Saturday, October 20, 2018
Sports

Florida's first female football coach turns doubters into believers (w/video)

MIAMI — The annual Soul Bowl began with its usual fanfare, including a brief scuffle between rivals Miami Jackson and Miami Northwestern in the Traz Powell Stadium end zone just before kickoff.

But that kind of fight seemed to be absent from the Generals after the whistle blew. Miami Jackson went into the break trailing 18-0.

Until then, head coach Lakatriona Brunson had spent most of her day just getting the Generals ready for their final game of the regular season — feeding them dinner, dressing them and taping season-worn ankles.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Lakatriona Brunson serves her football players their game meal

But in that moment, as she stared into her players' eyes through the lenses of her trademark sunglasses, Brunson's disappointment took the form of parental advice.

"Man, listen," she said, taking an exasperated pause. "Y'all can do all that talking, tearing up jerseys, all that going back and forth, but at the end of the day, that's all we've been doing. Stop talking about it, and let's be about it. They ain't better than us."

Brunson knew going in her players faced an uphill battle against the one-loss Bulls, a kind of microcosm of the Generals' entire last year.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Brunson monitors her players getting their wrists and ankles wrapped while trying to keep them calm before getting on the bus for their football game later that evening

Just nine months earlier, Brunson was named head coach, the first woman to hold such a role in a state that values high school football like no other. The benchmark came with backlash. Then around midseason, defensive coordinator Luke Campbell, better known as rapper Uncle Luke from 2 Live Crew, quit.

But Brunson never lost sight of her main motivation — not necessarily winning, but always guiding.

"One thing we tell our kids: no matter where you come from, you can be someone. And (she sets) the example … not only with that, but in all aspects of life," Miami Jackson principal Carlos Rios Jr. said. "She's a mother to some, a father to some. A cheerleader, a coach, a teacher, a motivator. She fulfills all that."

• • •

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Brunson takes a moment to herself after trying to find lost jerseys and handing out different size game uniforms to the varsity football team

When Miami Jackson athletic director Dylan Mobley initially hired Brunson — a former women's professional football player and star of the TruTV reality show South Beach Tow — the story attracted headlines from all over the country, so much so that the school had to regularly turn away media interest.

Whispers of the hiring being a publicity stunt abounded, but Mobley was always quick to dispel that rumor. Mobley said he saw her talent not only in the game, but in connecting with kids who came from the same low-income Miami neighborhood she did.

And it didn't take long for others to see it, too.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Brunson is not often seen without her signature sunglasses that were also a consistent outfit choice while she was on the TruTV reality show South Beach Tow

On Sept. 10, the Generals earned their first win of the season in dramatic fashion, knocking off Miami powerhouse and nationally ranked Booker T. Washington 12-9.

"I think once they saw that she's genuine, that she can genuinely coach, that she's genuinely into it, and people got to know her, that made a difference," Mobley said. "The naysayers, once they had a conversation with her, they became believers."

Still, there were rocky times ahead. The Generals lost their next four games, three by at least four touchdowns. When Campbell quit, he let the players know via Twitter and text messages. The boys were disappointed.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Brunson talks to her players before their football game after breaking up a fight with football players from Northwestern

As far as Brunson was concerned, Campbell's departure only proved to the boys who was truly looking out for them. Their trust in her blossomed.

Brunson admits the season didn't start the way she'd pictured. The first-year growing pains were increasingly evident. But Brunson relished her role in the boys' lives, both in and out of football.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Brunson talks to varsity football players after a failed play during the game against Northwestern

If a player was having a rough time, she'd spend the day with him at a Miami Dolphins game. She even talked a player through fixing a flat tire on the side of the road.

"I don't have any kids, but I feel like I just adopted like 50 of them," she said. "… They're delicate, and they're just looking for somebody to guide them."

And in return, the Generals don't let anyone talk bad about Brunson, the woman they consider a coach and mom.

"(Opponents) always, always (talk junk). 'Y'all think you're going to beat us because we have a female coach?' It's crazy," senior lineman Donte Morris said, chuckling to himself at the thought. "I just be laughing because I'm like, 'Yeah, me and my female coach getting ready to whip your butt.' "

• • •

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Brunson talks to her football players at halftime

After intermission at the Soul Bowl, things began looking up for the Generals.

The defense picked up the pressure against Miami Northwestern (11-1) in the second half, and big stops gave the offensive some momentum. Late in the fourth quarter, senior wide receiver Gabriel Dunn caught a touchdown pass to put Miami Jackson (3-7) on the board.

But it was a losing battle, even against a Miami Northwestern team that could have been conserving its starters for its first-round playoff game a week later. But Brunson knows too well the role her gender plays in opponents' strategy.

