TAMPA — Plant High football coach Robert Weiner has been involved with the Muscular Dystrophy Association's annual summer camp for nearly 40 years.
That relationship appeared to be temporarily on hold this summer when the directors called about a potential problem. The four state-wide camps were being combined into one at a facility in Umatilla, pushing the date to the second week of August.
Not only did the MDA camp coincide with the start of fall practice, it was taking place during the first week players are allowed to participate in pads. This was not the sort of interruption a program that consistently competes for state titles needed.
Still, the directors were desperate. The Panthers usually attend the camp as a team with the players serving as volunteer counselors who provide around-the-clock care and attention for the children. With about 500 kids attending this year, volunteers were at a premium.
Weiner made the unprecedented move of canceling practice from Aug. 5-10 so his team could attend. He did so without hesitation.
"My first thought was this is certainly not the timing that we wanted," Weiner said. "I don't know if there is a worse week you could pick, other than a game, out of an entire year that a coach would want to miss out on. The first week you're installing everything, but your not in pads like you are the second week.
"But I don't know if there was a way that I could prepare my team better."
This was not about X's and O's or fundamentals and execution. Instead, Weiner knew his team could become closer from being at MDA camp, that the lessons learned there would extend beyond the field.
The camp counselors push children in wheelchairs. They help out with activities. They attend dances. Most of all, they become friends with the campers.
Weiner knows. He first started attending MDA camp when he was a freshman at Jesuit High. Many of his former players have continued to volunteer as adults.
There were a few things Weiner wanted his current players to take away from the experience, the most important was to put others ahead of themselves.
"It might be when they become a father and putting their child or their wife first, or it might be if they are in a business and are put in a leadership position that becomes more of a stewardship," Weiner said. "And it might be on the football field. All of us coaches try to teach our kids but sometimes struggle with examples of putting someone else on the team first. Well, I have very powerful examples of how putting someone first matters whenever we go to MDA camp."
Weiner also wanted his players to stop taking little things in their lives for granted. Some of the MDA campers are full-care children who cannot roll over in bed whenever they are uncomfortable.
About five years ago, Weiner said he was sleeping in the bunk beds at camp and could sense the child below him needed help. The camper wanted his right elbow moved to his left ear.
"We want to complain about this, that and the other thing," Weiner said. "You find out soon after being at MDA camp that we don't have much to complain about."
When Syracuse quarterback Rex Culpepper conducted his first interview after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, the former Plant standout stressed that he did not want any pity.
"I've got it a whole lot better than some of these other kids do," Culpepper said in reference to the time he spent as an MDA camp counselor.
Thirty-one Plant players went to Umatilla for the camp. During the week the Panthers were away from practice, they would get up at sunrise and rehearse plays. The rest of the time they were consumed with caring for others.
Plant receiver Leonard Parker, a USF commit, helped one of the kids battle an imaginary lake monster.
"It felt really good to help others less fortunate," Parker said.
Quarterback Tucker Gleason and offensive lineman Everett Smalley spent time in the pool, flinging children above the water.
"Their bodies are different, but mentally they're all there," