annapolis, where professional football legend Paul Brown coached for two seasons, offered Williams the head coaching job.
After seven seasons at Severn, Williams was called to Thurmont, where he took over the Catoctin program in 1991.
“My wife and I fell in love with the school and the stadium and the area right from the start,” he said.
After roughly three decades at the helm of the Cougars’ football program, a run that included 164 victories and two Class 1A state championships (2009, 2019), Williams has no immediate plans other than to join his team Wednesday morning at the State House in Annapolis to be recognized for their most recent state championship and then to plunge into frigid waters Thursday at Sandy Point State Park to help raise money for the Special Olympics.
“It’s the third time I have done [a polar plunge],” he said. “When you hit that water, it takes your breath away. Are you kidding me?”
What will he miss the most after 42 years of coaching?
“I will miss the locker room and all of my coaches and the practices with the kids,” he said. “I will miss those things even more than the games. You just can’t manufacture the relationships that come with the assistant coaches and the players.”