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For historic football hire Lakatriona Brunson, coaching's gender neutral

 
(from left to right) Coach Lakatriona Brunson talks to Donte Morris (left) and Taurrian Stafford (right) during football practice at Miami Jackson High School in Miami, Florida on May 6, 2016. Lakatriona Brunson is the first head female high school football coach in the state of Florida.
(from left to right) Coach Lakatriona Brunson talks to Donte Morris (left) and Taurrian Stafford (right) during football practice at Miami Jackson High School in Miami, Florida on May 6, 2016. Lakatriona Brunson is the first head female high school football coach in the state of Florida.
Published May 20, 2016

MIAMI — Sitting squarely on a stool in the back of Miami Jackson High's oversized gymnasium, Lakatriona Brunson quietly scanned the room during her PE class on a Friday afternoon, though thick, rounded aviator sunglasses made it impossible to tell exactly where she was looking.

Brunson's mere presence — from her pair of long braids down to her camo shorts — commanded authority; when she spoke, the students listened, until a sharp whistle blast at 2:20 p.m. signaled the end of the school day.

It wasn't so long ago that instead of Miami teenagers, Brunson spent her days bossing around illegally-parked South Florida drivers on the TruTV reality show South Beach Tow, for which Brunson, nicknamed Bernice, played a rough-around-the-edges tow truck driver known for a big attitude and little patience with parking offenders.

At Miami Jackson, bits of her old persona seep through. But her purpose, she said, is something totally new — both to Brunson and the state of Florida.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Coach Lakatriona Brunson talks to Donte Morris (left) and Taurrian Stafford (right) during football practice.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Coach Lakatriona Brunson talks to Donte Morris (left) and Taurrian Stafford (right) during football practice.

On Feb. 8, Brunson, 39, was named Miami Jackson's head football coach, making her the first woman in Florida to ever take the reins of a high school team, and one of just a handful of women in the country to coach the game at that level. On the same day her hiring was announced, Brunson introduced Luther Campbell, better known as "Uncle Luke" from the 1980s rap group 2 Live Crew, as her defensive coordinator.

The unconventional pairing immediately drew skepticism. Brunson insists, though, that their motivation is pure.

"Both of us have had our times of doing things that we worked for, did for a living. Right now, we're just here for the kids," Brunson said. "We left that where it was."

The Miami native doesn't dwell on the fact that by side stepping gender norms, she's already made Florida history. She ignores mentions of her reality TV past. Now her focus is football, and that's the thing, above all else, that made the Miami Jackson players buy into their new coach.

"She helps us on the field, off the field, school wise, life wise. Everything. She's like a mother figure," defensive end Eric Mateo said. "There's not really a difference because we still see her as a head coach, we just show more respect to her because she's a lady."

Brunson knows keeping that respect, and the trust of a community, won't be easy.

"It's going to be tough," she said, "because nobody wants to lose to a girl."

• • •

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Coach Lakatriona Brunson's name tag at Miami Jackson High School

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Coach Lakatriona Brunson's name tag at Miami Jackson High School

It was early on a Saturday morning in May, nearly four months before the first regular-season high school football game, but already the Generals were putting in work on the field.

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In a scrimmage against Deerfield Beach at Florida International University, the Bucks were moving the ball handily. Brunson, who stood stone-faced on the sideline while the game was in progress, gave the Jackson defense a piece of her mind as it walked off the field.

"You dancing with them. Why you dancing?" Brunson yelled at Mateo. "Y'all get fatigued, then you start dancing and s---."

Brunson doesn't hold back, and she doesn't censor herself. That, she said, is part of what helps her connect to kids with a shared background.

Brunson is a product of inner city Miami public schools, including Miami Northwestern High, where she excelled as a track and field athlete. She grew up loving football and is remembered by Campbell, a longtime family friend, as a tough girl who always held her own amongst the boys.

"She's a legend," Campbell said at their opening news conference. "She won't tell you that, but she's always been the girl in the neighborhood that played football, from semi pro to just street football in the streets with every other boy."

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Lakatriona Brunson talks to football player Trevon Gordon about his permission slip in the locker room

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Lakatriona Brunson talks to football player Trevon Gordon about his permission slip in the locker room

Those streets Brunson was raised around are similar to the rough neighborhoods that are now home to many of her Miami Jackson players. Their shared experiences — and knowing what they respond to — is what Brunson hopes will help her guide them to something better.

"I can relate to these kids because I been raised in the same places they've been raised. I've been through what they go through," she said. "When you talk to kids, it's one thing you've got to understand: you've got to be 100 with them. They see straight through you. You can't sugar coat it."

After graduating from Miami Northwestern, Brunson went on to play basketball at Tennessee State. She returned to Miami after college with a bachelor's degree in health and physical education, and she immediately started working a variety of different jobs. Making money, she said, became her No. 1 priority.

