ROANOKE — Trae Strain laughs when he tells the story, after a brief pause to consider the consequences of his parents seeing it. It has a point, though.
Larry Strain, his dad and Handley High’s football coach, is known to burn the midnight oil in the field house during the regular season. During the playoffs, it’s more like the 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. oil.
Robin Strain, Trae’s mom, knows the coach’s-wife life and has grown kids, so she’s been known to catch Zs on a field-house couch while Larry works. Larry will close his eyes long enough for the occasional power nap, and then it’s back to film study.
One night during Handley’s run of road playoff victories to Friday’s 11 a.m., Class 4A state-title game against Madison Academy in Auburn’s Jordan-Hare Stadium, Larry’s fatigued body forgot to stop at a power nap. What did he do, when an acquaintance showed up at 5 a.m. to lift weights?
Why of course, Larry went back to work. That’s the point of this story.
“I’m probably a little bit biased, but I don’t know another coach in the state that works as hard as he does,” Trae said.
Count Trae among the many people who know his dad well and root for him to finally get that Alabama High School Athletic Association “blue map” championship trophy in football.
Larry has two in girls’ basketball, won while coaching youngest child Leah and two nieces at Woodland High School in 2013 and 2014. He also has a “red map” runner-up trophy from Leah’s freshman season, when the Bobcats lost in the final.
Those trophies came after 15 years of coaching girls’ basketball, a span that ended when he and then-senior Leah went out champions in 2014.
Larry has two “red maps” in football, reminders of two agonizingly close losses to Leroy while coaching Trae at Woodland in 2004 and 2006.
Larry Strain is in his 18th season as a high school football head coach in Alabama, his second at Handley after a one-season stop at White Plains. He’s 122-91 with three region titles and those two state-runner-up finishes.
When he coaches against Madison Academy on Friday, he’ll do it with help from his son. Trae travels and liquid sells asphalt for Blacklidge Emulsions but makes his way back in time to wear headsets in the press box on game nights.
Larry’s Handley staff includes Randy Hill, whom Trae calls “one of my closest friends” and who played on Woodland’s 2004 runner-up team.
They have a chance to win a state title together. They and 27 senior players have a chance to bring home Handley’s first since 2011, when the Tigers beat Madison Academy in the 3A game to claim then-coach Mike Battles’ third title in as many states.
“At this point in my career, which I’m excited about getting a blue map, but I want them kids to get it,” Larry said. “I’ve had the opportunity to experience it (in girls’ basketball) and to get one, and we’ve been close two other times and, really, had some chances some other years.”
Larry considers the 2005 Woodland football team to have been the best of the three during that span of 2004-06, but injuries doomed the Bobcats to a 6-6 finish and second-round loss. Trae sustained a torn anterior cruciate ligament that year.
That season sandwiched between those 17-14 and 12-7 losses to Leroy in the finals. An errant pitch and turnover helped Woodland fall behind 10-0 quickly in 2004. In 2006, Woodland was at the 1-yard line with a chance for a 14-0 lead when a Leroy lineman recovered and returned a fumble.
Trae ran him down, but the Leroy player launched the ball over his head, behind them. Another Leroy player catches it on the run and scores.
“When you lose one like that right there, it’s a month before I want to go out and go anywhere in the community and go to church,” Larry said. “I don’t want to see nobody, and I don’t want to talk to nobody. It just takes a while to get over it.”
It hasn’t taken a while to see Handley righted again. The Tigers emerged from back-to-back losing seasons to go 20-5 in Larry’s two seasons. The current Tigers have won 12 consecutive games after opening with losses to Callaway (Ga.) and Tallassee.
Handley’s playoff run includes victories over UMS-Wright, Thomasville and top-ranked Andalusia, all on the road.
Handley’s roster has grown from 40ish to 73 since Larry’s arrival, with more athletes from other sports helping. One of Larry’s first acts was to open the field house, which has the school’s best weight room, and combine summer workouts for all sports.
Defensive end Tyrese Heard, a 6-foot-5 center in basketball, came out for football as a senior and ranks second on the team with nine tackles for loss.
“They were trying to get me to play during my whole time in high school,” Heard said. “I didn’t want to because I didn’t really like it, but now, when I came out to try, I started liking it and getting a feel of it, and I wanted to be a player on the team and help my friends accomplish their goal.”
That mindset rings familiar to those involved with Handley’s program that have connections to Larry’s Woodland days.
“Just seeing such a small town like Woodland come together like they did, kind of like Roanoke is doing right now, was a very special feeling,” Hill said.
It’s all about bringing home Handley’s third state title in football (second in the playoff era), and that sleepy coach in the field house wouldn’t mind his first.
“If we were able to win one — which, we’re playing a very good Madison Academy team — that would be just the icing on top of the cake,” Larry said.