TAMPA — Mark Gauthier II was working his way up the junior varsity football ladder at Plant as a freshman and a sophomore, which is no easy task.
Gauthier had, in fact, worked hours a day for years until the spring of 2014. As a sophomore, a starting varsity position appeared likely for him.
And then … .
"I wanted to pursue something else," Gauthier said. "I thought about starting an outdoorsmen club."
Many friends thought he had lost his marbles. How can you leave a possible starring role on one of the best football teams in the state to go hunt and fish?
Gauthier's mother, Laura, wasn't so sure either. So she gave her son an ultimatum: If you quit the football team then you're going to get heavily involved in another activity, such as making this outdoorsmen club awesome.
"He wasn't just going to sit around and then go fishing and hunting whenever he wanted," his mother said. "He was going to get to work."
Was he ever.
Gauthier's to-do list stretched and twisted a long, long way:
• From the office of Plant principal Rob Nelson (who had to approve the club after reviewing a detailed proposal);
• To forming a 501(c)(3) nonprofit for insurance and banking purposes;
• to gaining sponsorships (through meetings with local businesses);
• to recruiting members (sending out fliers, messages through social media and making presentations in every classroom of the school);
• to forming a board (including 14 students responsible for everything from treasurer to historian); and
• to performing community service hours (which included adopting a park through the Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful program).
Within a few months, Gauthier not only was running an outdoorsmen club, but he was running one of the biggest clubs at Plant with more than 200 members.
He was planning zip-lining trips, archery seminars, kayak and fishing tournaments, and campouts among other things — at least one organized activity a month.
"I can't begin to tell you how much I learned by creating this club," Gauthier said. "I've gained a whole new appreciation for what it takes to do something like this. But I've loved it. I'm so happy I did it."
Sitting under the massive oaks of the Fred Ball Park — the park just off Bayshore Boulevard that the Plant Panther Outdoorsmen Alliance adopted and has helped clean up for more than a year — Gauthier grinned at his accomplishment. The club members have gathered more than 100 bags of debris and planted more than 75 plants at the park.
But then he admitted to feeling hints of sadness.
That's because last month Gauthier said goodbye to Plant and his outdoorsmen club and headed to Florida State University to pursue a degree in biology. He says he will continue to be an official ambassador for the the Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful program, which means he can review and sign off on service hours for participating students.
"My hope is that I can come back in 20 years and the club will be going strong and I can say, 'I started this club,' " Gauthier said. "When I started it I wanted to get all kinds of kids involved in the club. I wanted to introduce students to the outdoors, which I love so much. And as an outdoorsmen club, I wanted to give something back, and I think we've done that by adopting (Fred Ball Park). I think we've accomplished a lot."
Yes, quitting football was tough, but in the end Gauthier said he wouldn't change a thing.
"I'm happy with the way everything worked out," Gauthier said. "It was a lot of work, but it was totally worth it."
Contact Scott Purks at email@example.com.