The football season ended in November with a trip to the playoffs. But the team bonding continued Sunday as the seniors of East Lake High's football team gathered at their coach's house for the annual senior steak dinner.
For the past four or five years, Bob Hudson, East Lake High's head football coach, has hosted the team's seniors at his New Port Richey home, providing steaks seared on his grill, baked beans, baked potatoes, rolls with butter and a heap of cookies to finish off the feast.
Players were chided if they ate only one steak.
"It's a way to get them together one more time before they go their separate ways," Hudson said Sunday as he flipped steaks on the grill. "It's just a way for them to spend some time together."
East Lake High's football seniors are among the nearly 7,000 students who will graduate from Pinellas County public high schools in the next few weeks. East Lake's graduation is June 4 at Florida Auto Exchange Stadium in Dunedin.
Seniors on the football team had looked forward to the feast.
"I've known a few of these guys it seems like all my life," said Blake Fleshman, 18, who will attend Defiance College in Ohio to play football. "It's good to come to coach Hudson's house and hang with the football seniors as a group one last time. They are friends. It's a good feeling."
"The school year is about over and we are about to graduate," said Drew McGuinness, 18, who will attend Florida State University in the fall. "The steaks are good, but it's like we are part of this big family."
Many of East Lake's players, like high school athletes throughout Pinellas, have grown up together. They met playing Little League football, recreation volleyball or sandlot baseball.
Soon, they will separate, headed to college or the work force.
"It's bittersweet," said East Lake senior Tyler Higbee, who will attend Western Kentucky University on a football scholarship. "It will be different, but I'm excited. I will see these guys when we come home and we will get together, rage out, and have a good time."
On Sunday, East Lake's seniors talked about college and finding part-time jobs. They talked about the prom the night before and the party bus and the memories.
Hudson manned the grill as his seniors lounged on the couches of his family room and played Call of Duty on Xbox. Another group sat at a table by the screen-covered pool and chatted about the future.
On Sunday, with laughter and camaraderie, the seniors cemented the bond they will have beyond the gridiron.
"A lot of coaches, after your senior season, they let you go," said Robert Johnson, who plans to attend St. Petersburg College in the fall. "But Coach Hudson, he sticks with you. We are a family."
Contact Demorris A. Lee at dalee@sptimes or (727) 445-4174.