TAMPA — When a young Wharton defense began pointing fingers after the Wildcats lost their first two games of the season, Earl Goodman took charge.
Wharton's defensive coordinator preached personal accountability.
"There was a lot of blaming going on," Wharton junior linebacker Chris Oliver said. "But he sat us down and let us know that if every person just worried about where they needed to be, it would be fine."
Goodman spent most of the past decade teaching the ins and outs of playing defense at Wharton. A former standout at Leto High and FAMU as a player before becoming an assistant at Delaware State and King High, he once told his players that football was his life.
Now the Wharton football family has had time to grieve since Goodman died Nov. 8 of an apparent heart attack at age 55. The team had a bye week Friday, then attended Goodman's funeral Saturday, six days before Wharton opens its third playoff push in the past four years Friday.
"We got all of our last-minute cries out," said senior safety Jairus Jones, a four-year starter under Goodman. "Basically, we're just trying not to think about it because the more we think about it, the sadder we will get. We try to move on with our play, try to carry his legacy on throughout the game."
When the Wildcats (8-2), winners of their past eight games, host Alonso (7-3) in their Class 5A region quarterfinal game, reminders will surround them. Helmets will bear stickers with Goodman's initials. His initials also will be painted in the Wildcats paw at midfield, and there are plans for the band to spell out "EG" in their pregame formation.
Secondary coach Gary Collins will call the defensive plays, but there's no doubt that Goodman, a staple of the football coaching staff, will be in their thoughts come game time.
"I don't want to say we have to win for Coach Goodman, because if we don't, there's still the heartbreak," Jones said. "And if we lose, we're all going to be broken-hearted, but we're going to play the way he wanted us to play."
Trying to adjust
On the practice field Monday, the smiles were back. Last week was difficult. Players found themselves calling out for Coach Goodman. Defensive players couldn't get used to a new voice calling the plays. Coaches expected his truck to pull up before practice.
But it didn't.
"It was rough in the beginning, like any time you're handling death," Wharton coach David Mitchell said. "I'll be honest with you, I was walking back from the Bucs game (Sunday) and I'm still thinking about Earl and the things he's done, the tribute he's given to this program. You hear the saying, 'Gone but not forgotten.' He's gone but he's definitely not forgotten."
Goodman preached playing a physical brand of defense — 11 helmets swarming to the ball. His coaching colleagues revered Goodman for his knowledge. Offensive coordinator Craig Rainey remembers how Goodman would challenge him to games of white board "chess."
"He'd draw a defense up on the board and he'd say, 'Okay, beat me,' " Rainey said. "I realize his whole thing was twofold. He'd throw a defense up there to see if I could beat it and then at the same time he was making me a better coordinator. That's what I'm going to miss."
Goodman coached at Wharton since 1999. He was in charge of one of the county's top defensive units in recent memory, a defense that allowed just 6.3 points a game and led the Wildcats to the Class 5A state championship game in 2002 under former Buccaneers linebacker Richard "Batman" Wood.
This season, his defense had just three returning starters. But Oliver said he got the unit to trust in each other, the key to the Wildcats' turnaround on defense.
And now, in their first game without him, the Wildcats hope to honor Goodman with a win.
"He always said that football was his life," Oliver said. "He passed away thinking that football would be there the next day for him.
"But I loved the fact that he would keep our spirits up at the darkest times, so I would love to win this game for him."