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  1. Sports

Campaign aims to teach young football players to limit aggression to field

RIVERVIEW — High in the right-hand corner of the bulletin board on Dave Stone's office wall, amid the printouts of school calendars and class schedules, hangs a picture of Ashley Atherley.

Photos like that one are now the only way the Riverview Center Academy principal sees his niece, a Brandon native who police say was stabbed to death by her estranged husband on Thanksgiving weekend last year.

Stone, president of the West Coast Umpires Association, doesn't need another reminder of the consequences of domestic violence. The longtime high school sports official, though, has decided to use his family's tragedy as a teaching tool to help others who do.

Using his platform within high school athletics, Stone, 62, spearheaded a domestic violence awareness campaign being promoted by the West Coast Umpires and West Coast Officials Associations. Since Sept. 17, a message has been read over the public address system before every varsity and junior varsity football game at Hillsborough County public schools in an attempt to strike a chord with young athletes.

"Our message is to men. It's wrong to intimidate, it's wrong to be verbally abusive and it's certainly wrong to hit," Stone said. Atherley's death "just stirred something in me that we need to get a message out."

• • •

On Sept. 8, video of Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice assaulting then-fiancee Janay Palmer in a casino elevator hit the Internet, and NFL scrutiny began. It also made Stone rethink some of his plans.

Since June, the Robinson High alumnus had been working with WCUA and WCOA to plan Ashley's Angels golf tournament, an Oct. 17 event that will raise money for a fund in his niece's name and the Spring of Tampa Bay, a shelter for women trying to escape domestic violence.

When he saw domestic violence again permeating the NFL — an organization many of the young athletes he officiates long to be a part of one day — Stone knew something else had to be done to bring awareness to the issue.

"When the Ray Rice thing happened, my wife said, 'Do you think Hillsborough County will do something with this?' " Stone recalled. "I said, 'Let me find out.' "

With the approval of the WCUA and WCOA, Hillsborough County athletic director Lanness Robinson and Justin Harrison with the Florida High School Athletic Association, Stone and his peers created the message read aloud before football games. His goal, Stone said, was to make young men aware of the dangers of domestic violence, something Stone endured from his father as a child.

Plant City assistant football coach Greg Meyer knows how football can be a positive influence when it comes to avoiding such violence. Meyer, 38, grew up in a South Tampa home where he said domestic violence was prevalent. It was football, he said, that gave him an outlet to express his anger in a healthy way.

But the 14-year coach is also well aware the game isn't always a positive factor.

"Football, it's very much a teetering point," Meyer said. "It can be that positive influence that teaches them the right thing, or it can also be that meathead culture that feeds into the ego that the media presents it to be."

And that's where he comes in.

Meyer said his team has had group discussions about Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston — who was recently suspended from the team for making vulgar remarks about women in public — and how to use his actions as an example of what not to do.

Many of his players, Meyer said, don't have another positive male influence in their life. So while he's teaching the X's and O's, Meyer also knows he and other high school football coaches have a huge opportunity to address the issue of domestic violence with their players.

"We absolutely have to," Meyer said. "It's a missed opportunity if we don't."

• • •

As the message reminding the athletes to "keep their hits on the field" was read aloud at Armwood's Lyle Flagg Field before the Hawks' matchup with Jefferson on Sept. 26, very few of the players were standing at attention. Instead, both sidelines were bustling with excitement as they awaited kickoff of the big district game.

The players' minds might have been on other things before taking the field, but the issue of domestic violence wasn't lost on them, Armwood defensive lineman Byron Cowart said.

"It's bad for Ray Rice or for (Minnesota Vikings running back) Adrian Peterson. But it's kind of good for us because now we know, 'Dang, you could be living the life for years and one mistake could mess up your whole life,' " said Cowart, ranked the No. 1 recruit in the nation by rivals.com. "So we learn from those guys."

The message will be read at games until Oct. 17. Stone hopes public schools will continue to take a stance on an issue that has changed not just his life but the lives of so many others long after the pregame address has stopped.

Atherley's mother and step­father, Lucia and Rick Robles, are now raising Atherley's children, Abrielle, 6, and Adelina, 3. Their father, Edly Atherley, pleaded not guilty to the murder charge and is awaiting trial.

At first, Rick Robles admits, he and his wife were unsure whether they wanted so much attention on their daughter's story. But now, knowing the impact it can have on an issue that he feels needs to be addressed to a younger generation of men, Robles wants to help in any way he can.

Awareness won't bring back Atherley. But Robles hopes it can spare someone else the pain he and his family have endured.

"We want it to be in the forefront," he said. "We want people to see what's become of the situation."

Contact Kelly Parsons at kaparsons@tampabay.com. Follow @_kellyparsons.

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