CLEARWATER — There are two sides to Countryside High School senior Adam Vinson.
On the football field, the 17-year-old is all aggression, racking up a host of tackles from the middle linebacker position.
Off the field, Vinson is a quiet, focused student with an outstanding grade point average. During a recent Anatomy and Physiology class, he sat quietly in the back of the room completing his assignments. He's such a motivated student that in the evenings, he earns college credits in English Composition and Applied Ethics at St. Petersburg College's Clearwater campus.
Vinson and others on Countryside's football team are in a dual mind-set as the school year and football season begin.
On the field, there's the winning Countryside Cougars football tradition to uphold. Vinson has played varsity since his sophomore year and has lost only one regular season game.
But there are pressures off the field, too. Keeping the grades up. Mulling over what college to attend. Ensuring there are no discipline problems, because all eyes are on the football players on Friday nights and as they walk the school's halls Monday mornings.
"Being a football player, you are always under the spotlight," said Vinson, who has a weighted 4.47 grade point average. "If you get into trouble, you represent the whole program and school."
Senior Jeff Albert knows the pressure on and off the field. Albert, 17, hasn't decided where he is going to college next year. The left tackle, who also has played on the varsity squad since his sophomore year, is considering a military academy.
"They are always looking for you to set the example and to do the right thing, not only for the younger players but for the entire school," Albert said. "But I embrace it. I love carrying it. I know everyone is watching, and I work better under those conditions."
Jared Davis, the Cougars' sophomore head coach, said it's not easy for teenagers to juggle the pressures of football practice, school and social life. Davis, 27, said he tries to get the students to focus on the next drill or the next practice or the next game instead of focusing on trying to replicate last year's undefeated regular season.
Another focus is ensuring that all the student athletes have a 2.5 or higher GPA.
"We are preparing these guys for life," Davis said. "While all you need is a 2.0 to be eligible (to play football), a 2.0 isn't going to go very far in life."
If a student is struggling academically, there's study hall, weekly grade reports and contact with teachers.
"The goal and motivation is that they are motivated to get over a 2.5 so they don't have us bugging them all the time," Davis said. "If we inconvenience them, that's a good thing. But we want to get to a point where we don't have to inconvenience them."
Davis said ultimately, it is about trusting that the players will do the right thing when the coaches are not around.
"You can't have your cake and eat it too," Davis said. "You can't have the limelight for scoring touchdowns and doing good things on the field without the added scrutiny of doing what's right off the field. Once you play a high profile sport like football, you are going to have that added scrutiny in the community. It goes with the territory."
Athletes often carry the added pressure from the field to other parts of their lives, said Patrick Cohn, an owner of Ultimate Sports Parent and Kids' Sports Psychology in Orlando. He helps young athletes prepare mentally for high-level sports activity.
"The kid feels the need to excel and be respected as a high-level athlete," Cohn said. "That transfers to off the field. They want to be respected in social circles, as a good friend, and want to be seen as a good student."
Austin McConnell, 15, is playing varsity for the first time. A sophomore and an offensive lineman, McConnell said he's had to make some serious adjustments.
There's getting to his 7:05 a.m. World History class and trying to stay focused throughout the entire day.
"It's not easy," McConnell said. "You have to focus on football, but you have to focus on getting good grades and respecting teachers."
Greg Bryant is Vinson's Anatomy and Physiology teacher and is in his 27th year as an educator at Countryside High. He was also the school's golf coach for 19 years. Bryant said academically, there is often a direct correlation between what happens on and off the field.
"It's important for coaches to make sure student-athletes are doing the job in the classroom," Bryant said. "Almost always, the good student in the classroom is also the good athlete on the field."
Beyond the gridiron is where Vinson and others say the payoff of playing the sport comes.
"It has taught me to take responsibility for my actions," Vinson said. "You mess up on the field, you gotta own it. It's the same thing in life. You have to take responsibility for what you do."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at email@example.com and (727) 445-4174.