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TAMPA — The face of Robinson High School football bears a Fu Manchu mustache. Its voice is raspy and unmuffled. Its spirit, like its hair, is free flowing, averse to trend or convention.
“People say, ‘You look so much better with short hair.’ I don’t care,” the voice says. “This is what I am.”
Then there’s the heart of Knights football. It’s enlarged, has to be.
Many even suggest Mike DePue, who has been diagramming counters and projecting counterculture for more than three decades at Robinson, must have two hearts churning inside that 58-year-old body to house all his passion for the Knights program and players.
“He just really cares about the kids and the people,” said former Knight Richard Renninger, the 1984 recipient of the Guy Toph Award given annually to Hillsborough County’s top player.
“It’s in his heart much more than, ‘Hey, we’ve got to win a football game.’ He cares about the people.”
Therein lies one of several paradoxes surrounding Michael David DePue, who has Robinson (10-2) on the precipice of its first state title game appearance since 1971.
He’s the son of an Air Force colonel, but sports a ponytail. He was a vagabond of sorts growing up and still loves traveling, but has remained south of the Gandy Bridge — teaching at both Robinson and Monroe Junior High — since 1978.
And perhaps most telling: He’s unmarried and adores his freedom, but is a de facto dad to hundreds of current and former Knights who never had a real one.
“He’s had kids that have gotten in trouble and he’s the first one they call,” said Knights assistant Shawn Taylor, a 2000 Robinson graduate and former offensive lineman who had DePue for a position coach.
“He’s been called at 3 o’clock in the morning. …Half the time the parents will call him before they call anyone else.”
• • •
Rewind 35 or so years, and the notion that DePue would be coaching prep football in Florida, that wayward kids would be confessing to and confiding in him, that the sight of a player signing a college scholarship would bring him to tears, wasn’t exactly groovy.
Back then, he was a freshly-minted graduate of the University of Maine, where he had earned a political science degree and dabbled in a little football for his beloved Black Bears.
“I can remember in high school on occasion there would be an extra credit if you knew who the Black Bears were playing on Saturday or what the score of the Maine game was over the weekend,” Renninger recalled.
For all DePue cared, he could have stayed in Maine — his 87-year-old mom still resides on a farm there — forever. With no real aspirations, he waited tables at a state capital steakhouse, did substitute teaching gigs during the days, and grew out his hair.
“I like long hair,” DePue said. “My mother hates it, my father’s rolling over in his grave, but I just like long hair. I’ve always said I’ve been a hippie in disguise all these years. Hippie sometimes has a negative connotation, but to me it’s just a free spirit.”
Eventually, that free spirit became Florida bound. After earning his teaching certificate, a contact from Maine hooked DePue up with a job at Monroe. In no time, he was gravitating to Robinson in the afternoons and helping then-coach Randy Smith any way he could.
Since then, he has coached a plethora of sports and worked in nearly every capacity — film coordinator, position coach, JV coach — in football. He became a teacher at Robinson in 1982 and, after working under four varsity coaches, got the job himself in 2003.
“I’ll be honest, I don’t think he wears anything else except Robinson stuff,” said Knights offensive coordinator Rob Burns, a 1990 RHS graduate. “Even the one suit he wears once in a blue moon is black and silver (Robinson’s colors).”
In eight seasons, DePue has compiled a 51-37 record and guided the Knights to consecutive Class 2A state semifinals, including tonight’s home contest against Belle Glade Glades Central (11-1) at Jack Peters Field.
“He’s one of the most brilliant men I’ve ever been around,” former Knights and USF punter Delbert Alvarado said.
“There are many ways you can judge someone’s intelligence. It can come through degrees and the school you attended, but a lot of times it’s the experiences in life that you’ve gone through. …Coach DePue taught me and his team a lot of things based on his experiences.”
• • •
DePue’s recent experiences alone have thrust him into the role of guidance — and grief — counselor.
In August, four Knights players were arrested on several felony charges for their alleged involvement in a South Tampa crime spree.
The following month, popular Knights cheerleading coach Tina Maiorana was found dead in her apartment of natural causes at age 34.
DePue, saddled with a similar tragedy when former Knights standout Kwane Doster was shot to death in December 2004 while on Christmas break from Vanderbilt, did what came natural: He taught about persevering, leaning on each other. He grieved with players. And galvanized them.
“The normal football things — injuries, suspensions, things like that — that’s something you can cope with,” DePue said.
“But it’s the harsh reality that you have to cope with, and these kids proved they can cope with the trials and tribulations that life is going to offer.”
Speculation has risen that DePue’s next defeat will be his last. Twenty-two seniors, several of them Division I-A prospects, adorn the current roster. A major rebuilding job awaits in 2011.
DePue, who retires as a teacher in 2013, could exit with this group and finish his tenure in the obscurity of his advanced-placement history classroom. But he won’t. Make that can’t.
“I can’t be here my last two years and not be a part of football,” he said.
No sense pulling out all that hair.
“He’s here year-round,” Taylor said. “He’s the first here in the morning and last to leave, and he’s been that way since what, 1982?
He’s always there for the kids, he’s always there.”