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LARGO — Years ago, they gathered for the very first time at the football fields at the Ridgecrest YMCA.
They played with flags around their waists.
The next year, helmets on their heads.
And every year since, expectations on their shoulders.
These Largo Junior Packers were only 8 years old when people started to take notice. They had a way about them.
Instincts, drive, smarts.
Their games were must see. Fans lined the field, and the buzz was palpable.
“I know it sounds crazy, but they were like little rock stars,” said Fred Marshall, one of the coaches.
They grew older, stayed together and hardly ever lost, winning flyweight titles and mighty mite titles and pee wee titles.
They have won four district high school titles.
Now they stand together after practice, shirts off, sweating and dreaming.
All that’s left for these friends, these brothers, this family is a state title.
“We feel like this is what we’re destined to do,” Largo High linebacker Harry Brown said.
Linebacker Derrick Doss and quarterback Juwan Brown don’t smile at all, they just nod.
• • •
More than a dozen players from those very same little league teams in 2006 and 2007 with be dressed and playing Friday when the Packers host Armwood in the first round of the state football playoffs.
Many leagues’ players scatter, littering rosters of different high schools in their area.
Largo’s players have evolved, from little boys in blue and gold to young men in blue and gold.
Marquis Martin will snap the ball to Juwan Brown on the first play of the game Friday, just like he did when they were 7 and playing in their first flag football game.
Brown will hand the ball off, as he has done all these years, to Jarvis Stewart, or throw it, as he has done all these years, to Reggie Campbell or Raheem Harvey.
The defense will follow behind its leaders, Doss and Harry Brown, like they’ve been taught since they were just boys.
Nothing has changed.
“They wouldn’t lose as kids, and they don’t think they will lose now,” said Charles Dixon, who coached most of the current Packers in youth league. “We had some special groups. With guys like Dexter McCluster and Brynn Harvey. Great groups, but not all of them were all-stars like this group.”
The Packers have made the playoffs every year since 2005, produced NFL players like McCluster and current Buc Leonard Johnson, and made the state semifinals in 2007 and ’08.
But this group is more familiar, more confident, as if the players have been raised under the same roof.
“We want to win that state title, get the first one for Pinellas County,” Juwan Brown said, “and to repay the community for their support.”
• • •
For the parents and the community, it may have started at the Ridgecrest YMCA. But for the rest of the world, it started, officially, the night of Oct. 9, 2009, when a 6-foot, 165-pound quarterback stepped under center for his first varsity snap.
He was only 14, and the week before had started a junior varsity game, but the Packers were having fits that season — their two quarterbacks had been suspended and benched, their best player had blown out his knee, and they were only leading Leto 7-0 at the half.
Brown won his first three games, threw his first 72 varsity passes without an interception, led the Packers to the playoffs, beat Hillsborough in the first round, then got ransacked by Armwood.
He was overwhelmed that game. But he was a kid.
“Whewwwww,” he said, smiling, remembering the 49-3 loss to the Hawks. “That was a tough one.”
The past two seasons he struggled with an injury and an offense that didn’t feature him enough.
This year, he has grown into the quarterback everyone predicted he’d be.
And he isn’t alone.
Stewart is a star at running back. Harry Brown and Doss are two of Tampa Bay’s best linebackers. Cordell Hudson is a top cornerback. Harvey and Campbell and Jonathan Crawford and Donavan Hale, the younger ones in the group, have caught up and are now varsity standouts.
“It’s funny to us now,” said Nikki Brown, Juwan’s mother, “but I remember having a conversation with some parents when the kids were 11, and we said then that if they all stay together, when they all come together for that senior year, they’re going to win a championship.”
The road ahead is difficult.
The Hawks still have Alvin Bailey and Leon McQuay III, two of the country’s best football players. Hillsborough and undefeated Gainesville — No. 1 in the state — potentially loom.
But the Packers see it like they always have.
“We’ve grown up together, played together and matured together,” Doss said. “Now it’s just time to finish it.”
John C. Cotey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo: Bottom row: Cordell Hudson (11), Jarvis Stewart (20), Jacorrie Riley (3), Harry Brown (9), Claxton Boykin (4), Juwan Brown (10), Marquis Martin (52) and Javaris Sanders (73). Toop row: Derrick Doss (5), Reggie Moore (24), Jonathan Crawford (19), Reggie Campbell (2), Raheem Harvey (7) and Donavan Hale (12)
7:30 p.m. Friday unless noted
8A: Port St. Lucie Treasure Coast (5-3) at East Lake (9-1)
8A: Palm Harbor U. (8-2) at Vero Beach, Citrus Bowl (8-1)
8A: Orlando Freedom (7-2) at Plant (9-1)
8A: Wharton (8-2) at Orlando Dr. Phillips (10-0)
7A: Venice (7-3) at Pinellas Park (6-4)
7A: Northeast (7-3) at Bradenton Manatee (10-0)
7A: Tampa Bay Tech (7-3) at Durant (10-0)
7A: Newsome (6-4) at Gaither (8-2)
6A: Armwood (7-3) at Largo (10-0)
6A: Osceola (7-3) at Hillsborough (8-1)
6A: Ocala Vanguard (5-5) at Springstead (9-1)
6A: Hernando (6-4) at Gainesville (10-0)
5A: Atlantic (8-2) at Robinson (9-1)
5A: Lakewood (9-1) at Orlando Bishop Moore (8-2)
5A: North Marion (5-5) at Pasco (10-0)
5A: Anclote (6-4) at Gainesville Eastside (5-5), Thursday
3A: Frostproof (6-4) at Clearwater Central Catholic (9-1)
3A: Tampa Catholic (8-2) at Fort Meade (8-2)
2A: Moore Haven (9-1) vs. Carrollwood Day (9-1), at Alonso
2A: Indian Rocks Christian (6-4) at Naples First Baptist (10-0)