As the wife of a longtime high school football coach, Karen Patchin knows what to expect when the whistles begin blowing this week.

"During football season, it's pretty much if he's awake, he's doing football," Karen Patchin said about her husband, North Thurston football coach Rocky Patchin. "Either thinking about it, or working on something, or trying to plan ahead.

"Honestly, during football season, it's pretty much full time."

High school football practice begins Wednesday in Washington as coaches begin to chart their season, knowing that attention to detail could be the difference between a trip to the state playoffs and a mediocre year.

Juggling work and family can be a balancing act. Throw in the equivalent of another full-time job — Centralia coach John Scultz estimates he spends at least 40 hours a week on football during the season — and life can get stressful. In most cases, families must enter into the football orbit or get out altogether.

"If it's not part of the family, it doesn't work," Schultz said. "People get divorced, and people coach for two or three years and bail out."

At least one area coach found that keeping his priorities right meant walking away from the sport he loved.

Kevin Ryan coached football for three years at Chehalis High School before stepping down in 2005 to spend more time with his wife and young children. In addition to time away from his family, Ryan was disturbed when the demands of football began to put a strain on his effectiveness as a teacher.

"Something was going to give," said Ryan, now the principal at Onalaska High School.

For coaches who stay in it for the long haul, keeping their home happy is a constant and delicate task. Schultz and his wife, Tammy, try to get away for a vacation each August before the onslaught begins. During the season, they set aside one night a week for a date together.

Tumwater coach Sid Otton and his wife Marjean Otton sit down for dinner together nearly every night during the season. When Ryan coached, he hurried home after practice to read to his children before bed and set aside Saturday mornings for time with his wife and kids.

Date nights and family dinners notwithstanding, the coaches who make it work have learned to integrate football and family rather than seek a balance between the two. Why choose family or football, they ask, when you can have family and football?

"It's been a family thing, and that's been a real key," said Sid Otton, who's starting his 35th season at Tumwater. "I've had an assistant or two along the way (for whom) maybe that wasn't the case and it's just hard for them to be able to stay in it.

"It's just great to have your family involved in it."

Tammy Schultz, who has supported her husband as a coach during their 28 years of marriage, said she grew to love football when she met John as a college player at Pacific Lutheran University. It came as no surprise when he became a coach after college, nor that he has continued all these years.

"I learned to love it then," Tammy said, "and it was really important to him, so it just became an important part of our family lifestyle."

Tammy Schultz said she has missed only a handful of games, and when she can't be there in person, she listens on the radio. One year, when Centralia had a game on Halloween night in Kelso, she dressed the kids in their tiger costumes and took them trick-or-treating in a nearby neighborhood. They were in the stands by kickoff.

Marjean Otton has Tammy Schultz beat. She and her husband have been married nearly 42 years, of which he's been a head coach for 40. Marjean Otton estimates she's missed only two or three games during that time, and those were to spend time with her ailing mother.

The job description of a coach's wife, though, extends beyond playing cheerleader. Many coaches' wives bear the added responsibilities of watching the kids and tending the house.

Tammy Schultz said that during the football season, household chores such as paying bills, shopping for groceries and cleaning fall to her. When the to-do list piles up, though, she and her husband often agree that the chores can wait.

"We learned to prioritize what was important," Tammy Schultz said, "and our family time together was more important than anything else."

Wives and families also absorb some of the stress that comes with coaching. While Patchin, Schultz, and Otton have typically fielded teams ranging from good to state champions in their respective careers, Ryan wasn't as fortunate in his tenure at Chehalis.

When the pressure from parents, the community and himself began to weigh on his family life, Ryan decided the joys of football were no longer worth the cost.

"I've given a lot of my life to football, but that's not my life," he said. "I wanted to focus on my kids. I want my kids to grow up enjoying seeing their dad, not having him stressed out.

"It's a stressful job that takes its toll."

When the Schultz's first child, Theresa, was born on a Thursday in the fall of 1984, John didn't think twice about leaving the hospital to coach the next night.

"Of course," Schultz said. "We had a game."

A week later, Tammy brought the baby along for her first of many football games.

Football practice doubled as a day care for the Schultz's four children growing up. The bus dropped them off after school and John would bring them home afterward. In the fall, watching and playing football was enough to keep them busy. In the spring — Schultz used to coach track as well — there were all sorts of activities to choose from. Two of the Schultz children — Theresa and Greg Schultz — would later compete in the hammer throw in college.

All four of Schultz's children — including Theresa — played football at Centralia. Bradley, the youngest, is a 6-foot-4, 265-pound senior who will start at center this season.

Patchin's only son, Jake, played football at North Thurston and now plays at Montana Tech. Patchin's three daughters volunteered as his water girls. Both of Otton's sons played at Tumwater and in college.

In many cases, sports runs so deep in the children's blood that they grow up to become coaches themselves.

Patchin's daughter, Stephanie, teaches and coaches girls basketball and volleyball at North Thurston. Tim Otton is an assistant football coach at Tumwater and Otton's daughter, Tana Croft, is the Thunderbirds' head volleyball coach.

To these families, high school sports have never been a hobby.

"To us, it's just been our life," said Marjean Otton. "We wouldn't know what people did on Friday nights if they weren't at football games.

"We've just always been a football family."