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Florida State football star shaped winning team at Florida School for Boys

In February 1961, Vic Prinzi pulled into the visitors' lot at the Florida School for Boys in Marianna and sat in the car collecting his thoughts. He was apprehensive.

"Why am I here?" he wondered.

He could still turn around, head back to Tallahassee and send word that he had changed his mind. Prinzi was 25 and self-confident.

His years as Florida State's quarterback would eventually land him in the school's hall of fame.

He'd played with the New York Giants and Denver Broncos, but got cut, and so he came back to Florida.

A friend told him about the opening at the state's oldest reform school. With more than 800 boys between 7 and 18, it had grown to one of the largest homes for troubled kids in the country.

The job seemed custom-made for Prinzi, who earned a degree in juvenile delinquency with a focus on criminal psychology. But his anxiety about working with young criminals, teaching them athletics no less, had sneaked up on him.

He introduced himself to the school's superintendent, David Walters, who gave Prinzi a nickel tour. The 1,400-acre campus was stunning. Stately cottages sat upon rolling green hills covered in tall pines.

Walters introduced Prinzi to his assistant superintendent, a stout man with a sandy crew cut. The two administrators told Prinzi the school operated on a ranking system based on behavior: Grub, Explorer, Pioneer, Pilot and Ace. Aces got privileges, but Grubs faced strict discipline, including solitary confinement.

"We're going to rehab these kids if it breaks every bone in their bodies," the assistant superintendent told Prinzi.

The men told Prinzi that they'd had trouble lately with a rash of runaways. When one of the boys escaped, the men on campus had to track him down in the swamps and woods surrounding the school. Occasionally the administration called on the help of prisoners from nearby Apalachee Correctional Institution.

Prinzi was not impressed by the school staff; he got the sense that they were there just to collect a paycheck. He was dismayed, too, when he saw a pack of boys loafing across campus. They had duck's ass haircuts and wore sloppy state clothes: wrinkled white shirts, blue jeans and scuffed Brogan boots.

"This is what I'm going to have to make a football team out of?" he wondered.

 

The next eight months would be the most profound of Vic Prinzi's busy and celebrated life. The experience made such an impression that two decades later his wife Barbara persuaded him to put his story on paper. He worked with two freelance writers, Rosemary Imregi and Jane Ruberg. Prinzi recorded himself telling the story and sent the writers hours of audio recordings. They produced a manuscript that never sold, never became a book. The yellowing pages have been on a shelf in Barbara Prinzi's Michigan home for 20 years, until she saw a story about the Florida School for Boys in the Tampa Bay Times and mailed the manuscript to me. Later, the writers let me listen to the audiocassettes.

Many of the boys who were imprisoned at the school have testified about the abuse they endured, but few former staffers have come forward, which makes Prinzi's detailed account an important contribution to the public record.

The manuscript uses pseudonyms in some cases. For example, Prinzi refers to the assistant superintendent as John McWilliams. There is no John McWilliams in public records, but Lennox Williams, who fits Prinzi's physical description, was guidance counselor at the time and his career moves match those Prinzi describes. Most of Prinzi's story is verified by newspaper clippings, school records at the State Archives and the memories of his former players.

 

The football program at FSB had been mediocre for as long as anyone could remember. Boys usually stayed at the school less than a year, so there was no consistency. The kids on campus also tended to be younger than the juniors and seniors they'd face at the Panhandle's public high schools.

The Yellow Jacket squad from the year before had magically found a way to win, but every player in the starting lineup had left the program. Prinzi knew he'd have to build a team from scratch.

Prinzi soon learned that the best athletes on campus didn't play sports. They preferred to serve their time slacking off and laying low.

Prinzi knew how a little coaching could change a boy's life. He had grown up in Waverly, N.Y., the son of Italian immigrants, during World War II. He wasn't popular in a place where most families were Irish and English. He turned to petty crime to fit in until his father gave him an ultimatum: Use your brain and be successful, or follow your friends to jail. Prinzi threw himself into sports and won a football scholarship at Florida State.

"How come they can't get a football team here?" Prinzi asked his assistant coach.

"Most of the kids here just don't have no interest," the coach replied. "If they had any interest, they wouldn't be here."

