About this series: To kick off the first week of the football regular season, we’re taking a pigskin spin on “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue.” Today’s installments for something old will look at coaches who have been around for a while or senior players who have logged several seasons with their respective programs.
NEW PORT RICHEY — The sun is barely up as Jay Fulmer pulls his white van into the parking lot at Ridgewood High School to begin the day he has awaited for two years.
Since he last stepped onto a field as head coach, he has been suspended, and he has been reinstated. He has watched his son play for another team, and he has seen him hobbled by injury.
He has painted and planned and practiced and prayed, and now he is walking past the office he created, into his second chance with a football program awaiting rebirth.
It’s 7:18 a.m., Aug. 23. Kickoff for the preseason game against Palm Harbor University is less than 12 hours away.
“Another day in paradise,” Fulmer says.
School day starts
The lights wake up the gym, illuminating a row of banners — district titles in track, playoff runs in soccer, a runnerup finish in baseball.
The one sport missing from the wall of Fulmer’s new classroom is football.
The Rams made the playoffs in 2007, the year after Fulmer took Gulf to its first postseason appearance, but both have fallen since. Ridgewood has won only 12 games in its past four seasons, and the Pasco County School District indefinitely suspended Fulmer in August 2010 for alleged recruiting, which he denies. Ridgewood named him coach and made him a physical education teacher just before the start of spring football.
Because it’s the first week of class, Fulmer and students don’t have much to do in his five PE courses. He takes attendance on his ancient Macbook, then lets his class loose to play basketball or do homework.
“Coach, I hit like six 3s,” junior lineman Andrew Spirou says during second period.
“What’s that got to do with Palm Harbor?” Fulmer replies with a smile.
With no assistant coaches on campus to help during the day, Fulmer runs all of the program’s logistical operations: processing paperwork, finding a backup cameraman, approving the field’s markings, checking play charts and applying new helmet decals.
Fulmer uses his first planning period to discuss trading film with next week’s opponent, Springstead. He uses his second one to pound his gray shoes trimmed with Ridgewood orange on a barren spot of the field, searching for mole crickets.
With nothing to teach this week, Fulmer has no distractions from tonight’s game. He asks a 6-foot-3 boy in a Drew Brees jersey why he didn’t try out for the team and how he could motivate him to get academically eligible. He goes over schemes with his son, Will, a senior quarterback.
He jokes with lineman Steve Raymond about changing his position, and begs his players not to jump during basketball games. With 33 players on the roster, the Rams can’t afford a JV team, let alone a rolled ankle.
The final bell rings.
“Now it’s just a matter of waiting,” Fulmer says.
A Rams flag flutters in the orange, white and blue locker room Fulmer painted this summer.
The team joins hands before kickoff and prays for its new players, for its new staff, for its new era.
“God,” Fulmer adds, “thank you for putting me back on the sidelines. Let’s go.”
When the game begins, it unfolds how Fulmer feared. Palm Harbor U. jumps ahead early, and Ridgewood deflates like a team still reeling from its 1-9 2011 season. The Rams trail 35-0 at halftime and have been outgained 255-31. They have dropped passes, missed a fumble recovery and head-butted an opponent.
As he gathers his team in the shadows behind the stadium, Fulmer chomps his cinnamon gum but doesn’t scream. The mile-a-minute talker says little and focuses more on effort than execution.
“Who in the heck promised you a rose garden?” Fulmer says.
The second-half goals are simple: Perfect a few plays, improve conditioning and keep fighting.
The team scatters, and Fulmer searches out his son, just as Will checked on him in the coaches’ office four hours before the game.
Fulmer has watched Will rehab an ankle injury that cut short his junior season at Hudson, and he has put him through extra summer workouts to prepare for tonight.
The coach has occasionally fumed at his quarterback, questioning his reads and a costly interception. He has also seen the frustration on his son’s face after the pocket collapsed and the offense’s morale tanked.
“We’re gonna be all right,” says Fulmer, putting an around Will’s shoulder.
Will plays better in the second half, leading a 14-play drive and hitting junior Thomas Kernan on a 73-yard touchdown pass. When his son plows in for a 1-yard score in the final minute, Fulmer claps twice from the sidelines and calls for the extra point.
After the final horn blares, principal Andy Frelick shakes his new coach’s hand.
“You’re getting better,” Frelick tells Fulmer.
And the Rams are. The 49-13 loss is an improvement over last year’s 74-7 blowout. Fulmer sees a squad that folded early but battled late.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” Fulmer says to his players in the end zone. “I couldn’t be prouder of you.”
He shakes more hands and kisses his wife, Vickie. The locker room smells of sweat and pizza, and by the time he gets there his players are gone. He sorts their uniforms into piles — one for each coach to wash at home. Will takes money for gas and a late-night snack and says goodbye.
It’s past 10:15 when Fulmer’s staff reviews the game in his office, a converted ticket booth he shares with a lizard that sneaks under the door. The coaches cleaned it out over the summer, installed lockers, a white board and a TV. Fulmer painted a blue and orange R behind his desk.
They don’t need to watch the film to know the biggest problems. Too many drops. A lineman defending a receiver for most of a quarter. Lagging safety help. Fulmer laughs at the challenges ahead.
“You’re trying to change a culture,” assistant Charlie McCullers reminds him.
The chalk talk continues until 11:18, when Fulmer locks the door to his office and shuts off the stadium lights. The moon guides his way to the parking lot.
School starts in eight hours. The next game is 188 hours away.
Matt Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.