For some people, it takes years to decide on a career path.
John Blake knew his calling in middle school.
“I remember when I was around 13 or 14 and my mother asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I told her I wanted to be a football coach,” Blake said. “I played little league football and had some pretty good coaches and I admired them so much that I wanted to coach the game.”
Blake has coached the game — and much more — over the past 25 years at St. Anne’s-Belfield.
He has guided the Saints to 175 wins, six state championships and coached three players that went on to have NFL careers.
Now, he is ready for the next phase of his life.
Blake plans to hang up his whistle after this season, concluding one of the more illustrious coaching careers in Central Virginia sports history.
“Life as a football coach seems to get harder every year,” Blake said. “When I first came to St. Anne’s, I don’t think the expectations were very high and so it was like playing with house money, with nothing to lose. Then we go 28-3 and win two state championships in my first three seasons and the expectations change. I think at some point in the last five years, it became a yearly thing to contemplate [retiring].”
The contemplating ended a few weeks ago for Blake after he woke up in the middle of the night and began to think.
“I’m sure there are some who would ask when did I know,” Blake said. “Well, it was about 4:30 a.m. a couple of Wednesdays ago. I woke up about 3 a.m. thinking about something involving football and began thinking if this was something I wanted to continue to do. As all coaches know and will tell you, waking up in the middle of the night thinking about the sport they coach is normal. But the question I asked myself that night was, ‘Do I really want to continue to wake up in the middle of the night because I’m worried about something I have no control over?’”
After making the decision to retire from coaching, Blake had conversations with the administration at STAB and gave notice of his plans. He then addressed his players and let them know.
“I think the current players were a bit shocked, but have taken the news well,” he said. “Coaching and athletics is, and should always be, about the student-athletes and the message I gave them was that I’m still coaching until the end of the season and they are going to get all of me as their coach. I told them that there is never a good time with making an announcement like this, but felt that by doing it now would give us all a chance to relax a bit more, and enjoy the rest of the season together.”
Blake said he has received a major outpouring of support following the decision.
“I have heard from so many former players and parents and it has all been great,” Blake said. “Some were shocked and some not so much. I will say that it has filled my tank from all the nice messages I have received.”
Blake’s coaching career began at the public school level. He first served as an assistant coach at Albemarle High School, then took over the Western Albemarle varsity lacrosse program and guided the Warriors to a pair of state championships in 1990 and 1991. Blake also served as an assistant boys basketball coach before joining the St. Anne’s-Belfield program in 1997.
Blake said the experience of coaching different sports has been very beneficial.
“Having been a head lacrosse coach and a head football coach, I can say there really isn’t much difference,” Blake said. “I worked just as hard at being a good lacrosse coach as I have been at being a good football coach. I admire coaches from all sports, because they are working hard for the players and the game they love. It makes me sad when I read posts or hear someone who probably hasn’t coached say things about coaches because they lose a game or have a bad run, but that is the world we live in.”
Building a powerhouse
In 1997, Blake took over the STAB football program and quickly began to take steps to leave his mark. In his fourth season, the Saints embarked on a historic run of success that brought widespread notoriety to the program.
“We had an incredible run from 2000-10, when we won 97 games. In those 11 seasons, we went to the [state] finals seven times and won four championships,” Blake said. “During that stretch, we had some good teams, but I will also say the pressure I felt to keep it up was probably at its highest.”
During that time, Blake helped groom several future Division I athletes, including 2003-04 Virginia Gatorade State Player of the Year Chris Long, who went on to play college football at Virginia and win Super Bowls with the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles.
“When I say he’s a giant to me, it’s an understatement,” Long said on his Green Light podcast. “I’m pretty sure if you asked any player that played for him, any of those years, whether they were NFL players like Kyle [Long] or myself, or Aaron Stinnie, or Division I-A players or guys that y’all never heard of, Jimmy Zunka, Mike Pascarella, Luke Thelen, he meant the same to all those guys, and I think his impact is felt subconsciously, even decades later. I know I operated a certain way, in part at least, because of the foundation that was laid for me by Coach Blake.”
Long fondly remembered Blake’s pregame ritual of reciting the “Man the Glass” by Dale Wimbrow right before his team would take the field for games.
