Thursday, January 18, 2018
Public safety

As Kenneth Schreffler's life shows, it shouldn't matter who can whip whom

It was a sweeping generalization made by a reporter who had spent all of a week in town, but it was also basically true:

"Brooksville is a (place) where one man's ability to whip another man still means something. Fights are a regular happening, and all it takes to get one started is a little beer and a parking lot."

Former Times staffer Rick Bragg wrote that in 1990, two weeks after Russell Coats, 19, was beaten to death in a racially divided brawl.

Right in the middle of this fight and the rowdy culture Bragg described was Coats' best friend, Kenny Schreffler, then 19, who was shot and killed Saturday night at age 43.

It's not as though there were fights every weekend in high school, said Bo Knowles, 43, an information technology manager, and Billy Healis, 40, a human resources manager at the Walmart Distribution Center, both of whom grew up with Schreffler.

But back then, kids hung out anywhere they could: in the deserted parking lot of the old Publix — "now the old, old Publix," Healis said — on U.S. 41 south of downtown Brooksville. At the carwash down the street. At the base of a pair of silos in a field west of town.

They drank beer, listened to music and cruised around in cars and pickups. Every few weeks, one teenager would confront another — or "bow up," as young people in Brooksville called it at the time — and they would fight.

It was better then, before kids took all their problems to their parents or the police, a lot of those folks will tell you now. They got a few black eyes, but learned lessons. They settled things themselves.

No, it wasn't better.

Whether or not they realized it, those kids in parking lots encouraged violence. They turned the best fighters into local heroes. They sent a message to someone like Schreffler, a high school dropout who already had a criminal record 23 years ago, that he didn't need to do much besides fight to earn respect.

"You just knew," Knowles said. "If you mess with Kenny, you're going to end up going toe to toe."

"Kenny was the one you wanted on your side," Healis said. "He could always fight, and he never lost. Never."

Sure enough, he won his first two fights the night Coats died, the second of which was against a young black man who then rounded up two carloads of his friends, all of whom were also black.

They armed themselves with boards, bottles and at least one gun. And when they found Schreffler and his white friends in the parking lot of a Brooksville apartment complex, many of these friends — as would I, and, probably, most of us — ran.

Schreffler, on the other hand, reached into the back of a pickup for a chain.

That was "Kenny being Kenny," Russell Coats' father, Gene, told me not long afterward, in a voice that made it clear how much he admired Schreffler's refusal to back down.

From what I know of Schreffler, which admittedly is not that much, I wouldn't doubt that his days of being known as the toughest kid in town were the best of his life.

He did three stints in state prison and accumulated many pages of criminal charges, most of them for traffic violations and drug possession.

When I interviewed him 10 years after Coats' death, he was an avowed white supremacist with a flaming Nazi tattoo on his neck. And what happened last Saturday night, according to deputies and the mother of Schreffler's girlfriend, sounds a lot like that early Saturday morning 23 years ago.

Before Schreffler ended upon the ground, unsuccessfully pleading for his life, he'd had a disagreement. He didn't back down. He went into a friend's house to get a bat.

But if Schreffler didn't move on, I think Brooksville has.

Maybe teenagers spend too much time hanging out online. Maybe they are more likely to turn to adults to solve their problems, and maybe that isn't all good.

But they seem to spend a lot less time in parking lots. And as the father of two teenage boys, I'm glad of that. I'm glad my sons never felt pressured to prove themselves in a fight, glad they never judged their friends in terms of this kind of toughness.

"I think the days are done when you get to settle your differences by fighting in parking lots with no consequences," Healis said.

So in Brooksville, and probably a lot of other towns, it doesn't matter so much who can whip whom.

And it shouldn't.

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