Football? This time of year?
Ernest Givins could not believe his eyes when he walked into a Pinellas County park one winter day in the mid-1990s.
Players Givins had grown up with in St. Petersburg were practicing for what they said was a semipro team.
"Semipro football?" Givins said as he told the story. "I never heard of semipro football."
One of the players approached Givins. "There's something I want to run by you," he said.
"Where is your coach?" Givins interrupted.
"That's what we want to run by you," the player said.
The next day, Givins agreed to coach the St. Petersburg Sharks. Nine years, six championships and two undefeated seasons later, he continues to coach in the Southern States Football League, a 13-team semipro league comprised of squads from Jacksonville to Miami. After stops in St. Petersburg and Lakeland, the former Houston Oilers All-Pro receiver debuts as coach of the Hernando Eagles on Saturday night at Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium in Brooksville.
"St. Pete is my home," Givins said, "but it's time for me to move on, branch out and see if I can do the same things I did in St. Pete in another area."
A high school friendship brought Givins to Hernando County. Givins knew Eagles player/owner Abraham Dowdell from his days at Lakewood High in the early '80s. Dowdell, a four-time SSFL all-star receiver, later played for Givins in St. Petersburg.
After twice turning down Dowdell's offers to coach the Eagles, Givins agreed to come aboard after the Lakeland team folded. Givins, 39, works as a campus monitor at Baypoint Middle School, where he tries to motivate children with discipline problems. He would like to get into high school or college coaching and sees the SSFL as a springboard.
"I think I have a lot more to give to the kids, especially at the high school level, because I've been to the top and know what it takes to get to the top and can relate to a lot of the kids," Givins said. "I'm not old enough I can't run around and show and tell."
He proves it every day in practice. A player/coach in past seasons, Givins satisfies his urge to play by demonstrating techniques to his athletes, whether they are receivers, quarterbacks or defensive backs. He pushes them hard but is equally quick with a joke.
"The guys look up to him because he has been there and done that, so when he talked the talk he had walked that walk," Dowdell said. "These guys are being coached by somebody who's been in their shoes before and been in the NFL."
Givins takes over a team that includes multiple SSFL all-stars such as Dowdell, defensive backs Chris Woodfaulk, Brian Williams and Al Washington and running back Jerome Tillman; players straight out of high school, such as former Central members Tim Gaynor, Shawn Dunker and John Walters; University of South Florida third-string punter Jason Moran; and former Kansas State defensive lineman Andrew Timmons, who aspires to the NFL. Though the team is younger than those he had in St. Petersburg, Givins said the talent level compares favorably.
"I believe in certain areas there's a little more talent there than I had with the St. Pete Sharks," he said. "We've got some good defensive linemen. I think we're more advanced in Hernando. The championship teams I had in St. Pete were very aggressive, very sound but needed a little more speed."
Dowdell hopes Givins' presence will bring a spark to a squad that went 7-15, including a playoff berth, the past two seasons and saw attendance level off at 400-500 last year after drawing about 1,000 to its inaugural game in 2002.
"We haven't touched our league with an experienced head coach, which we're going to do this year," Dowdell said. "We had the team, we just didn't have that final piece of the puzzle _ a head coach these guys can believe in with the know-how."
_ Frank Pastor can be reached at (800) 333-7505, ext. 1430. Send e-mail to pastorsptimes.com.