ST. PETERSBURG — Dante Fowler stood on a blazing blacktop parking lot Monday afternoon, smiling like he always does, and you could hardly tell he was, for the moment, no longer a Lakewood Spartan football player.
He stood there and explained why he was suspended and why he will return and why he hopes to fix everything and get back to what he loves doing most.
While he talked, his teammates filed into the school's library on the other side of Lakewood High's campus, under the watchful eye of coach Cory Moore, for a mandatory 90-minute study hall.
They have moved on.
Hurry up, Dante, I thought.
Hurry up before it's too late.
Since being suspended last week by Moore, the Florida State commit and his coach have not spoken. Fowler said he called once or twice and sent Moore a text congratulating him on Friday's victory over Blake.
"Thank you,'' Moore texted back.
These are not how conversations between arguably the best player in Pinellas County and his coach should happen the day after a big 28-0 district victory.
They should happen Friday night, on the field, with a smile, a hug and pat on the back. Fowler needs to apologize.
He needs to make things right with his coaches, and maybe more importantly with his teammates, and definitely most importantly with his schoolwork.
He has a bright future, but the wattage is up to him.
Fowler hasn't been kicked off the football team at Lakewood, but his return appears tenuous at best.
After a film session following a harrowing Week 1 victory over Seminole, Fowler let his displeasure be known.
The senior defensive end was double-teamed all night, bottled up, and on the last play of the game he freelanced and got a sack.
Coaches snidely told him he did it the Dante Fowler Way, instead of how they wanted him lined up.
Words were exchanged.
Feelings were hurt.
This is Fowler's version, and Moore did not give his. But both admit what happened that day was not pretty, and if Moore is possibly willing to play the rest of the season without his best player, it must have been.
Fowler admits to butting heads with the defensive coordinator. He says he is unhappy with how he's been used. He wants to roam free, not play inside at tackle.
But here's where all the praise, all the accolades, all the blue chips and stars and rankings and comments from fans on Facebook -- and yeah, I'll take some of the blame -- glowing newspaper articles took Fowler to a bad place.
Who needs a coach, when you can do it the Dante Fowler Way, which most coaches simply call The Highway.
"It was tough,'' said Moore. "You always hate to take away from somebody something that they love. But you have to look at the big picture. Maybe this is something he will reflect on when he gets older.
"If he does something like this at FSU, he might not be there. If I do that at work, I'd be gone.''
So for now, Fowler is gone.
But he wants to come back.
Fowler is not a bad kid. In fact, he's one of the nicest kids I've ever covered. He is gregarious and open and honest, and there's an insecurity there, masked by all the five-star braggadocio.
He admits, though, that sometimes he gets a big head. Sometimes, he gets too caught up in his own press clippings.
Ask another famous Lakewood athlete, current girls basketball coach Necole Tunsil, and she'll gladly tell you about her senior year, when she was a All-American and national recruit, and thought so much of that she stopped going to all of her classes.
Her reward? A second senior year at Forest Hills High in Queens.
Fowler doesn't want a second senior season, he wants a second chance.
But he's a week late in apologizing. Moore says he can sleep at night because he knows he did the right thing. And he absolutely has.
Now it's time for Fowler to the do the right thing, too.
He needs to forget, for now, what the rest of the world is telling him, because the color of those chips and the number of those stars don't mean anything if he is watching Friday nights from the stands.
He needs to walk in there and apologize and do what the coaches want him to do, as hard as he can do it, whether he wants to do it or not.
He needs to tell his teammates that they come first.
Hurry up, Dante.
Hurry up before it's too late.
John C. Cotey can be reached email@example.com