ST. PETERSBURG — For the past few days, Admiral Farragut Academy’s Chris Miller has been more of a travel agent than a football coach.
AFA is a boarding school that shuts down during Thanksgiving week. Students go home, some to far-flung places. That presented a problem for the Blue Jackets, who are playing in Friday’s Class B region final against Lakeland Victory Christian.
Miller had to persuade offensive lineman Jonathan Jun not to go home to South Korea and convince defensive lineman Matt Tye to hold off visiting his family in Australia.
“I’ve been on the phone a lot,” Miller said. “I needed to make sure some of these guys booked flights home for Christmas break and not this week. We’ve got a football game to play.”
The school never had to deal with this in the past because its football season always ended before Thanksgiving weekend.
But the Blue Jackets broke new ground last week by winning a playoff game for the first time in the school’s 66-year history.
“It’s been an adjustment,” Miller said. “No team here has ever played this late in the season. But it’s a nice problem to have.”
For years, local private school programs have been stopping at this campus near the Boca Ciega Bay shoreline to kick sand in the faces of Admiral Farragut football teams.
In their first 51 years, the Blue Jackets had just three winning seasons. From 1996-98, the school lost 21 straight games.
The Blue Jackets had coaches with big names who were unable to turn things around. John Rauch, the former Oakland Raiders coach, headed a winless squad in 1977. David Graham, son of Hall of Famer Otto Graham, went 0-17 from 1990-91.
Miller has been a part of this history, as a player and coach.
He attended AFA for eight years and decided to come out for football as a junior in 1998 after playing football in a P.E. class. In two years, he won five games.
“It’s always been a struggle here to get players to enjoy the sport long enough to want to play all the way through high school,” Miller said.
Part of the problem is the way the school is structured.
AFA is a Naval Honor school that attracts as many students from all over the globe as it does day students from the Tampa Bay region. Few international students have seen football. Fewer have played it.
And because it is a boarding school, the team starts practice two weeks after other schools because students must move into their quarters. Admiral Farragut’s summer weight program also is limited because many players aren’t in town.
So that puts the team at a disadvantage from the very beginning of the season.
But Miller, who is in his sixth season as coach of his alma mater, has stockpiled enough talent that the team now is fully aware of its potential glory while distancing itself from the ashes left behind.
Last year, the Blue Jackets made the playoffs for the first time since 2003. This year, they are 9-1 and moving on in the playoffs for the first time.
“We know what has happened in the past,” sophomore running back Toddrick Macon said. “But we’re working hard to make our own history.”
With nearly every skill player returning, AFA has the building blocks for sustained success.
“We have a good group who will be here for a while,” junior quarterback Rayshawn Jenkins said.
But the Blue Jackets will most likely be missing some players this week. Charles Albury left for the Bahamas and might not return in time. The same goes for Cody Yerk, who is staying with family in the Panhandle.
“We could be without a few players and others will be coming back on Thanksgiving,” Miller said. “We’ll have to give them a crash course on the game plan. But that’s not a big deal. The fact that we’re still playing is what matters.”