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Man of the people

Pasco County has changed. Everything has changed, really.

Since Willie Broner took over as the boys basketball coach at Pasco High in 1982, five high schools have opened in the county. Four more are on the way.

The additional schools are a necessary response to the county's population, which has gone from 193,643 in 1980 to 375,318 in 2003. Many newcomers are flocking to Dade City, where residential communities now sit on former ranch and pasture land.

All that remains the same is Broner, a 56-year-old who not only remained true to his community, but also to himself, his family (he has been married to Annie Doris Davis for 36 years) and his players.

"I can't think of anywhere else I want to be," said Broner, who stepped down as the school's basketball coach in 2000 and now is retiring as athletic director. "Dade City is home. It's great to be here this long, and for the people to have confidence in me. I've had a lot of good times. I hope the students have learned something from me."

As he prepares for his final week on the job, Broner is surrounded by his legacy.

There are the record 305 basketball victories, the appearance in the the 1994-95 state final and the invitations to Tallahassee to be congratulated by the Florida House of Representatives, first as an assistant coach with Pasco's state championship football team in 1992, and again in 2000 after he won his 300th in his final year as basketball coach.

Yet milestones seem irrelevant to the purity of his purpose. When he was hired, he wanted to do for Pasco what others had done for him.

"My thing has always been (to) give back," Broner said. "Because somebody had to help you. Somebody helped me. Always try to give back to the community; give back to the people less fortunate than you. Those are the words I live by."

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Not even Forrest Gump was in as many places by accident as Broner.

Born and raised in Dade City, Broner played baseball, basketball and football at Mickens High School, the school for black students in the days of segregation.

He graduated in 1966 and dreamed of attending Grambling State. But his family couldn't afford college. So Broner stayed. He got a job as a custodian at Saint Leo and worked at the college for two years before he was asked to fill in as a physical education teacher and baseball coach at Mickens during a teachers walkout.

Broner, 19 at the time, led the Wildcats to a state championship in 1968.

A few months later, he received his draft notice from the U.S. Army. Before he left for Vietnam, Broner married Annie.

He almost didn't make it back.

Assigned to the 19th Combat Engineer Battalion, Broner helped build a roadway through the mountains of Duc Pho in the southern region of the Republic of Vietnam.

It was a dangerous task during one of the fiercest battles at the time in Vietnam. The summer of '68 was the height of the Viet Cong Tet offensive.

In those mountains, Broner, an infantryman assigned to protect the engineers, was caught in a maelstrom that grew until it boiled over in August.

Broner was driving his platoon sergeant's truck when his unit was ambushed. A rocket-propelled grenade destroyed the vehicle, spawning a tornado of shrapnel.

The grenade hit with such a powerful force, it seemed like a thousand knives were being flung in all directions. Broner, whose boots were blown off, laid dazed and bleeding on the road.

Broner's unit rallied on one side of the road. Broner ran for cover. He said 20 soldiers were injured in that ambush, but none killed.

"I really thought that might have been the end," Broner said. "I'm blessed to still be here. I guess the good Lord had some more work for me to do."

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The road to recovery was difficult.

Broner was choppered out of harm's way after the ambush. He spent 15 months in military hospitals, nine months at Jacksonville Naval Hospital and another six at Walter Reed Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

After he was discharged, he returned home to Dade City.

But the war left its mark.

Pieces of shrapnel pocked his head, arms and legs. In fact, the scars are one of the first things one notices about him. When he extends his right arm for a handshake, one can see how the metal carved through his arm up to his hand. His head, back and legs bear similar wounds.

After the war, Broner had the means to pay for college. The G.I. Bill put him through Saint Leo. Though he was still healing, he played baseball for the Monarchs. He graduated in 1974 with a degree in physical education.

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Broner's first job was teaching at Lacoochee Elementary School and coaching junior varsity football and basketball at Pasco High. He stayed for six years ('75-80) before moving on to coach boys basketball at South Sumter High in 1981.

Though he played basketball , Broner did not know much about coaching it. But he was a dedicated learner and unabashed in his hero worship of other coaches, such as former Saint Leo coach Norm Kaye and former Springstead High coach Greg O'Connell.

Broner also read coaching books. Experience, though, proved to be the best teacher.

In 1982, he was hired as the varsity coach at Pasco. Broner went 305-200, winning conference and district titles.

Broner built a powerhouse by becoming a master motivator. He was always theatrical and preachy, something he learned from years of attending church.