 

The kids were a mess. On the first day of physical education, three-quarters of them sat around in the shade while the rest played softball.

Prinzi asked his assistant coach if he could identify the best athlete on campus. "There's one kid on this campus that is the kid," the assistant said. "He basically runs this place."

Harley Woods.

He was 16, nearly 6 feet tall and 190 pounds. Woods was a boxer from Jacksonville, the coach said, tough and built like a tree, and most of the kids on campus were afraid of him. This was his second stint at the Florida School for Boys. He was in for armed robbery, the coach said. But Woods never participated in organized sports.

Prinzi knew what he needed to do.

 

Prinzi issued an order the next day. Every kid who came to gym would wear shorts. No jeans. And every kid had to participate. Prinzi wanted to evaluate their talent and he couldn't do it if they were sitting around.

As the younger boys grumbled about the new rules, Prinzi approached Woods, who was sitting under a tree.

"Woods?" he said.

"Yeah," the kid said, still sitting.

"When I walk up to you I expect you to stand up."

He stayed seated.

"Get your ass up so I can talk to you."

He snorted, but stood.

"My name is Coach Prinzi."

"I know who you are," Woods said.

"You're one of my fans, are you?" said Prinzi.

"I'm not one of your fans, but I know all about you."

"Really? What the hell can you tell me about me?"

"I know that you played professional football," Woods said. "Number two: I know that you just recently divorced. Three: I know that you can't get a job. That's why you came here."

"How the hell did you find that out?" Prinzi asked.

"Coach, there ain't nothing on this campus that I don't know about."

Prinzi made a mental note to tell the superintendent to lock his file cabinet.

"I was wondering if you might be interested in transferring to my crew," Prinzi said, referring to a group that cleaned lockers and ran errands for the athletic department.

"Go f--- yourself," Woods said.

"Son, don't you ever swear to me again," Prinzi said. "If you do, I'll make life as miserable as you've ever had it."

"What can you do to me that hasn't already been done?" Woods said. "I've been s--- on a thousand times in my life. You're just one more a------ that's going to do it."

He was angry. Prinzi just had to figure out why.

"You ever play football?"

"No, but I've thought about it."

"You're a pretty good-sized kid," Prinzi said. "I figured you'd be playing football."

"I have too many other important things to do."

Prinzi started to walk away.

"If you ever change your mind," he said, "let me know."

 

Woods wore shorts to the next gym class. It was a small victory.

Prinzi led the jog to the field, and he smiled at all the moaning. He figured that the only time some of them had run was with the cops behind them.

During the drills, Prinzi homed in on Harley Woods. He called Woods to the front of the group. They got into pushup position and Prinzi challenged the boy: "Who do you think will fall first?"

Ten minutes passed, then 15. After about 20 minutes, as Prinzi neared his physical limit, Woods' arms gave way. Prinzi jumped up.

"We're not through yet," he said.

He dropped down and started doing pushups.

"Harley, do it with me," he said. "We're going to do 50."

The boy collapsed at 39.

They raced the shuttle run and the 40-yard dash. As they jogged back to the locker room, Prinzi said: "Beat you at everything today, didn't I?"

"There's tomorrow," Woods replied.

 

Prinzi pulled some strings to get a look at Woods' file in the guidance counselor's office.

The boy had been abandoned by his father at 7. His mother was an alcoholic. He had spent time in juvenile homes in Jacksonville. Every adult who had entered Woods' life had abandoned him. He wasn't a bad kid underneath, he simply had trust issues.

Prinzi noticed the boy was scheduled for treatment from the school's new psychiatrist. The coach had met Dr. Louis Souza, also known as the "soup doctor," and Prinzi felt there was something suspect about the Uruguayan shrink who had trained in Vienna. He had arrived at FSB in 1961 and promptly begun experimenting on the boys with sound wave therapy. He was also feeding them a mysterious cocktail he called "Souza Soup," which made the boys lethargic.

Prinzi didn't want his best prospect anywhere near Dr. Souza.

When spring football practice rolled around, more boys came out for the team than Prinzi expected. And the kids began to coalesce. Some of the kids even started coming by Prinzi's office to talk.

