WINCHESTER -- When Ryan Morgan — English teacher and second-year James Wood High head football coach — thinks about a "Renaissance Man," the name Leonardo da Vinci comes to mind.
In other words, he doesn't think about Ryan Morgan. Maybe he should.
Consider: Morgan, 38, who has taught atop "The Ridge" since 2007, not only guides the fortunes of the gridiron Colonels and still teaches a full load of classes — ninth- and 12th-grade English — but he also lends his tenor talents, when school duties allow, to Winchester Musica Viva, a chamber-choir ensemble whose musical offerings range from the classic to the contemporary. Oh, and by the way, he is also father to daughters Aria, 3, and Alina, 1.
Football, English literature, music of all strains, fatherhood — the "Renaissance" shoe, 20th-century-style, does fit. But try convincing Morgan of that fact, or even possibility.
"Yes, when I think of 'Renaissance Man,' I think of Leonardo da Vinci," he says. "I just don't think I live up to that standard."
But when pressed a bit, Morgan will go so far as to admit "I do think, though, it is unusual to be a football coach, an English teacher, and a signer in a choir." And that's about as far as he will go.
Right now, football does consume a huge part of Morgan's life, what with his 3-5 Colonels poised tonight to entertain arch-rival Handley (5-4) at Jerry Kelican Stadium. As such, a considerable portion of this article will be devoted to his coachly endeavors. But, first, a look at what might be called the "yearbook and home-and-hearth stuff" that may explain the growth of the man, the long road he has traveled to the Northern Valley, and the equally long road he must traverse as leader of what many consider a challenged football program. And, of course, his varied interests.
A native of Monroe, Mich., whose town square is dominated by St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church, where the folks on Morgan's maternal side worship, and a commanding equestrian statue ("Sighting the Enemy") of the town's favorite son, George Armstrong Custer (three blocks from the coach's home), Morgan cultivated his passions at the first opportunity.
For starters, he was an avid reader in a family where the discipline was definitely encouraged but not always practiced. He was particularly active in summer reading programs at the Monroe library and warmed to the exercise so ardently that, when he was in fourth grade, his teacher pulled his parents aside and suggested he was reading too much. Like when the other kids were out playing at recess.
"I read just about whatever interests me," says Morgan, whose favorite writer is Chuck Palahniuk, author of "Fight Club."
The singing? Well, Morgan did not exactly lick that talent off the grass. His father often sang solos in church at special liturgical junctures — Christmas and Easter, for example, and also at weddings.
With such an "example" set and encouraged by the music teachers whose children he knew, Morgan joined the elementary-school choir at the first chance presented, in fifth grade. He recalls his first solo, but not its title. "I can still hear it in my head, though," he says with a laugh.
In high school, Morgan split a lot of his time between the gridiron, where he was an offensive and defensive tackle, and the risers in the school auditorium, where he sang in both the concert choir (100 members) and the show choir (20 members). Later, while a student at the University of Michigan, he performed in the 115-member-strong men's glee club.
Upon landing in Winchester in 2007, it did not take Morgan long to find Musica Viva — that is, with the help of department head Martha Medeiros, who introduced him to Tom Law, Wood's choral teacher, who sang in the chamber choir. Law, in turn, introduced Morgan to Ken Nafziger, Musica Viva's artistic director for whom he auditioned.
Urban legend of some sort has Morgan falling for a new soprano, Jessica Brown, shortly after she — a James Wood grad and winner of the Star Leadership Award as a senior in 2004 — joined the group. Truth is, Morgan says, the two had been dating before Jessica, who had sung with Musica Viva in high school, became a member of the ensemble.
Jessica, in addition to being mother to Aria and Alina, teaches choral music at Woodgrove High in Loudoun County and, for the last two autumns, has been a football wife to a high-school head coach . . . at her alma mater.
"She's extremely busy in her own right," Morgan says, " so she can't be the 'mother hen' (type of coach's wife). But she's very supportive, and comes to as many games as possible."
So how did Ryan Morgan find his way from the flatlands around Monroe to this verdant valley at the top of Virginia? Well, the recession of a decade ago — it hit Michigan earlier, in 2007, than it did here, a year later — had a lot to do with it. Michigan was the only state nationally, he says, to lose population that year and so, with class sizes rising and teachers being let off, Morgan started to look elsewhere -- still with all intentions, he says, of coming back to the Wolverine State.