With legendary speeches splashed with emotion, Broner convinced his players to accomplish great things. Soon, he learned those methods could extend beyond the basketball court and connect a community.

Broner became the first African-American to head a Dade City department when he was named city recreation director in 1987. He also helped break the color barrier by becoming a coach in the Dade City Little League, and served a two-year term on the multiracial committee with the Dade City Chamber of Commerce.

"We go way back," Pasco baseball coach Ricky Giles said last year. "I've been knowing Willie many years, and I'll tell you one thing: Willie is probably one of the straightest guys I've ever known. He'll do anything for anybody. He's fair, to everybody. It doesn't make a difference who you are."

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In a career that has seen its ups and downs, Broner experienced both in the same season.

On Jan. 4, 1995, one of Broner's players, 17-year-old Randy Bates, collapsed and died of complications from a heart defect during a game.

The death stunned Broner and the Pirates. The team took eight days off and canceled two games. The funeral was held in the school's gymnasium, where nearly 600 people came to say goodbye. The players carried their teammate from the gymnasium after the funeral.

"That was one of the worst things that's happened to me," Broner said. "My kids, my students, I treat them like family. So for me to have to call someone's family and tell them their son was not coming home was just so difficult. But God works in his own way, and the team was able to have the inspiration to move on."

The Pirates' memory of Bates helped propel them to one of the finest seasons in Broner's career, a 24-3 record and berth in the Class 4A state final.

Eight years later, tragedy struck again.

In 2003, Broner's former classmate at Mickens and best friend, sheriff's Lt. Charles "Bo" Harrison, was shot to death while sitting in his patrol car in a parking lot off of U.S. 301. A 20-year-old Lacoochee man, Alfredie Steele Jr., has been charged in the shooting.

Grieving over Harrison's death, Broner wanted the community to emerge from sorrow's shadow by coming together.

"I challenge each of you," Broner said at Harrison's funeral, "to make sense of this timeless and senseless death by living your life in peace, harmony, love, with dignity, and with caring. This is the life Bo lived daily."

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After 35 years as a coach and teacher, including 18 at Pasco, Broner is ready for a change. He was in the school system's drop program, which had him scheduled to retire this year. He announced he would be stepping down last June, but decided to spend the fall semester helping his replacement, assistant football coach Jim Ward.

"I'm glad he decided to stick around this fall," Ward said. "Those are some pretty big shoes to fill. You don't just walk in and replace an icon."

Pasco has a powerful gravitational pull on those who attend the school. For instance, assistant football coaches Norm Graham and Ward came back to their alma mater. Broner's son, Willie "Poncho" Broner III, came back to succeed his father as boys basketball coach.

So when someone from the fold decides to leave, it's big news.

When that someone is Broner, a fixture in Dade City athletics for nearly half a century, it's worth a standing ovation.

That's what Broner will get Jan. 7, his last day at school. There will be a ceremony at the Tampa Bay Golf and Country Club.

After that, Broner will spend time doting on his grandchildren and serving as a Deacon at St. Johns Baptist Church.

But he won't be far away.

"I don't plan on leaving Dade City," Broner said. "This is home. I'll still be around attending some of the games and helping whenever I can."

Ward will need that help. After all, he has the unenviable task of replacing a legend.

"You don't just replace Willie Broner," Ward said. "I mean, he is Pasco High."

WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT BRONER

Former Pasco football coach Ricky Thomas:

"He always told me, "Listen. Don't lose your temper. Try to be respectful of everybody.' I think the most important thing he said was to try to treat everybody the way you'd want to be treated."

Pasco football assistant and former Hudson football coach Terry Voyles:

"He's a great man. I love that man. There ain't much I wouldn't do for Willie Broner and there ain't nothing he wouldn't do for you. He's got a big heart. He's a Christian."

Craig Milburn, in 23rd year as Zephyrhills athletic director:

"I really appreciated his great friendship. That's probably meant as much to me as anything. We worked well together in keeping a strong rivalry and a respectful one. We could always pick up the phone and talk."

Retired Land O'Lakes athletic director Charlie McBride:

"We had a great relationship. That's the thing I miss most about retirement, the camaraderie with those (ADs and coaches). There's an honesty about Willie that very few people you run across in life have."

Land O'Lakes basketball coach Dave Puhalski

"As we get older it seems to be harder and harder to relate to the kids. But that's not the case with Willie. To him, it doesn't matter if you're 8 or 80."

Wesley Chapel football coach John Castelamare:

"He's been good for the county. He's been one of the greatest coaches around. He's always smiling; always greeting everybody."

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