Woods wasn't committed yet, but Prinzi felt like he was coming around. At least he was getting into great shape. Meanwhile, Prinzi kept working on Woods' head. He resisted at first, but Prinzi talked to him about his past.

"There's a lot of good people out there," he told the boy. "All you've got to do is present yourself to them, put faith in them, and they'll put faith in you."

Prinzi began to notice a change, but it was going to be tough.

"I think there's something in you, my boy," he said. "The only problem is, you're the one who's got to let it out."

 

Late one night, Prinzi got a call that a boy had escaped. He reported to the assembly point on campus, where men were gathered beside their state cars. The assistant superintendent was there, too, barking orders like Gen. Patton. Prinzi noticed a gun strapped to his side.

"What the hell do you got the gun for?" Prinzi asked.

"Mr. Prinzi," he replied, "you can't trust these damn kids. I'm not going to get my life wasted by one of these little bastards. He puts me in a corner and I'll use this g-- d--- thing."

The runaway was 11 years old.

 

Woods wasn't among the 43 boys who signed up to play baseball. Prinzi asked the assistant coach why Woods didn't show. The coach said Woods was starting to withdraw.

Word reached Prinzi one day that Woods had tried to run. Tried. As Prinzi approached the door of the infirmary, he knew he had to rein in his rage if he wanted Woods to respond.

He found the doctor treating Woods. One eye was black and blue and swollen shut. It looked like the boy's nose was broken. He had stitches in his forehead.

"Look at this, Vic," the doctor said. "They shouldn't let those inmates from Apalachee go after these kids."

Prinzi asked the doctor to give him a minute.

"You're not near as tough as I thought you were," he told the boy. "You do the first thing you always do. You turn into a coward. You run. You don't have the guts to sit there and face what you have in front of you and resolve it.

"If you can't handle this, you might as well keep running. Because you're going to be running the rest of your life."

Prinzi turned and started for the door.

"Coach," Woods said. "How about giving me a chance?"

 

When Woods showed up to work in the athletic department with his shoes shined and his shirt ironed and his hair trimmed in a crew cut, Prinzi knew the boy was different. Soon enough, all the kids were as polished as Woods. And lots of them were now sporting crew cuts.

Prinzi told the boy he needed help putting together a football team, so Woods recruited his friends. He got a guy who could throw the ball 50 yards. He found another who would be a solid linebacker. Prinzi ordered some old game films from Florida State and showed the boys how the Seminoles ran the I formation. He taught them about stances and how to take a handoff. He acquired sharp new uniforms — gold pants with green jerseys and white pinstripe on the green helmets.

The boys were having fun. They asked to have two practices a day on the weekends. They had a purpose.

Prinzi began having deeper conversations with Woods as well. They talked about hard work, about life outside confinement.

"If you set goals," Prinzi told him, "you might not see this place ever again."

 

As the season approached, Prinzi's players kept disappearing.

First was a good defensive end, a 16-year-old who loved to tackle. He was sent for treatment by Dr. Souza, the "soup doctor." Prinzi saw the boy again a few months later. His face was swollen. His chiseled physique was gone and he had a paunch. He looked like a zombie.

Then the Yellow Jackets' quarterback didn't show up for practice. When he missed a second day, Prinzi started asking about him.

"Look, sometimes kids just don't show up for class," one of the boy's teachers told Prinzi.

Prinzi asked Woods. The boy was hesitant to talk. When a boy is caught running away, Woods finally said, he's taken to a small shack where he's beaten.

Prinzi found his assistant coach in the gym and the two walked across campus to a building the boys called the White House. As they approached, they heard something inside.

Prinzi flung the door open. He was hit by a putrid smell, like sweat and urine and rotting wood, and he almost gagged. In the dark, Prinzi saw his quarterback sprawled and tied face-down on a cot. Beside him, raising a thick leather strap, was the assistant superintendent. He appeared to be having an orgasm.

Prinzi tackled the older man and pressed the strap against his neck.

"So this is how you get your jollies?" he said. "If I hear of you ever touching any of these boys again, you better make sure you have a good lawyer, because I'll make it my life's mission to make sure you lose everything."

He threw the man out the door, into the sunlight. "You haven't heard the end of this," Prinzi said.

