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SHARKS REAP BENEFIT OF GENTLEMAN'S AGREEMENT

Reformed hothead Terry Linton grows up - and steps up.

Three times Terry Linton had tried out for Anclote's football team. And three times the season ended horribly, with suspensions or curse words or knockdown, drag-out shouting matches.

So when Linton asked for one more chance, coach Matt Wicks wanted proof his two-way lineman was serious. He asked him to sign a contract.

That piece of paper from the spring helps explain how Anclote (6-4) rose from being a Pasco County doormat to playing Gainesville Eastside (5-5) in tonight's Class 5A region quarterfinal - the first playoff appearance in Sharks history.

"We couldn't have done this without him," Wicks said.

When Wicks started the program four years ago, Linton was one of the first players on the team. He worked out with his older brother, Phil, at a middle school while Anclote's weight room was under construction. He lasted until the end of the Sharks' 0-10 season before screaming at Wicks and an assistant.

Linton apologized and came back the next fall. He made it through the first half of his sophomore year before being ejected against Zephyrhills for what he thought was a bad call. He fumed and cursed at an assistant on the sideline, so Wicks kicked him off the team. He couldn't risk a 6-foot-3, 320-pound bad attitude infecting the program he was trying to build.

"Since Day 1, when Terry talks, people listen," Wicks said.

Linton lasted only two games as a junior. He got in trouble at school, and Wicks confronted him and his mother about it. That meeting ended with more yelling.

Wicks and Linton wouldn't even look at each other in the halls after that.

"I was being stupid," Linton said.

But when football practice cranked up in the spring, Linton missed the game again. Ever since his brother got him hooked on football, he thought it was his way to a better life. Recruiters from Florida had stopped by to see him, and he thought he was good enough to earn a scholarship and a ticket out of Holiday.

He wanted one more chance. And Wicks, a former lineman himself, reluctantly gave it to him with one condition. Linton and his mother had to sign a contract.

No missed practices. No cursing. No grumbling. No talking back to coaches. Nothing less than full effort and positive leadership.

"It's like being in the middle of a teeter-totter," Wicks said. "Which way am I going to fall?"

Wicks and Linton fell right. Linton didn't just sign the contract. He has lived by it.

"He's the biggest change on the team," running back Willie Barrett said.

Linton hasn't missed a practice, not even during offseason conditioning. He boosted his bench press to 350 pounds and his squat to 600. He's racked up 37 tackles, scooped up a fumble for a touchdown and received letters from FAU, Georgia Southern and Missouri.

Linton has become enough of a team player that he shaved "Sharks" into his head and showed enough leadership over the summer to be voted team captain.

"If I'm slacking, the whole team's going to slack," Linton said. "We can't do that anymore."

As Linton has matured, so have the Sharks. Instead of chatting in the huddle, Linton tells everyone else to listen. That has helped the offense make adjustments and rise from 4-6 to 6-4.

Instead of ignoring coaches or snapping at them, the center has become another assistant on the line, answering questions and explaining assignments to teammates. His guidance has opened the holes necessary for Barrett to emerge as Tampa Bay's No. 3 rusher (1,405 yards).

"He puts everybody into gear," quarterback John Forgione said.

And instead of quitting when times get tough, Linton has fought back - and encouraged teammates to do the same. That spark explains how Anclote soldiered back from an 0-4 start to end the regular season with six straight victories.

"I guess I'm maturing, is what it comes down to," Linton said.

Linton's growth has been one of the most unlikely stories in a season full of them at Anclote. And after the Sharks knocked off Fivay in the Class 5A, District 6 tiebreaker to accomplish their goal of making the playoffs, Linton and his coach had one more surprise to share.

For four years they had fought and trained, argued and bargained. Now, after the final buzzer clinched one more game together, they met near midfield. Wicks was still dripping from the Gatorade shower when he threw his arms around his reformed pupil.

As Linton squeezed back, he tapped his coach on the back, once, twice, three times.

"It was one of those big moments," Linton said, "that I'll never forget."

Matt Baker can be reached at mbaker@tampabay.com or on Twitter @MattHomeTeam.

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