But when Brunson needed a break from the pressures of the real world, she often turned to the football. Friends tipped her off to the Independent Women's Football League, so she decided to give it a try. Before long, she was hooked, turning the hobby into a decade-long career with the Miami Fury.

"I got excited. I went out there, opened a couple people's helmets up, and it took so much stress off. I mean, I had fun," said Brunson, who played defensive tackle. "Then you become loving it. One year go by, four years go by, five years go by. I made the all-star team like three times."

• • •

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Lakatriona Brunson blows her whistle watching students while teaching physical education.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Lakatriona Brunson blows her whistle watching students while teaching physical education.

In January, former University of Miami and NFL safety Earl Little stepped down as head football coach after two seasons with the Generals. More than 30 people applied for the opening, athletic director Dylan Mobley said, and as expected in a football-rich area like Miami, there were a lot of good candidates.

But from the very beginning, Mobley said, Brunson's application stood out.

Brunson had already coached flag football and basketball at the school, and he knew she was popular among the students. Mobley said he also did a little research, reading newspaper articles about other female football coaches around the country.

"After we did all the interviews and I presented it to the powers that be … they looked at me like I was nuts. So what I did was, I started feeding them the different articles from the young lady in Virginia, the young lady in Oklahoma," Mobley recalled. "I just said, 'Think about it.' "

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Coach Lakatriona Brunson walks off the field with her team after a scrimmage at Florida International University in Miami.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Coach Lakatriona Brunson walks off the field with her team after a scrimmage at Florida International University in Miami.

Already on the uncommon career path Brunson's just starting is Arete Preparatory Academy's Amy Arnold.

Like Brunson, Arnold, 43, played professional football for the Arizona Caliente and the Phoenix Prowlers. When her playing career was over, she couldn't seem to let the sport go. She was hired as the middle school football coach at Arete Prep in Gilbert, Ariz.

Arnold has coached at Arete Prep for eight years now, the last six at the high school level. She said people are now used to a woman in charge, and they've embraced her and her nontraditional role. But early on, the surrounding football community wasn't quite ready for such a move.

"I had a crowd of dads over on the sidelines during our first practices," Arnold said. "When we got into high school, the (opposing) head coach would come out to the middle of the field, and he'd be looking over my shoulder, waiting for the real head coach to show up."

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Coach Lakatriona Brunson watches a play during football practice at Miami Jackson High School.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Coach Lakatriona Brunson watches a play during football practice at Miami Jackson High School.

Brunson said it hadn't even crossed her mind that there'd never been a female head football coach in Florida. It was simply a job she felt qualified for, so she went after it.

She understood the significance shortly after she was hired, when she walked down the halls at Miami Jackson, and female students began to clap.

"It does feel good," Brunson said. "It makes them feel like they can do anything."

• • •

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Coach Lakatriona Brunson listens to a huddle during a scrimmage at Florida International University.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Coach Lakatriona Brunson listens to a huddle during a scrimmage at Florida International University.

Amid the plethora of Miami area high schools that boast countless football state championships, Miami Jackson's trophy case remains empty in that regard. The Generals have had good seasons in the past — most recently in 2012, when they finished 9-5 overall, advancing to the Class 5A state semifinals — but haven't been able to make it all the way.

Miami Jackson's showing against Deerfield Beach on that Saturday afternoon proved it still has a lot of work to do in order to accomplish that goal. For Brunson, part of that includes recruiting her own hallways.

"I think we're going to be pretty good, I just need to find me some meat. I think all the fat boys on diets in Miami, man," she said, sitting in her small office in the corner of the school's women's locker room. "When I look around at Jackson, I'm like, 'We've got a lot of different nationalities. Where is the beef?' "

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Coach Lakatriona Brunson warms up with her team before a scrimmage at Florida International University.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Coach Lakatriona Brunson warms up with her team before a scrimmage at Florida International University.

But while Brunson and Campbell agree that they'd love to help Miami Jackson rejoin the ranks of relevancy in South Florida football, Brunson doesn't stray too far from her central purpose.

After all, she's long had — and continues to garner — plenty of attention, but her mission, before even the victories, is to let her players know exactly where that will get them without an education.

"You've got a lot of people that are good, great, got championship rings, sitting on the corner," she said. "Did they go to school? No. Because they had nobody to push them. So guess what, I won, but I really lost. I want them winning at life."

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Lakatriona Brunson talks to football players about what numbers they want on their jersey for the season during football practice at Miami Jackson High School.

EVE EDELHEIT | Times

Lakatriona Brunson talks to football players about what numbers they want on their jersey for the season during football practice at Miami Jackson High School.

Mobley admits that his "bold decision" has come with its fair share of bumps. Whispers of skepticism still abound, and Mobley said the Generals lost several players to transfers after the hire was made.

Still, he's confident they made the right choice.

"We have a woman running for president. Why not? We're going to have some naysayers, but we're going to have those that stay right with us," he said. "We look at this like a diamond in the rough. A jewel."

And behind the darkened lenses of those trademark frames, Brunson can't wait to show the world just how she shines.

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