The fire was burning inside Ricky Thomas. He had been cool and calm inside the Cactus Grille restaurant, answering questions and discussing tonight's game on his Coaches Show. But in the parking lot, it was no longer Ricky Thomas the coach.
It was Ricky Thomas the player.
The former Pasco star turned Pirates coach is a passionate man. Loves his football. Always smiling. On the eve of what might be another classic battle with Hernando, he showed a side only his players see after a bad game.
He spoke of inspiring his troops, although he hopes his team doesn't need it. "If you can't get up for this game," he said, shaking his head, "then you shouldn't be playing football. I'd give my right arm to be able and suit up and play for the district championship."
This is a special game for Thomas. For the playoffs, a win is of paramount importance. But you get the sense the playoffs are merely a sidelight for Thomas. He wants to beat Hernando. Just as badly as he wanted to as a player.
He remembered games from the past, spewing out names of former stars, including himself, back when they called him Sweet Back. He remembered playing in 1973, scoring the only touchdown with an injured groin. "I shouldn't have played," he said.
It was Hernando. He had to play. Hurt or not.
It's all about heart this time of year. Those who have it win. Those who don't have to pay their way into a playoff game.
Thomas isn't sure his kids have that heart, and he knows from watching Hernando beat Zephyrhills that the Leopards do. So in that parking lot, he ranted and worried. He has seen his team lay down before. He doesn't want to see it tonight.
"Maybe we'll get it right for one last stand," Thomas said, sounding as if he was tuning up his pregame speech. "I tell them all the time about heart. When I talk to the football team, it's not about something I read in a book. I've been there. I can back it up. It's about guts and pride. I can talk it and I can walk it. I'm trying like heck to get that to rub off on them."
Will it? Hard to say. Thomas' crew is a young but talented one, maybe so talented that sometimes the players rely on natural ability rather than the heart Thomas speaks so fervently about. Last week, they couldn't tackle Springstead, which had 374 yards rushing and 26 first downs.
"It burns my gut; it eats at me when I see a team lying down," he said.
There was no lying down at practice this week. Thomas had his defense in pads and hitting on Monday after the Springstead embarrassment. It was his first loss at home as head coach. He doesn't want a second, especially to hated Hernando.
"You are not coming in my house," Thomas said, his voice rising. "And if you do, we will fight to the finish. That's how I want the guys to think. Sometimes, you have to stand up and fight. And it's going to be a fight."
When Thomas was leaving Tom Fisher Stadium in Brooksville after watching the Leopards beat up Zephyrhills, a fan approached him. He remembered Sweet Back, and had a warning: "When we come down to Dade City, we're going to give you more of the same."
Thomas burned inside. Now he hopes to have the last laugh.
"In 1973, Haines City came into our place ranked No. 2 or 3 in the state or something," he said. "They were just like Hernando, talking all the time and saying they were going to do this and that. It was 0-0 at halftime, and we beat them 38-0. It was the greatest game in Pasco homecoming history. Ask anyone."
The fire had spread. Thomas was smiling and slapping arms.
Not Thomas the coach.
Thomas the player.