They helped the beaten boy to the infirmary, and Prinzi stormed toward the superintendent's office.

"You've got to stop this," Prinzi said. "There has to be a better way of dealing with these kids."

Beatings were nothing new.

In 1958, a psychologist who had worked at Marianna testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on juvenile delinquency that he witnessed mass beatings at the school. He called it "brutality," and his claims made quick headlines.

But Gov. LeRoy Collins defended superintendent Arthur G. Dozier, saying he had full confidence that the staff wasn't "brutal."

Prinzi felt that David Walters, who had replaced Dozier, took his allegations seriously. Walters told Prinzi that the assistant superintendent was demoted and moved to the north side of campus, where the black and Latino students lived.

 

The team's first three games were away. Prinzi knew the boys wouldn't feel proud of themselves if they had to travel in state-issued clothes. He'd been flirting with a waitress in Marianna, and he casually mentioned that he wanted to find a way to outfit the boys so they wouldn't look like criminals.

The young lady started a grass roots campaign to come up with enough ties and jackets. Before they boarded the bus on Sept. 14, 1961, to play Baker High School, Vic Prinzi faced a mirror and taught a group of boys how to tie a necktie.

 

The stadium at Baker was packed with a thousand fans. The opposing players dwarfed the boys from FSB. Prinzi had no idea what he was going to tell his young men before the game. Back in the locker room, he went with his gut.

Today is the culmination of your hard work, he told them. Today, all that sacrifice and pain is going to unfold on the playing field.

"Show those fans that we can knock people down and help them back up," he said. "Keep digging deeper inside you. Don't let fatigue make you a coward."

The farm boys from Baker were ready to play. A giant rainstorm moved over the field in the first half and the defenses held firm. In the third quarter, Harley Woods took a handoff 75 yards for a touchdown. The Yellow Jackets tacked on the extra point to go up 7-0. Baker scored as time ticked down but missed the extra point.

The boys were overjoyed on the ride back to Marianna. Woods cried. The team was the talk of the campus the next day.

Baker's coach wrote to Prinzi.

"My ballplayers had nothing but praise for your boys and their sportsmanship and fair play, and I feel the same way. Please congratulate your boys for us."

Back on campus, a letter waited from the Department of the Army. Prinzi had served six months in the Reserves. Now Uncle Sam was calling him up as President Kennedy reacted to the Cuban Missile Crisis.

"Let's keep this under our hat," Prinzi told his assistant coach.

 

The Yellow Jackets crushed powerhouse Chattahoochee, 20-0. The next game, against Sopchoppy, was brutal. The fans called the boys criminals, lowlifes. Prinzi complained that four touchdowns were called back in the first half.

"You'll have to face these things your entire lives," Prinzi told the team at halftime. "People who aren't as good as you are going to try to drag you down."

The boys fought hard, but Sopchoppy went up 6-0 and FSB couldn't recover.

After the game, Prinzi broke the news he was leaving. The boys hung their heads. They knew what was going on in Cuba. They understood. It didn't dull the pain.

Prinzi took Woods off campus that night.

"I want you to know something," the coach told the boy. "I'll always be with you. Not physically, but mentally. . . . And you'll either honor me or not honor me by whether you fold or by whether you succeed. It's your life."

They drove back in silence.

 

They beat Crawfordville, lost to Apalachicola, then beat Altha. No matter the scores, Harley Woods had begun to take on a leadership role. He was a force.

Prinzi had grown attached to Woods, to the kids. He felt like he was going to miss them more than they would miss him.

The morning after the win at Altha, Prinzi loaded his car and drove to Woods' cottage. He asked the supervisor to send the boy outside.

"I'm going to miss you, coach," Woods said. "But I remember what you said the other night, that you'll always be with me.

"I love you," the boy said.

Prinzi was still.

"I love you, too," he said. "I'll never forget you as long as I live."

 

Barbara met Vic Prinzi in 1965, when he was coaching at the University of Tampa, at a party on Bayshore Boulevard. She can't remember when he first told her the story of his time at the Florida School for Boys, but she's certain it was soon after they met.

"It was so emblazoned in his mind and his heart," she said.

