TARPON SPRINGS — It was Taurean Mathis' freshman year at Tarpon Springs High School and a teacher had said something to him that he felt was disrespectful.
So Mathis did what he did best in those days. He launched into a profanity-laced tirade that resulted in the school's resource officer being called.
"I was in the hallway and I heard the young man cursing and swearing like a drunken sailor," said John Nicely, 70, and Tarpon High's principal at the time. "I asked him to lower his voice and he continued to do it. I told him to settle down and go to my office, or the officer was going to take him to jail."
It was a defining moment for Mathis. At the strong suggestion of Nicely, who saw potential in Mathis, but also a need for structure, Mathis joined the school band. That led to a stint in the U.S. Army and to him eventually becoming a Tarpon police officer.
And Tuesday, Mathis, 27, was named the Pinellas County school district's first Resource Officer of the Year.
"I had a huge attitude," Mathis said of the incident that changed his life. "I was angry at the world, in large part because my dad wasn't there."
The Resource Officer of the Year award was created through the efforts of School Board member Robin Wikle, who said she was impressed at how receptive and "dedicated" the resource officers were in Pinellas schools.
Principals nominated their resource officers and a selection committee chose the winner.
"It's very exciting because I do know of Taurean's work," Wikle said. "I'm proud of what he's done in his life and what he does for kids in our community."
Mathis grew up in Tarpon Springs in a blended family with five siblings. He says his mother, Regina Mathis, is a wonderful woman. His father was not in the picture.
"That's why I try to be somewhat of an older brother to the students," Mathis said. "Some of the kids, their fathers are not there. Maybe they passed away, but the father just isn't there. I keep them close because you can make a difference, especially with the young boys who don't feel like they have a chance."
Mathis said his goal is to "build a relationship with the students with the foundation being a strong work ethic."
Mathis got his first taste of police work when he was a student at Tarpon Springs Middle School. He got involved in the Police Department's Cops and Kids program, and in eighth grade was allowed to ride along with officers.
"The officers were having fun but they were impacting people's lives," Mathis said. "The officers kept saying, 'You don't have to be like everybody else.' "
Mathis admits that he and band director Kevin Ford "had some growing pains" when he first joined the band.
"I didn't want to listen and I wanted to do my own thing," Mathis said. "Then if it didn't go my way, I would threaten to quit."
He said Ford would always ask, "So you are going to be a quitter in life? When it doesn't go your way, are you always going to quit?"
"When Taurean came to us, he was a little headstrong," Ford said. "I challenged the way he thought of things. I wouldn't allow him to give a simple answer or to take an easy way out."
Mathis didn't quit and ended up performing baritone solos at major concerts, including one at Carnegie Hall.
In 2002, Mathis graduated from Tarpon High and joined the Army. As a military police officer, he served two stints in Iraq and was a part of the Operation Iraqi Freedom initial invasion. He was also a bodyguard for the deputy commanding general of U.S. forces in Baghdad.
While in Iraq, Mathis would call and talk to Ford and Nicely about the combat action he saw.
"I couldn't tell my mom because I knew she would freak out," Mathis said. "But I could call them, talk to them. They were helpful."
In 2007, Mathis returned to Tarpon Springs and completed the police academy at Hillsborough Community College. He was hired as a patrol officer for the Tarpon Springs Police Department and moved into a house in the neighborhood where he grew up.
In 2009, he became a Tarpon High resource officer.
"He's a tremendous role model," said Mayor David Archie. "Going to serve his country and coming back, not only being a police officer but being involved with the community and mentoring kids."
Every summer, Mathis helps teach marching techniques during high school band camp. Ford, still Tarpon's band director, said Mathis' presence is needed at the school.
"When we get students with a similar upbringing, he's able to speak and mentor to those kids," Ford said.
Mathis, who is engaged and has a 1-year-old son and 8-year-old stepdaughter, plans to graduate from St. Petersburg College this summer with an Associate of Arts degree. He wants to pursue a bachelor's degree in public policy and administration from St. Petersburg College. A lover of politics, Mathis wants to be a congressman.
Mathis said Tarpon Springs is where he needs to be now. When situations arise at the high school, he said he likes to explain the law and the alternatives to students, much the way Nicely explained the options to him when he was a troubled freshman.
"I love police work and I feel like I can make a difference," he said. "Everyone knows me. They know where I come from. It makes it easier for them to talk to me."