When a Jefferson football player passed out at practice in 1999, his coaches acted fast to determine what had happened. After the athlete awoke, he was asked several questions, including: Was he eating properly?
The player's answer shocked them.
"He said, 'I only eat at school,' " said Lane McLaughlin, then a Dragons assistant. "We asked him, 'Don't you eat at home?' and he said, 'When we can.' I was like, 'Wow, this is the United States, and we've got kids that are hungry.' "
That season, the Dragons began providing team dinners Thursday nights to go along with the program's regular game-day meal. The idea was to make sure the players, particularly those from lower-income families, had a full meal in their stomach.
"We paid for the Thursday meals ourselves," said McLaughlin, now coach at Carrollwood Day School.
What Jefferson did, and still does under head coach Mike Fenton, isn't uncommon. Coaches throughout the area, from the inner city of Tampa to the west side of Pasco County, told the St. Petersburg Times they do what they can to assist athletes in need.
"I think you should help every kid that needs help, whether they're an athlete or not," longtime Chamberlain coach Billy Turner said.
The well-being of the student-athlete has always been high on a coach's list of priorities, but the issue seemed to take on a life of its own locally last week when Armwood receiver Dykerius Cross was jailed and charged with suspicion of trespassing, second-degree felony burglary and criminal mischief after breaking into neighboring houses.
After one arrest, Cross told deputies he was looking for a place to sleep. Although his family refuted Cross' account and told the Times that Cross has always had a home, the story created a substantial amount of chatter, much of which centered around what programs can and can't do for a player.
Coaches' 'hands tied'
According to Florida High School Athletic Association rules, coaches are heavily restricted as to the amount of assistance they can provide. Because of this, a coach's compassion can collide with the state's bylaws.
"I don't even know what all the rules are," Turner admitted.
Few coaches contacted by the Times did.
Fenton said that early in his coaching career he gave athletes old clothes and once bought groceries for a family. Robinson coach Mike DePue said that at times his assistants have bought players a hamburger while taking them home.
McLaughlin, who described dropping off players at residences with no electricity, has given out old softball league shirts to players, bought "a lot of tacos" and bought them pancake mix. The latter, he said, "will last a long time."
All of the above are FHSAA no-nos.
"I'd rather be penalized than have a kid go hungry," McLaughlin said.
Turner, who estimated 40 percent of his team benefits from free or reduced meals at school, has a similar philosophy.
"If it's McDonald's, I'm okay with that," he said. "If that's a rule that you can't do that, that needs to be changed. That's ridiculous. They need to take a look at it and think about it."
Northeast's Jay Austin is another coach who has witnessed poverty firsthand. One of his players is homeless.
"He's living in a car with his mom," Austin said. "You feel for the kid and you wish you could take him home. But our hands are tied as coaches. I try to do my best to contact our guidance counselors and let them handle those types of situations."
Dire living situations
Dealing with student-athletes living in poverty is one of a coach's greatest challenges, veteran Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia said. Garcia and his assistants make home visits with every player on the varsity roster to learn about each student-athlete's living situation. Some of his players reside at Metropolitan Ministries, located a mile north of downtown Tampa, which assists people in need. He has seen roach-infested homes and homes with no adult supervision.
"There's a sad story at every school," Garcia said.
The home visits include sitdowns with a player's guardian, where he or she is informed about the student-athlete's grades and standardized testing dates with the focus of getting the player into college. But sometimes, Garcia said, he has offered more.
"We've brought kids clothes," Garcia said. "We've brought families food. To say you can't do something for a kid on your team who needs something, that's a problem. I don't think there's a coach out there who would turn his back on one of his kids."
When Hudson coach Mark Nash worked at Fort Pierce Central earlier this decade, he once discovered a player — a Haitian refugee whose parents still lived in Haiti — was sleeping in the woods behind the school.
"It was basically, I guess, what you would think of walking into a homeless person's little getaway," Nash said. "It was a padded-down, heavily trampled little area in the woods."
In another instance, Nash said he took in a player who had bounced back and forth in foster care. "It came to a point where he needed a place to live," Nash said. "I was living over there with my son, and I had an apartment with an empty room."
Nash doesn't know if allowing a player to live with him broke any rules.
Nor does he care.
"Rules matter obviously, but there comes a point where the rules don't matter, at least to me," Nash said. "A kid in a situation like (he) was in, winning and losing and forfeits and all that stuff take a second position, in my opinion, to the kid's welfare.
"I'm a firm believer in rules and adhering to them, but there comes a time where as a coach you have to assess the intent of the rule and make a decision. And my decision will always be what's in the best interest of the kids. That's why we choose the profession that we've chosen."
Times staff writers Joey Knight and Bob Putnam contributed to this report.