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STEERING HIS GRANDSON CLEAR OF TROUBLE

The grandfather tossed and turned. Flipped the pillow over. Squirmed between the sheets. Tossed and turned some more.

The coach set out the camera, made sure the batteries were charged, neatly placed the scholarship papers on the kitchen counter. He had followed a careful routine so he wouldn't forget anything, but he fretted: Would his player wear the wrong shirt? Should I call him?

As for the player, his name is Donnel Engram. He is 6-2, 250 pounds of ferocious defensive end. The night before he was going to sign with USF, he slept like a baby.

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Charles Driver, the grandfather, doesn't have to venture far from his Tarpon Springs home to run into a former Spongers great. They're everywhere, 15-20 he can think of off the top of his head.

Some, as it turns out, are even his sons.

Driver was an all-state football player at Tarpon Springs in the 1970s, and seven of his boys - Charles Jr., Noah, Jerome, Willie, Terrence and two Coreys - were Spongers, too. A few went to junior college, only to return a short time later. Others didn't make it that far.

Donnel, the son of his daughter Maureen, was going to be different, even if it meant Driver would push his relationship with his grandson to the limit.

"We had some rough times, I won't lie,'' Driver said. "It was a challenge, for me, my wife, his coaches, my sons. My sons, they all came back, and they told him, 'Don't make the same mistakes we did.' They told me, 'Let's make sure Donnel doesn't do the same thing.' ''

So it began, sometime during Engram's sophomore year. He was doing poorly in class, when he wasn't sleeping in them, especially science, first period.

"I just came to school to play football; I wasn't really focused on my grades,'' Engram said. "I didn't really care.''

He was a stud on the field, and a dud off it.

For a college coach, that's like peanut butter without jelly, an iPod without headphones, a player without eligibility.

Driver started pushing. Engram's uncles started pushing. Tarpon Springs hired George Kotis, and he started pushing.

Engram said the only time he talked with his previous coaches was during practice. But Kotis was more persistent, thanks in part to his wife, Artemis, the school's guidance department chair.

"Double-teamed,'' she said.

His junior season, Engram had 17 sacks and 86 tackles and emerged as a serious Division I-A recruit, with FSU, Ole Miss, Memphis and others showing interest.

The better he got on the field, the harder Driver and Kotis worked to make him get better in the classroom.

"I drop something in his ear every day,'' Kotis said. "If he gets a 72, he hears about it. If he misses a class, I'm talking to his teacher. We're on top of him.''

Driver, a 54-year-old retired detention deputy, calls Kotis and his wife two to three times a day. He calls on weekends. Days off. He even called Christmas Day.

He has made it his life's calling to make sure his grandson gets into college.

"I refuse to lose him to the streets,'' he said. "I refuse.''

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Driver's primary concern has always been keeping his grandson away from bad influences and the wrong people. That's hard to do in Tarpon Springs.

He hasn't always been successful, either, and Engram has had a bumpy path at Tarpon.

But he has gotten better the past two years. And when things begin unraveling ever so slightly, Kotis is quick to remind Engram, and all his players, of the long list of wasted talent the football team has produced.

"If you make it personal, the kids understand,'' he said.

Sometimes, he will show his current players letters from Florida and Miami and Florida State, all addressed to former players now walking around with a pocketful of wasted talents.

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Engram is the first from his family to sign with a Division I-A school. He jokes that it officially ends the argument with uncle "Chubby" Driver, a former Sponger receiver, over who was the best No. 80 in the family.

He also knows he carries the expectations of his family and coach on his broad shoulders.

"Right now, this probably means a lot more to us than it does to him,'' Kotis said.

Driver was overwhelmed with emotion at the signing, after years of worrying himself sick.

"It was a hard fight,'' he said.

And it's not over. Engram remains a borderline qualifier with a 2.4 grade-point average, but he is taking classes to replace some Fs he received early.

He retook the SAT two weeks ago, hoping to add about 60 points to a 750.

Driver and Kotis will continue to keep after Engram. He doesn't always like it.

At times, he hates it.

"But without it,'' he said, "I probably wouldn't have made it.''

John C. Cotey can be reached at johncotey@gmail.com or (813) 909-4612.

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