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

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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.

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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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.' "

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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."

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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.

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

                       
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