BROOKSVILLE — Long before the advent of sporting goods chain stores and big box outlets, Hernando County athletes shopped at Kelly's World of Sports in Brooksville.
"I remember going there as a kid," Eddie Looper, 49, recalled recently.
Owner Paul Kelly befriended Looper as the local baseball player advanced through stardom at Hernando High School, Seminole Community College and the University of Alabama.
"He used to come to see me play," Looper said from his office desk at Looper Sports Connection, on the southwest side of Brooksville.
Eleven years ago, after leaving the St. Louis Cardinals baseball organization as a utility player and bullpen coach, Looper bought his friend's business, which he operates with his wife, Jennifer.
The retail showroom teems with gear and apparel for baseball, football, basketball, soccer, tennis, golf and weightlifting — "every sport that's out there," Eddie Looper said — for the team player or the casual enthusiast.
"We can furnish equipment, the hard goods, uniforms, hats, shoulder pads, water bottles, goal posts, sideline markers, chain sets, you name it — everything except the actual grass," he said.
Soft goods personalized on-site help set the store apart from its bigger competitors.
Jennifer Looper, 40, oversees the workrooms, where screen printing equipment and an oversized commercial embroidery machine apply team, school or business logos, and names to shirts of all descriptions, jackets and shorts. Even pillows are embroidered with a fan's favorite team name.
"Just about every color imaginable," from pastel to luminescent, is available among inks for screen printing," Eddie said. Hues of rayon embroidery threads run to the "hundreds."
Whether it's someone in a local youth league, in an elementary or middle school physical education class, or wearing high school or college gear — even police and fire departments — "If you see a T-shirt with screen printing or a polo shirt with an embroidered name, that's probably ours," he said.
"Right now we're bombarded with orders, several thousand," he said, noting that schools have just opened for the 2014-15 year. Nonetheless, there's hardly a slow time at the business because various sports have different seasons.
"The biggest challenge is just getting product in here to meet everyone's time frame," Looper said. "We do everything we have to do to meet the needs, even at crunch time — and those are many times. There's always something they forget till the last minute."
Looper has the background to anticipate those needs. At Hernando High, he played basketball and football in addition to baseball.
His office walls attest to his personal sports connections. Hanging there are a plaque recognizing his induction into the Hernando High Sports Hall of Fame in 2012, his Alabama baseball jersey, No. 16, and the professional uniform he wore from 1986 to 1992, No. 79 for the Cardinals.
The store attests to some business savvy, too.
"When you have good products and good service," Looper said, gesturing across the showroom, ". . .eleven years later, and we're still here."
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]