While perusing his options, Morgan recalled a trip taken to Washington, D.C,. and then to Skyline Drive when he was seven years old.
"I remembered camping, how pretty it was," he says. "And it was nice to have a change of view . . . The view is so different here than in flat Michigan."
Teaching and coaching, in his mind, went together. In fact, another example was set for him in that regard in the person of his best friend's father, who happened to be the head football coach at Monroe High.
After coaching for two seasons as a substitute teacher in Michigan, he continued down this path in earnest at James Wood, first as an assistant ninth-grade coach to Mike Lake (before Frederick County eliminated ninth-grade sports) and then, after moving up to a varsity assistant's post, as the JV coach in 2011 when Lake left coaching. Morgan's last two JV teams -- which comprise the core of this year's varsity squad -- compiled a 6-3-1 record in 2015 and a perfect 9-0 mark in 2016.
Morgan seemed a natural fit to replace Mark McHale, the James Wood grad and well-traveled college assistant, when the latter departed the coaching ranks in 2017. He resisted the distinction initially, despite admitting that applying in familiar surroundings had a definite appeal. He waited until the last day applications would be accepted before throwing his ball cap in the ring.
"I was going back and forth," he says. "I asked, 'Was it worth the stress?' But I also knew it could be a once-in-a-lifetime shot to be a head coach. Now or never."
Despite Wood's latter-day reputation as a dead-end for even the most seasoned of coaches (save the legendary Walter Barr), the present won out in the case of Ryan Morgan. He applied and was appointed. His first season, in which the Colonels registered a 2-8 record, was typically rocky (even Barr went 1-9 in the first year of his second stint at Wood back in 2005). But this second season, even at 3-5 currently, stands on more stable ground. Had it not been for an early-season propensity for putting the ball on the ground, the Colonels could now be sitting at 4-4 or even 5-3.
The biggest difference moving forward? Improvement in the off-season strength and conditioning program, largely courtesy of Jordan Hartman, a 2011 Millbrook grad and grid star who teaches physical education at James Wood, where his dad Clayton was a standout running back in the '70s. The result of Hartman's influence, Morgan says, has been a doubling of the number of Colonels consistently bench-pressing 200 pounds over the past year -- from 11 in 2017 to 22 this year.
But the biggest deficiency as the Colonels try to make their mark in the Northern Valley? A need to become even stronger and better conditioned. "We're getting better," Morgan says, ever mindful of the geographical impediments to excellence vis-a-vis the Sherandos, Millbrooks, and the Handleys of the world. The James Wood attendance zone is not only sprawling, but is decidedly mountainous. Morgan is not one to make excuses, but getting kids to practice and off-season workouts on a regular basis can present a challenge -- if for no other reason than because working parents are reluctant to drive back to school to pick up their young athletes when the trip can consume a half-hour one way.
But that's been a fact of life at Wood for years, and so it remains one for Ryan Morgan. Still, it's a burden easier to bear because Morgan likes his players so much.
"They're friendly, hard-working, and I have few discipline problems," he says. "In fact, they take to discipline well. When something goes wrong, they fix it. They're overall great kids . . . I wouldn't trade them for anything."
But then, forget the record for a moment, at James Wood, we may be witnessing an exemplary blend of player demeanor and coaching style. These Colonels may have responded to what Morgan calls an "old-school" approach, but they're faring just as well, as youngsters learning the game, with their coach's more low-key style.
"I try to hold the kids accountable at all times," Morgan says. "But they do respond to positive reinforcement. I try to find ways to reward them, different from the old-school coach, but I still try to hold them accountable . . . Kids respond well when they know you want them to do well, that you are rooting for them."
Truly the voice of a man who does things a bit differently — his way — and refuses to be "too boxed in," as he says. That is, no stereotypes — he resists being "labeled as only a jock, only an English teacher, or only a musician."
So how about adding a caveman into the mix? Viewed from afar, the non-smiling Morgan does resemble a TV pitchman of old — the Geico caveman. He accepts the comparison willingly, as this story attests.
"There was this old Geico ad," he says, "in which one of the cavemen was wearing a football uniform. Chad Potter, one of my players, had a poster and drew a song bubble on it. At the top, he wrote, 'Mr. Morgan in high school.'"
Even then, by implication at least, the word was out on Ryan Morgan.
And that word was "Renaissance."