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 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.
"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.
EAGLES AT A GLANCE
DATE OPPONENT LOCATION
Saturday GULF COAST GATORS Hernando High
Feb. 7 at Florida Titans Ft. Lauderdale
Feb. 14 CAPE CORAL FEAR Hernando High
Feb. 21 at St. Pete Sharks St. Petersburg
Feb. 28 TAMPA BAY THUNDERBOLTS Hernando High
March 6 ORLANDO RAGE Hernando High
March 13 at Florida Barracudas Tampa
March 27 MAGIC CITY BULLS Hernando High
April 3 at Duval Lions Middleburg
April 10 at Jacksonville Wolfpack Jacksonville
Note: Games start at 7:05 p.m., except March 13 and April 10, which begin at 1 p.m.
Admission: $7 adults, $4 students with ID. Children under 6 with parents, free.
NAME POS. HIGH SCHOOL/COLLEGE
Larry Barabas OL NA
Marcus Barnes DE Hernando High
Willie Bates WR Hernando High
Frank Berardi K Central Florida
Jeremiah Blake WR Springstead/PSU
Joel Blunt DL Hernando High
Justin Brown LB/DL NA
Theo Burns C Pasco High
Michael Chapman NA NA
Terrance Clark DE/FB Springstead High
Anthony Crescenzo QB Central High/TIU
Abraham Dowdell WR/QB Lakewood High/SU
Shawn Dunker RB Central High
Brian Gantz OL MU
Tim Gaynor RB Central High
Lauren Golden LB Hernando High
Andrea Green DB Hernando High
Paul Herrmann OL Hernando High
Troy Johnson NA NA
John Jones WR/QB William Patterson
Joe Manor RB Hernando
Willie Mason LB East Bay
Jason Moran P South Florida
John Nigro DL Springstead
Marvis Noorwood WR Hernando
Jason Owens CB Hernando
Henry Quinones DE/LB Millville High
Tony Roberts WR Hernando High/Kansas St.
Ruben Rosario RB Central High
Telly RoundTree FB NA
Stephen Smith OL Marist High
Teddy Southall WR Springstead High
Joel Steele WR Hernando High
Ruo-shon Thomas WR Hernando High
Jerome Tillman RB Tennessee Tech
Andrew Timmons DL Hernando High/Kansas St.
Daylon Toole DL/LB NA
Ross Turnquist CB Lakewood High
Brandon Valenca LB Central High
Jason Waldron NA NA
John Walters NA NA
Al Washington DB Dunnellon High
Brian Williams DB Lakewood High
John Willis FS Hernando High
Chris Woodfaulk DB PRCC
Demetrius Woods LB/S South Florida
Mike Zwierko DL/LB Hudson Valley
_ FRANK PASTOR