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It's her nature to want to nurture

TAMPA — Roughly a dozen pairs of sneakers and high tops occupy the first steps of a staircase just inside Coach Crawford's front door. Coach doesn't abide dirty shoes in her three-story Westchase townhome.

In the kitchen, spilled strawberry Kool-Aid and Doritos crumbs aren't afforded much tolerance, either.

"I don't care what you do at home," Coach warns the 12 or so Hillsborough High varsity and junior varsity boys basketball players who have convened for team bonding. "This is my home. You clean up after yourself."

"Yes, ma'am," the players respond in unison.

Sticky countertops notwithstanding, Coach loves these types of get-togethers. During this, her inaugural season as Hillsborough's varsity boys coach, she has hosted two or three. On this Sunday evening, the eve of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Terriers and a few parents have gathered. The players will play cards and Xbox, watch movies and devour junk food.

"As long as they're here, they don't have to worry about the stress or nothing," Stephanie Crawford says in a maternal tone softer than the one she used to admonish players. "Just be kids."

To those closest to Crawford, she is the consummate foster mom, minus the state license. To only watch her coach — often with a bombastic, forceful style betraying her military background — is to miss her delicate side.

The woman is an absolute sucker for kids, especially the less fortunate ones.

Since leaving the Air Force in November 1996, Crawford has taken in several children for various stretches. By her count, she has nine godsons and two goddaughters. Jachai and Jevonte, Tyshawn and Travis — all have lived with her at some point.

"My heart is giving," said Crawford, 39 and single. "I don't think I'll ever stop being able to give."

Her mom, who has seen the youngest of her three kids help raise these children and fears she may be stretching herself too thin, puts it another way.

"She's trying to save the world," Gloria Barber says.

• • •

Crawford's cousin, 17-year-old Mesha Gilbert, Terriers sophomore guard Travis Lyons and two boxers reside under her roof. Without getting specific, the coach says red flags have been raised over the fact that she is housing one of her own players, whom she has known since the day he was born.

"(Hillsborough principal William Orr) is aware that Coach Crawford has helped out students in times of need and with Travis, who's here at Hillsborough," Terriers athletic director Bertha Baker said. "The mom (of Travis) has given (Crawford) legal guardianship for Travis to be with her."

Meka Lewis met Crawford in Dunedin while visiting relatives. At the time, she was 15 and pregnant with Travis, the first of her four kids. Some chit-chatting led to an exchange of phone numbers. A friendship blossomed.

Then three summers ago, Travis' father, who had begun to resurface in his son's life, was shot to death during an argument in a Jacksonville apartment complex. Alexis Taylor was only 35.

"It hit (Travis) very hard," Crawford said. "He was building a really good relationship with his dad, and it was just really, really hard for him."

By then, Crawford and Travis had forged a bond reinforced by their passion for sports. To help ease the single-parent stress of Meka's life and help Travis cope with his dad's death, Crawford offered to bring Travis to live with her.

The move occurred last summer. Meka and Crawford never went through a court system; Meka says she has signed a hand-written letter granting de facto guardian rights to Crawford in case of an emergency. Crawford refers to Travis as her son.

"Overall I'd say she's a saint," said Meka, who manages an Orlando department store. "I wouldn't say she's hard on you, but she pretty much will tell you how it is; I guess almost kind of like a tough love. She gives tough love, but she's really a sweetheart. We act more like siblings now."

In a sense, this is Crawford's maternal modus operandi: encounter a child devoid of parents or privilege (or both) and latch on, oblivious to the potential pain of ultimately letting go.

Gloria Barber recalls seeing her daughter melt over Jevonte, a toddler from Crawford's church who was living with his grandmother. Jevonte stayed with Crawford on weekends, then weekdays. This went on for years, until Jevonte's dad was released from prison and reconnected with his mother.

"I was happy and crushed at the same time," Crawford said.

Then there was Tyshawn, whom Crawford had coached on an AAU basketball team in Pinellas County. When Tyshawn's single mom hit a rough stretch, he moved in with Crawford for about a year.

This was roughly 10 years ago. Tyshawn Taylor now is a sophomore guard at No. 1-ranked Kansas and still gets cravings for Crawford's spaghetti and garlic bread.

"That's my godmom, man," he said.

• • •

These days, Crawford, reared in Safety Harbor, keeps defying convention on the court as well. The first woman to coach a major high school boys sport in Hillsborough County, she has guided the Terriers (18-4) to the No. 2 seed in the Class 5A, District 9 tournament they're hosting this week.

If skepticism followed her into this male profession, it likely was erased when Hillsborough won its opener by 21 against Alonso. Or when it finished second in the City of Tampa Championships. Or when it upset Sickles (23-2) by four last month. Taylor said he never doubted she'd flourish.

"She helped my game so much," he said. "She coached me, she got me to the next level. Other people helped mold my game, but when I met Stephanie, my love for the game expanded."

Crawford's mom never doubted her ability to succeed in this job; it's everything else she's piling on her proverbial plate that concerns Gloria.

In addition to coaching, Crawford is a youth program director for Tampa Bay Bucs receiver Michael Clayton's nonprofit foundation, drives across the bridge to sing in the choir at St. John Primitive Baptist Church in Clearwater and even spends predawn hours literally trying to write her life story.

Not to mention that other endeavor that involves rescuing humanity.

"My mom, when I was a kid, used to always tell me, 'Baby, you can't save everybody,' " Crawford said. "She used to tell me that because I would bring people home. My mom was like, 'Baby, who are these people?' And I was like, 'Well, they were hungry or they were this or they were that.'

"It's just me. It's me."

Joey Knight can be reached at jknight@sptimes.com.

Read the series online

This is the final part in our seasonlong Beyond the Net series following first-year Hillsborough High boys basketball coach Stephanie Crawford. Read previous installments at tampabay.com/hometeam.

It's her nature to want to nurture 02/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 9, 2010 12:29am]

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