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Iconic Zephyrhills High prep coach turns 90 and his "boys'' celebrate


Some of them are staring 70 in the face, but they're still his boys.

They haven't taken an order from John Clements in decades, but you get the impression they would still follow him anywhere.

He taught his boys fundamentals, how to bunt a baseball or hook slide around a catcher. In football, he taught them how to block, how to run between the tackles. He didn't do fancy.

A lot of people around here still remember John Clements for athletics. His legend is documented on the high school baseball field that bears his name. But his boys remember him for what matters most.

He made them good citizens.

He made them men.

• • •

Coach Clements is on the phone, directing me to the house on Hill Drive where he and Beanie have lived since 1953.

"You can't miss the giant camphor tree,'' he says.

If there is a world's record for biggest camphor, this one surely must be in the running. It towers above the neighborhood.

How deep its roots must run.

Coach and Beanie think about their own roots in Zephyrhills. They arrived in 1948 and figured to stay only a year.

"Funny how it works,'' he told me last week, still sharp and proud of his keen memory. "The kids started school, we made friends. We got to liking it here. Still do.''

In 35 years of coaching and teaching American history at Zephyrhills High School, Clements touched the lives of hundreds of students. Many of them will gather at 1 p.m. today at the Alice Hall Community Center to thank him and offer congratulations on his 90th birthday.

It's a surprise — unless, of course, Beanie couldn't keep him from reading the newspaper.

He knew something was up. The phone has been ringing a lot more than usual. John doesn't hear all that well, and she was doing a lot of whispering.

"My daughter (Diane Villas) is coming in from Baton Rouge,'' he said, "so I know they got something planned. But I don't want anything special. Like I told Beanie, I've had my day. I've been blessed. Maybe we can just have a nice dinner. No gifts.''

• • •

Donnie Nelson, Class of 1958, is one of Coach Clements' boys. He hosted a meeting last week to firm up the birthday party, along with men like Eddie Smith, who has worked tirelessly over the years to keep the school's sports alumni connected.

Nelson put in a full career with the state road department and now owns an RV park in town. He played four years for Clements — football, baseball and basketball. His senior class was 52 strong. His son and daughter graduated from ZHS.

"All the years I've been around, I've never heard a negative word about Coach,'' Nelson said. "Everybody looks up to him. He's a father figure. I coached Little League for 33 years and used the stuff he taught me. He instilled in us positive values. Coach had a knack for making us want to do right.''

High praise, echoed time and again by his boys, including a 64-year-old former player who bears the same name.

"He was tougher on me than anybody else,'' recalled Johnny Clements Jr., "but I can't imagine a better father.''

His sister Diane, two years younger, agreed that Dad was tough on Johnny, "but that was all part of his sense of fairness. He didn't want to show any partiality.''

"I have a strong sense of pride and joy to have him as a father,'' she added. "He and Mom are two of the most loved and respected people in their community, and that means so much to me.''

Johnny works for Tampa Armature Works in Lakeland. Diane is retired. She taught English as a second language and Spanish at the University of South Florida.

• • •

John F. Clements was born in Baxley, Ga., in 1920. Four years later, his father died of pneumonia and the family moved in with relatives in Bunnell, near Daytona Beach. When John was 9, his mother married a barber. "I grew up shining shoes in the barber shop and heating water for shaves,'' he recalled. "But I was addicted to baseball. I would get to playing ball and forget about my chores. When I'd get back to the shop, my stepdad was ready to tear me up. I just couldn't resist baseball.''

He was so good, the St. Louis Cardinals signed him to pitch in the Florida State League, but he returned to high school when the Major League Baseball commissioner ruled the Cardinals had unfairly accumulated too many players and forced them to cut 200.

Clements earned a football scholarship to the University of Georgia but transferred to the University of Tampa where he played football and baseball.

Before he could graduate, war broke out and the Marines took Clements. He attended officers training school at Duke University, and in 1942 Beanie married him in Durham. They had met a few years earlier when they both worked as lifeguards at a Tampa swimming pool.

The Marines used Clements to match talent with jobs and coordinate a war bond program — and to play baseball. When he got out, he returned to school and then signed with the Philadelphia Phillies. An injury in 1946 ended any dreams of a professional career.

• • •

At Zephyrhills, Clements took over a football team that hadn't won in 44 tries. The Bulldogs beat Largo, 13-7. He would coach football 18 seasons, but baseball made him a legend in Florida. He won more than 400 games in 20 years, leading three teams to the state finals. The University of Tampa inducted him into its Hall of Fame.

We hiked over to the field that bears his name. I felt privileged. He doesn't get over there much these days. "I don't like to drive at night,'' he said. He wore the black and orange baseball jacket they gave him when he retired in 1983. He kicked the dirt on the pitchers' mound, sat in the dugout, joked about the plaque that features his face ("handsome fellow''). He recalled the dreadful facilities that greeted him in 1948, including a converted chicken shack that became a locker room. He got the city to condemn it so the School Board would approve a new facility.

Memories of an icon.

Beanie hugged him for a photograph. "She's my best friend,'' he said. "She takes good care of me.''

On turning 90, Coach offered this: "It's about like other birthdays. What are you going to do about it? I'm just glad to still be around.''

His boys concur.

Iconic Zephyrhills High prep coach turns 90 and his "boys'' celebrate 01/16/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 16, 2010 2:49pm]
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