“The most important thing he did was bring that ‘Man in the Glass’ poem every damn game,” Long said. “It was long. The first time I heard it, I said, ‘Man, that’s a long poem, but he read it every game without fail with tears in his eyes and choked up. It felt like even if there were only 250 to 1,000 people at a high school football game, it felt like when we were in that pressure cooker of a tiny locker room there, it felt like there were a million people out there. If felt like I was waiting to go play in the Super Bowl. It felt the same to me being a Patriot or an Eagle waiting to run out of the tunnel and it was so quiet in there and you could hear a pin drop and he’d read this poem.”
Long said he’s read the poem himself hundreds of times. He traveled with the poem in college and had it on his phone for years as a pro.
All because of John Blake.
The last four lines of the poem stand out to Long.
“You may fool the whole world down the pathway of years
And get pats on the back as you pass,
But your final reward will be heartache and tears
If you’ve cheated the man in the glass.”
“Then he’d say ‘Don’t cheat the man,’” Long said. “That’s John Blake. He never cheated himself and in turn, he never cheated the kids that he’s still affecting, that he’s coached, 10 or 20 years ago. Whether they are doing a podcast about the NFL, whether they’re still in the NFL, whether they are selling insurance. Whatever they are doing, wherever they are, John Blake is a piece of them.”
The close bonds Blake has formed with his players have been a driving force for him throughout his coaching career.
“I would say one thing that has kept me going all these years is the players,” he said. “Being around young people, having fun coaching the game I love, is the reason I have always done it. Being able to coach has been a blessing. The relationships I have developed over the years with players and coaches is something I will always cherish.”
Blake said the success of the STAB football program has been a joint effort. He still remembers his first season, talking his wife, Mary, whom he calls “the best coach I have ever worked with” scouting a game. Since that first season, Blake has continued to surround himself was a strong staff of assistant coaches, which he credits for much of the program’s success.
“One of the most important aspects of being a good head coach is who your assistants are,” he said. “Surround yourself with good coaches and you become a really good head coach. I’ve had some really good coaches work with me during my time and would not have accomplished what I have without them.”
Going to 8-man football
After more than a decade of championship success, Blake faced a dilemma after the 2016 season, when projected low participation numbers put the STAB football program in jeopardy. Blake had numerous conversations with Greenbrier Christian’s Dan Moore and former Hampton Roads athletic director Max Gillespie to entertain the idea of moving to 8-man football.
“I remember saying that if we don’t agree to take the step to play each other in 8-man football, then who knows if playing 8-man in Virginia will ever happen,” Blake said. “We agreed to play each other the following year.”
The agreement helped create the Virginia Independent Schools Football League for 8-man programs. STAB reached the state championship game in both of its years in the league. This season, the Saints returned to 11-man football but the VISFL continues to grow.
“The way I look at that is there are kids playing football because of that meeting, who would probably not have had the opportunity if it didn’t happen,” Blake said.
Blake said STAB’s temporary move to 8-man football was a good decision.
“Now that we are back to playing 11-man football, it shows that schools can play 8-man, build the numbers and return to playing 11-man,” he said.
Despite all of the challenges he has faced, Blake admits he wouldn’t change much about his coaching career.
“Coaching football at St. Anne’s-Belfield has been my identity for 25 years. My two sons have lived their entire lives with me being the coach here. It has been truly amazing to have coached one program for this long. I have said this before, coaching football at St. Anne’s-Belfield has been challenging, rewarding and a blessing.”
Even though he is retiring from coaching football, Blake still plans to be a fixture in the halls at STAB as the school’s director of alumni relations. He also plans to be involved in high school sports in some capacity.
“I’m sure I will not be far from the sidelines as I simply love athletics,” Blake said. “I want to help the next leader of this program to take it to the next level. This program means the world to me and I will gladly do anything I can to help.”
Blake is confident that the next football coach at STAB will have a strong group of players to guide.
“I think there are some very talented players in the program right now and the next coach is going to have a strong group,” Blake said. “I’m not predicting the future, but with the young talent in the program, the future looks very bright.”
That bright future is due in large part to the solid foundation Blake has built during his 25 years on the sidelines.
“I’m happy with what I have accomplished as the head of the football program at St. Anne’s-Belfield,” he said. “I’m sure there are some things that could have been done differently, but overall, I’m really happy with it.”