ZEPHYRHILLS — Jordan Roberts could see his best friend’s game taking shape.
The hard work, talent and size were fusing for Brandon Carvahlo after he finally made Zephyrhills’ team as a senior. He was coming off one of the best games of his career. He had just finished the practice of his life. He hyped the team up for the next day’s showdown with Pasco — a rivalry he had never experienced, and one he never would.
Goose bumps rose on Roberts’ arms as he thought about those memories this week in the days leading up to Pasco County’s biggest game of the year — the 9-Mile War that will decide the Class 5A, District 6 championship.
That’s because the three-sport star knows the only reason he’s on the football field at all is because of what happened 11 months ago, after Carvahlo left practice and never got home.
• • •
Carvahlo was a late bloomer. He didn’t study much in his first years of high school. He slacked a little and joked a lot. He played football but didn’t love it, and he was cut from the team in his favorite sport, basketball.
But something changed before Carvahlo’s senior year. The 17-year-old sprouted to 6-foot-4 and bulked up in the weight room. He worked tirelessly to develop the post moves a basketball center needs. He improved his left hand and honed an unstoppable mid-range fadeaway. He finally made the team.
“I knew he always had it,” said his father, Richard, “but he never showed it.”
Carvahlo tried to make the most of his only season on the team. The varsity rookie established himself as a leader on a squad with eight sophomores and juniors. He mentored the younger players, including Roberts, then a sophomore power forward.
“Anything he said, I’d listen to him,” Roberts said.
Roberts and Carvahlo had just met, but they bonded immediately. They shared a sense of humor and a maturity rarely found in teenagers. The frontcourt partners cracked jokes in the locker room, pushed each other during practice and ate together at Checkers after games.
A YouTube clip from the Bulldogs’ 72-45 loss to Anclote on Dec. 9 captures their promise in a 12-second clip. Roberts speeds from out of position to swat a shot. After Carvahlo slides over to block the put-back, the two stare down the opponent they just knocked to the ground.
“Man, that gives me chills right now just thinking about it,” Roberts said.
Three days later in a tuneup for Zephyrhills’ rivalry game against Pasco the next night, Carvahlo had the best practice of his life. He rebounded. He defended. He exploded for all 12 of his team’s points during a scrimmage.
“It was all Brandon,” basketball coach Dustin Rowe said.
Carvahlo left practice and was on his way to visit his mom in Lakeland when his Saturn sedan swerved into oncoming traffic. A few months after they met, Roberts’ best friend was gone.
• • •
Roberts didn’t grasp Carvahlo’s death until the next day, during a meeting with his teammates and a grief counselor. As Zephyrhills players reflected on their friend — his laugh, his hugs, the smile that could light up a gym even after a 27-point loss — Roberts thought about the potential his friend was just beginning to realize.
What if the work ethic and talent and size clicked sooner with Carvahlo? How good could he have been? And what if Roberts was blooming too late?
“That’s really when it sunk in,” Roberts said. “I don’t need to just cut my life short, do the things I don’t need to do, take things for granted. I saw that Brandon used all of his abilities. Even if he didn’t like it, he still used it.”
Roberts focused more in workouts and on the court, and he led a mourning community. He grieved over the phone with Carvahlo’s father and spoke up during practices. He talked about a charity golf tournament to raise money for a scholarship in Carvahlo’s memory.
When the team decided to wear red shoelaces — Carvahlo’s favorite color — Roberts figured out how to weave them into a 33 to honor his teammate’s number.
“I could tell deep down inside, he was hurting just as much as we were, if not even more,” Rowe said. “He really stepped up. It really helped us get through it.
“I’ve never met a kid who was just together like him.”
Roberts played football in middle school but dropped it his freshman year to focus on basketball. But after the car accident, Roberts branched out. Carvahlo didn’t waste any of his talents, so Roberts wouldn’t either.
“Not a lot of kids are blessed like me, with that athletic ability…” Roberts said. “That’s when it hit me.”
So Roberts tried high school track for the first time last spring. He came away with district championships in the 100 meters (10.87 seconds) and high jump (6-4).
He joined the football team as a receiver/defensive back and has already received college interest from Florida, Michigan State and Louisville. In the spring game against Pasco, the 6-foot-1 Roberts broke a screen pass for a 77-yard gain on his first high-school touch.
He caught touchdown passes against Hudson and Gulf and snagged two interceptions in last week’s must-win 35-28 victory over Fivay that kept the Bulldogs in contention for their first playoff appearance since 2006.
“That’s just a glimmer of what he can do,” Zephyrhills football coach Reggie Roberts said.
And it’s just the beginning of what Roberts wants and needs to do, to tap into his talent while he can and capitalize on the potential his best friend never could.
“This is something that I have to do,” Roberts said. “This is something he would want me to do.”
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.