"Nobody wants to be beat by a girl. Not in nothing that they claim is theirs. Guys, football is theirs," she said. "They're going to play hard, because they don't want to fall to us. That's every game, no matter what."

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Thurman McMullen grabs the hand of his cousin, coach Lakatriona Brunson, after the game against Northwestern

Miami Jackson's momentum started much too late, and the Generals didn't have enough time to find the end zone again, losing 18-6. The season was over, but Brunson, who now plans to focus on getting her seniors into college and making plans for next fall, seemed at peace.

"I'm proud of 'em," she said. "We're going to get 'em next year."

Then she walked off the field, boarding the bus to bring her boys back home.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Brunson laughs with Miami Jackson principal Carlos Rios after the game against Northwestern

     
                 
Comments
J.T. Brown talks about life after the Lightning

J.T. Brown talks about life after the Lightning

ST. PAUL, Minn. — J.T. Brown's past year has been nothing short of busy and filled with changes.After Brown spent the first six years of his professional career in the Lightning organization, the team placed him on waivers in January. He spent ...
Updated: 21 minutes ago
Bucs Dirk Koetter has put the team ahead of himself again

Bucs Dirk Koetter has put the team ahead of himself again

TAMPA — Say this for the Bucs' Dirk Koetter: He's not the kind of head coach who puts himself ahead of the team.In the offseason, Koetter began the process of handing over the offensive play-calling duties to Todd Monken.When it produced more p...
Updated: 1 hour ago
Rays tales: Why Rocco Baldelli is a hot candidate for manager openings

Rays tales: Why Rocco Baldelli is a hot candidate for manager openings

ST. PETERSBURG — Rocco Baldelli has sure been popular this off-season.And busy.The current Rays coach and former outfielder interviewed with five of the six teams looking to hire a manager — the Angels, Blue Jays, Rangers, Reds and Twins....
Updated: 3 hours ago
Sound-Smarter-Than-Your-Friends Guide: The Bucs are the Browns and the Browns are the Bucs

Sound-Smarter-Than-Your-Friends Guide: The Bucs are the Browns and the Browns are the Bucs

It was always this game.Not the Saints. Not the Eagles. Not the Steelers.The Browns.When the NFL released the Bucs’ schedule in April, the Browns were an afterthought. The first three games were the main attraction. If Tampa Bay could survive t...
Updated: 3 hours ago
Browns’ late trade forcing Bucs to make late adjustments

Browns’ late trade forcing Bucs to make late adjustments

TAMPA — The Bucs were already prepared to see the Cleveland Browns establish their vaunted running game on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, but now, they will have to adjust their game plan to see more of rookie running back Nick Chubb than the...
Updated: 8 hours ago
District volleyball: Battle-tested Calvary Christian ready for region run

District volleyball: Battle-tested Calvary Christian ready for region run

TAMPA — Calvary Christian’s volleyball team looks tough, tested and ready for a strong run at a Class 4A state title.For proof, look no farther than the past two days when the Warriors defeated a tough Tampa Prep squad in three games, then followed F...
Published: 10/20/18
Football: Clearwater 27, Boca Ciega 26

Football: Clearwater 27, Boca Ciega 26

GULFPORT — Boca Ciega needed to gain 3 yards in the final six seconds of Friday night’s Class 6A, District 9 game against Clearwater to win its first district championship since 2007. But it was the Tornadoes who got the stop in a thrilling 27-26 win...
Published: 10/19/18
Updated: 10/20/18
Football: Clearwater Central Catholic 14, Jesuit 6

Football: Clearwater Central Catholic 14, Jesuit 6

TAMPA — Rory Hicks is elusive and efficient. He can scramble to buy time in the pocket or take off to pick up timely first downs. The Clearwater Central Catholic senior also is careful with the football, rarely making a costly mistake. But of all the...
Published: 10/19/18
Updated: 10/20/18
Football: Zephyrhills 48, Wesley Chapel 0

Football: Zephyrhills 48, Wesley Chapel 0

ZEPHYRHILLS — The Homecoming crowd could not ask for any more, but they got it anyway. With a running clock winding down a district title and playoff-clinching victory, Zephyrhills fans got one last thrill as Tre’pavis Mobley ended the night with a 1...
Published: 10/19/18
Updated: 10/20/18

Football: Tampa Bay Tech 51, Durant 14

TAMPA — Tampa Bay Tech’s district finale will mean something after all.The Titans rebounded from a mistake-plagued loss to rout Durant 51-14 on Friday night. The victory, combined with Plant City’s 24-10 victory against Bloomingdale, keeps Tech’s bid...
Published: 10/19/18
Updated: 10/20/18