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TAMPA — If one thing is certain on Sligh Avenue these days, it’s that no King High player goes by his given name.
You play for the Lions, a nickname is issued to you, along with helmet and hip pads. Peer across the practice field, and you’ll find Polamalu and Playmaker, Superman and Smoky Joe. Not even grizzled coach Al Davis — known affectionately as Old Man — is immune.
It’s one subtle sign the chemistry within this program — mired in mediocrity the past decade — has been fortified.
Other signs are far more noticeable.
King is 7-2 on the field (5-4 officially, having forfeited two nondistrict games for using an ineligible player), recently defeated rival Tampa Bay Tech for the first time in 22 years, and hosts Hillsborough tonight for its first playoff berth since 2001.
"They’re vastly improved from the group they’ve had there in the past,” Terriers coach Earl Garcia said.
And far more unified, according to those who stuck through the fractious, futile years.
“It’s like a brotherhood thing,” said senior linebacker Tavis Campbell, who goes simply by Head (because assistant Dillard Bass thinks he literally has a large one).
“We look out for one another. It isn’t so much this person tries to look better than this person. We’re one team; we make each other look better. And we depend on each other, too.”
Campbell is one of three surviving Lions who began Day One of their freshman season on varsity. Back then, King still was less than a year removed from an 18-game losing streak, and Garcia’s son — Earl III — was beginning his lone season as Lions coach.
It would mark the tail end of a particularly abysmal stretch; from 2003-07, King managed nine total victories.
“Freshman year, we didn’t really have too much leadership on the team,” three-way senior Sturgis — known as Superman — recalled.
Campbell recalls incessant arguments at practices. Free safety Tarus Smith-Gonzales, the other four-year senior, said cliques abounded in the locker room. He even recalls members of his own faculty ridiculing the team.
“ ‘Y’all got killed Friday, y’all just need to give it up,’ ” he remembers one teacher telling him.
What he doesn’t remember is much optimism for the future. Had someone told either of them the Lions would be 7-2 and in playoff contention by their senior year, Smith-Gonzales and Campbell responded with skepticism.
“Not King,” Campbell said with a laugh.
“I would believe,” said Smith-Gonzales, who earned the Polamalu moniker for the bushy hair that seeps from the back of his helmet, “but it would’ve sounded far-fetched at the time.”
So what led to the transformation? Much of the credit has to go to Davis, a former longtime Gibbs High coach who instilled mandatory study halls and other tough-love measures upon his hiring in 2008.
When Campbell was ruled academically ineligible for his sophomore season, Davis begged him to keep attending study hall (which he did) and remain on the sideline for games (which he did).
“Every day he encouraged me, ‘Come to study hall, come to study hall, I want to see you on the field,’ ” Campbell said.
Depth also has improved to the point where Sturgis and junior Chris Murray are the only regular two-way players. The Lions, who had 41 players on Davis’ first opening-day roster in 2008, had 53 this season.
With the greater numbers has come greater athleticism, allowing the Lions to implement several formations including a spread look, I-formation or two-back sets.
Sturgis (31 catches, 394 yards) is attracting Division I and I-AA looks, and 6-foot-1 junior quarterback Greg Windham (1,106 passing yards, 15 TDs, five interceptions) may be the county’s most underrated thrower. Murray, meantime, has five picks to go with 21 receptions.
“They’re more athletic without a doubt,” Garcia said.
And more accountable, Sturgis says. No one gets called out — by name or nickname.
“To me, I feel like we’re working a lot harder than we did,” he said, “and everybody’s involved with what we’re trying to do, trying to be better.”