The bright lights of ESPNU will shine upon the Armwood-Plant football game tonight, far away from the less glamorous matchup between Tampa Bay Tech and Bloomingdale on the Bulls' home field.
However, don't think Bloomingdale's Jason Stokes is any less excited about his first regular-season game than the Bulls' new coach. Stokes, a former Riverview assistant, will take the field as if John Madden and Al Michaels are in the booth at Charley Harris Stadium because it will be an opportunity for him to mold lives. It's also a chance for him to build confidence in a program that has never finished above .500 since it began playing varsity football in 1987.
Stokes' approach is equal parts life coach and football strategist. Over lunch at Red Lobster, we talked about how he plans to bring a winning attitude to the school.
Pull up a chair and join us.
ERNEST: You beat Riverview 15-13 in a preseason game last week. How did it feel to get that first win?
STOKES: It was more gratifying just for the kids to see that hard work and discipline pays off. I'm really about those kids, because they've been hurting for so long. If you're not in it for the kids, it's going to eat you alive, because then you'll get frustrated too fast and you'll start hurting the kids. You'll start making decisions that are for you and not that team. You'll get caught up in winning and losing instead of what's best for these kids.
What did you do this summer to get prepared?
What didn't we do? We lifted every day. We conditioned every day. We did 7-on-7 and we met a lot. Our team's biggest strength is our chemistry. We had a senior retreat. I got all the seniors and I told them everything I knew about character, and about being a man and having accountability and being responsible.
Not about football?
Not so much about football, but about life. This is your teammate and your brother. You don't have to like him, but you have to love him. Teammates are like family. You can't pick them, but you have to deal with them. I'm always talking about having a foxhole mentality. You have to fight for this man, and you have to trust that they're going to fight for you. It's not where it needs to be, but it's a lot better than other teams I've been a part of.
Football is such a physical game, but you're starting with the mental side.
So many times, you say the body follows the mind. I tell the kids that they can do or be whatever they want if they can see it first. Every game, we shut off all the lights, we have them close their eyes and we say, "See yourself making a big hit. See yourself making an interception. See yourself making a pancake block. See yourself making a touchdown." I'm definitely focusing on their minds because they've been beaten up for so long.
Bloomingdale has never finished above .500. Did you have any trepidation about the job?
What I was worried about was support from the administration, but the administration has been nothing but supportive and have really, really worked with me in dealing with these kids. That's the key. If you have an administration that doesn't care about football, that's what you're going to get. My athletic director and my principal are competitive people and they want to see us succeed. Plus, I told them if you have a winning football team, the test scores will go up (laughs).
Any other worries?
I wondered, "Are these kids going to be tough, or are they going to be what everyone thinks Bloomingdale is — just a bunch of soft, preppy kids?" They're not like that at all. I came in and they were really open to receiving what I had to talk about. I had a few kids who weren't with the program and I had to get rid of them.
Were they talented kids?
Some were talented and it was tough to let them go, but that's cancerous. That's what I talked about before: Do you care about this team? Do you care about kids or do you just care about winning? With kids, it has to be black and white. Once that gray area starts, it takes over everything as far as discipline and being a man of your word. You tell a kid, "If you miss practice, you're going to miss a half game." Then you have kids who miss practice or miss workouts, the players are going to see if you let that kid slide. So then your word isn't black and white anymore, it's gray and you lose control of your team.
You used to be a stock trader, so you went from Wall Street to a whistle?
Actually, I went from Wall Street (to) my own limo business. That was a lot of fun, working for yourself. But then I had my little guys (two sons) and then it was just crazy. We were doing well with money, but money isn't everything. You have to be happy. You have to be a dad to your kids. So we just went cold turkey and came down here. We were so blessed because we actually bought a house in Riverview before I even knew I could get a job at Riverview (High). That's how great God is. He just put everything in place.
DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest
Stokes uses an approach called "Accountability Brothers" in which each player has to look out for two teammates. If one "brother" gets in trouble, all three have to pay the price at practice. If one does something right, all three receive praise. He also stresses academics and gives players time to work with tutors. Stokes praised his assistant coaches, his players, his team parents, school administrators, counselors, his wife and his kids — everyone but himself.
Ernest Hooper also writes a column for the Tampa Bay section. Reach him at email@example.com or 226-3406.