TAMPA — For some of Robinson High School’s football players, the current pitch will get no more feverish. If Friday night lights contain a dimmer switch, it’s this reality: When Robinson’s season concludes, so will some careers.
“To see the kids who maybe struggle a little bit in life get an opportunity to move to a state championship game,” coach Mike DePue said, “it’s something that’s going to maybe be the highlight of their life.”
Or, perhaps, the last chance to create one. Maybe that explains the seemingly caffeinated guise of senior Carlos Duclos on this day in the Knights’ locker room.
Bedecked in shorts and a University of Alabama hoodie, Duclos bounces, whoops, cracks on teammates and grins. Four days from the Class 5A state semifinals, the 5-foot-9 cornerback/kick returner/running back is straddling euphoria and purpose.
It’s both a time to savor and serve notice. Whether his career proceeds past Christmas is unclear. He admits his grades slipped in previous seasons, when his knee, kidneys and senses took turns betraying him. The chances to make a mark are dwindling like daylight in winter.
“This is the only year I ever got the chance to play a full season,” Duclos said. “So when it comes to (colleges) and stuff like that, they don’t really know much about me because I’ve been …injury-prone and stuff like that.”
As Robinson finds itself within four quarters of its first state finals appearance in 41 years, Duclos is playing for the moment, for his future and for a dad too ill to watch him.
“He had all these years and his injuries have been getting in the way of his talent, his real talent,” said younger brother Michael, a stocky sophomore tailback who has waged his own skirmish with injuries.
“So I think to him this means crunch time. He don’t have no time to waste.”
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DePue, who has spent more than three decades coaching in some capacity at Robinson, calls his program “a microscopic look at what America’s all about.” It’s an ethnic and economic melting pot, where affluence might suit up in the locker next to destitution.
Carlos, one of five kids born to Haitian parents, resides on the humbler end of that spectrum, at the corner of hardscrabble and hard luck.
The second and third kids of Gedeus and Rosette Duclos, Carlos and Michael moved with their family from Miami roughly 14 years ago. Both cut their football teeth with the South Tampa Titans of the local Pop Warner league. Gedeus, a construction worker, was a fixture there.
“When we played for the Titans, he was at every game,” Carlos said.
It was around Carlos’ freshman year that Gedeus’ kidneys began failing him. A diabetic with high blood pressure, he missed a huge chunk of Carlos’ freshman year, when his oldest boy made an imprint on both sides of the ball.
By the following autumn, Gedeus, 57, was unable to attend games at all. Carlos sustained a concussion in a mid-September game against King and missed roughly a month, but returned in time to log three tackles in an emotional 21-7 playoff win at Jesuit.
A headache before that contest prompted him to pop about three Ibuprofen. By the following Monday, as the team prepared for a state semifinal game in Belle Glade, he couldn’t keep food down.
“I was like, ‘This is bad,’ ” Carlos recalled. “I couldn’t walk. I tried to practice the week that we played (Glades Central) but I went out to catch punts and I couldn’t even take a step, so I walked back to the bench and called my ride over.”
He was admitted to Tampa General Hospital, where he spent five days after his kidneys briefly shut down, and missed the playoff loss in south Florida.
“That was crazy,” DePue said.
“They thought it ran in the family,” said older sister Bozla, a spokesperson for her mom (who still possesses a thick Haitian accent) during a phone interview. “But the doctor said it was some kind of pills he took that made the kidneys fail.”
Healthy and rejuvenated the following year, Carlos returned an early punt for a touchdown in the preseason classic against Seminole.
As he went out to field a second one, DePue contemplated giving someone else a chance to get some special-teams work, but balked.
Next thing he knew, Carlos was writhing on the ground, holding his left knee. The torn ACL sidelined him the entire season.
“It was heart-wrenching,” DePue said. “Those are things you lose sleep over as a coach when you sit there and you go, ‘I would’ve, should’ve, could’ve.’ ”
Months of rehab followed as Carlos pondered his senior-year outlook and where the next snakebite would lurk. In the 2012 season opener, he recorded four tackles against Jefferson.
He hasn’t missed a game since.
“He’s bounced back,” DePue said. “He’s a resilient kid who works extremely hard in practice.”
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While Carlos has remained injury free this fall, Michael, whose fleetness and wrecking-ball physique (5-foot-5, 203 pounds) earned him a spot in Robinson’s backfield, assumed his brother’s place on the proverbial shelf.
A high ankle sprain in a Sept. 14 win at Jesuit kept him sidelined for more than two months. Ironically, the Knights’ offensive staff turned to Carlos — who has 36 tackles and two interceptions on defense — to compensate for Michael’s absence.
Though limited to a few handoffs a game, he has gained 178 yards on only 18 carries. DePue has been dazzled by his ability to run vertically.
But it’s the walk — horizontally — that will be forever embedded in Carlos’ memory.
Minutes before the Knights’ Nov. 9 game against rival Plant, Rosette and Gedeus, guided by a blue walker, escorted their son across Jack Peters Field during senior night festivities.
It was the first time Gedeus had seen Carlos play in three years.
“It meant a lot to me,” said Carlos, his voice cracking mildly. “It is emotional, too.”
If nothing else, Carlos has that moment, the likes of which he has learned to cherish. Should the Knights (12-1) defeat Tallahassee Godby (12-1) at home tonight, Gedeus would be able to see his son play once more — albeit via television — in the Dec. 14 state final.
How he’d love to perform well at least once more for his dad, maybe carve out a future in the process, extend this highlight of a lifetime to a second reel.
“(This playoff run) means a lot,” Carlos said. “I respect the game a lot more because it can be gone in the blink of an eye. It just means a lot to me.”
Class 5A state semifinal: Tallahassee Godby (12-1) at Robinson (12-1)
Kickoff: 7:30 Friday
Up next: Immokalee-Miami Jackson winner in the title game Dec. 14, 1 p.m. at the Orlando Citrus Bowl
How Godby got here: Defeated Pensacola West Florida 28-10; d. Crawfordville Wakulla 14-7; d. Jacksonville Bishop Kenny 64-29
How Robinson got here: Defeated Port Orange Atlantic 41-8; d. Lakewood 22-19; d. Pasco 49-21
Final word: With a victory, the Knights clinch their first state title game appearance since 1971. …The Cougars will match up well against Robinson at the skill spots, but their offensive line will be a tad smaller and younger than the Knights’. That, and the fact Godby is making its third daunting road trip in four Fridays, could make the difference in this one.
Joel Anderson’s pick: Robinson, 27-24
Joey Knight’s pick: Robinson, 38-28