What stayed with Prinzi was that those boys weren't bad kids. They just didn't have the same breaks that he had.

A lot has happened since Prinzi was on campus. In 2008, five men stepped forward to tell of being abused in the White House. Since word spread, more than 450 men have alleged they were abused, and a team of anthropologists has set out to determine how many boys are buried in a clandestine cemetery on the campus, and how they died.

Lennox Williams, after working several years on the black side of campus, was hired as superintendent over the entire school. Many men have alleged that Williams abused them. In 1968, when state officials in Tallahassee were trying to outlaw corporal punishment, Williams was fired for refusing to comply. He appealed his firing, the town of Marianna publicly supported him, and he was later reinstated.

Before Williams' death, he was interviewed by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement about the claims of abuse. He denies that he participated in brutal spankings.

Prinzi never returned to the school in Marianna. He became the voice of Florida State football, doing color commentary for 17 years and starring in pregame segments called Great Moments in Seminoles History with his lifelong friend Burt Reynolds. He died in 1998.

Prinzi's wife says he didn't know how many boys would come out of the school with tales of beatings.

"If he had known the extent to which it was going on," she said, "he would have put a stop to it."

The boys who played on that Yellow Jackets team still hold Vic Prinzi in high regard.

"You could tell he cared about the kids," said former linebacker Kermit Whitaker, 67, of Bartow. "He was a great role model for a lot of us. All the kids respected him."

"I learned a lot out there," said Roy Conerly of Summerfield, who played lineman. "Like him teaching us about our neatness and stuff like that. To this day, I still tie a tie because of him. Nobody else ever taught me that."

"He was a good coach. He cared about us guys," said Nevelin Jetton, 68, of Stanley, N.C. "He helped build my confidence and self-esteem. I never got no praise, no love, no anything. And here was someone who cared about me."

He began to cry.

Jerry Cooper of Cape Coral played quarterback for the team. Cooper remembers getting 135 lashes in the White House. In 2009, he paid for a lie detector test, which I witnessed, to prove he was telling the truth. Cooper hasn't always thought that Vic Prinzi had his best interest in mind, but he believes he was the only quarterback taken to the White House. When he heard Prinzi's account of finding his player being beaten, Cooper wasn't sure what to think.

"If Vic intervened, then he probably saved my life," Cooper said. "As bad as I was injured from that beating, I really thought I would not survive the night. Vic stood for a lot more than I thought at the time. I wish I could tell him so."

All the men wondered what became of Harley Woods.

 

The last public record available for Woods is a Florida business registration from the 1980s. After a few phone calls, I found the widow of his business partner.

"We only got to know him for eight or nine months," said Barbara Williams. "He wanted to have a rodeo, and we wanted to help him with it. Then that accident …"

She, too, began to cry.

She tracked down an article from the Jacksonville newspaper from April 1987: "Two Killed, One Hurt As Pole Hits Power Line."

She had trouble reading the story. Woods started a business with her husband and had been working for weeks to prepare for his second rodeo. The first, in Tifton, Ga., had been rained out, and he'd lost all his money. He had to do all the odd jobs himself for the second.

The newspaper called him "Haulie Woods" and described him as a former boxer and used car salesman. It said he felt it wouldn't be appropriate to hold a rodeo without Old Glory flying.

"He wouldn't have had the rodeo without the flag," said his friend, Elmer Rudd. "It's just like he always used to say, 'The flag is what it was all about.' "

He and a partner were raising the pole when it touched a power line and sent 14,000 volts through the men, killing them.

He died raising a sign of freedom. Vic Prinzi would have approved.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report. Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8650.

 

Audio: Before he died, Vic Prinzi recorded himself telling of his experience as a coach at the Florida School for Boys in Marianna and sent the tapes to freelance writers Rosemary Imregi and Jane Ruberg. The three worked for several years on a manuscript, called "Fire Within," but it never sold. Now, with renewed interest in abuse at the reform school, Imregi and Ruberg are doing more research and revising the manuscript with the hopes of turning it into a book. (Audio courtesy of Rosemary Imregi and Jane Ruberg)

 

Florida State football star shaped winning team at Florida School for Boys 05/29/13 [Last modified: Monday, June 3, 2013 5:51pm]

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