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Lockette brings life experience to Bulls

USF assistant football coach Telly Lockette coached in high school at Miami Central, where he made many contacts that could be key in recruiting the area.

USF athletics

USF assistant football coach Telly Lockette coached in high school at Miami Central, where he made many contacts that could be key in recruiting the area.

TAMPA — His faith had taught him redemption doesn't arrive without the shedding of blood. On a Halloween night half a decade ago, Telly Lockette spilled it for all to see.

The Miami team he was newly coaching, Central High, was applying the last brushstroke on a 27-25 win against his alma mater, Northwestern. Lockette had starred for the Bulls, coached them, even bled for their sake, until being banished amid a scandal to which he wasn't privy.

Now, justice in the highest order, in the concrete shrine known as Traz Powell Stadium, was seconds away. Central was about to end Northwestern's 37-game win streak — a local record. The administrators of the obligatory Gatorade shower were as reckless as they were jubilant.

The cooler smashed into Lockette's head.

"I had to get 12 stitches on Halloween night," he recalled with a chuckle.

In a life of physical and figurative scars, Lockette finally had one to smile about. The married dad of three smiles a lot these days.

"I'm just so blessed right now," said USF's first-year running backs coach, who faces the college from his old back yard — No. 15 Miami — today. "I thank God that I'm really living my dream."

For all of Lockette's newfound bliss, it's those scars that make him such an asset to Bulls coach Willie Taggart these days. Not just for recruiting, but reassurance.

For a winless USF team in dire need of some darkest-before-the-dawn perspective, Lockette, 39, can counsel with the best of them. For those Miami kids he's trying to lure to Tampa, the ones reared on the corner of Bleak and Hardscrabble, well, he has been there.

"He's coached championship teams, he was born and raised down (in Miami), and he has a unique story as it is that can relate to a lot of those kids," Taggart said. "They can see there is a way for them to get ahead like Telly's doing now."

• • •

If Lockette's avenue to Division I had been a straight-line narrative from Miami to Tampa, his story might not possess the same punch. But his course ran from southeast Florida to southeast Idaho, with a detour to the brink of death.

Some of his travails were inflicted by circumstances, others by his own misdemeanor arrests and moments of recklessness. The resulting tale is equal parts cautionary and inspiring.

"Being where I'm from and going through the struggles and sacrifices I went through," Lockette says, "to have an opportunity to go back to my old stomping grounds, to give a family and a kid an opportunity to earn a Division I scholarship. … I think that's cool."

The youngest of four boys raised by a single mom in the blighted Overtown community northwest of downtown Miami, Lockette recalls having to bus 15 miles just to play Police Athletic League football.

When his mother was jailed briefly on a drug conviction just as his football career was sprouting, a handful of male adults — including his siblings — lent a collective hand in raising him.

Nonetheless, he considers his mom the single-most inspirational and supportive figure in his childhood.

"I don't fault nobody, I don't complain," said Lockette, who grew up not so much rooting for Miami as he did 'Canes tailback (and Northwestern alumnus) Melvin Bratton. "It is what it is. You just keep moving, do the best that you can."

He evolved into a team captain and blue-chip tailback at Northwestern, generating Division I interest. Teammate Michael Ross, who later coached with Lockette, dubbed him "Pretty Ricky Fontaine" — a character from the TV sitcom Martin — for his "curly perm wave" and appeal to girls.

But many of his offers evaporated in the wake of his skirmishes with peers and authority. Instead, Lockette landed at Division I-AA Idaho State, where he segued to linebacker.

"He was quick, powerful. He was very good (at Northwestern)," said the Miami Herald's Larry Blustein, who has covered South Florida prep football more than 40 years.

"He was one of the better ones they've had. And I know maybe this is insignificant, but you talk to people down there, and he was one of the smarter kids Northwestern produced. He could carry on a conversation with anybody."

• • •

His career at ISU — not to mention his life — nearly ended before it began. While home on break after his freshman year, Lockette was in a bar called Coco Bongo when he sustained a skull injury in a melee.

He was hospitalized for months, during which time a "quarter-size" of his skull was removed, replaced by metal plates. For years, Lockette had to wear shades, even at night, to help ward off the migraines.

"There are conflicting stories that it was either a champagne bottle or a graze from a bullet," Lockette said from his corner office of the Selmon Athletics Center on USF's campus.

"It was bad," Ross recalled. "By the grace of God he pulled Telly through it."

Lockette recovered well enough to become a two-time I-AA All-American and earn an education degree. Five years later, he was back at Northwestern, this time as an assistant. But another life-altering fracture — this one to his reputation and career — loomed.

Days before the Class 6A state final in December 2006, Northwestern's 2,800-yard rusher Antwain Easterling was arrested on a felony charge of having consensual sex with a 14-year-old girl at the school. Coverup allegations ensued. Lockette and the entire Bulls staff were fired.

A year passed before he and his fellow staffers were exonerated. Worsening Lockette's confinement in limbo: He was relegated to spectator as the Bulls — his Bulls — rolled to the 6A state title in '07.

"It's one thing to be accused of something you really knew nothing about," he said. "I didn't even work at the school; I was at a middle school. It changed the lives of 38 individuals. … I walk with it every day."

His hiring at Central in 2008 represented a new lease on his coaching life.

"When I played at Northwestern, they were our archrivals every year," he said. "They would have the same talent we would have. But year in and year out we would just beat 'em. … I thought it was just the person, the head of the team, that could make that difference."

Bringing several Northwestern staffers with him, Lockette went about instilling discipline and establishing study halls. Each Rockets student-athlete was required to bring two to three people to weekend FCAT/SAT preparation sessions known as "Saturday school."

Central went 60-10 in Lockette's five seasons, going three full seasons without losing to a Dade or Broward County foe. Thirteen wins from 2011 were forfeited for Central's use of an ineligible player, but it won state titles in 2010 and '12. Dozens of Rockets went on to college.

• • •

This past March, on Lockette's 39th birthday, Taggart offered him a job on USF's staff. The surreality still strikes him like a Gatorade cooler.

Lockette had come full circle. He was a Bull again.

This November, he gets inducted into Idaho State University's sports hall of fame.

"A speed bump that's in the road," said Ross, still the offensive line coach at Central, "Telly Lockette's going to find a way to go over that speed bump."

In that sense, maybe Taggart has found the ideal person to co-steer his proverbial bus.

"He understands our kids," Taggart said.

"I've got a great man that I work for," Lockette said. "We're going to turn this thing around, we're going to get some kids in here that are going to help this university get back to prominence, the way it was."

Joey Knight can be reached at (813) 226-3350 or jknight@tampabay.com.

Lockette brings life experience to Bulls 09/27/13 [Last modified: Friday, October 4, 2013 6:20pm]
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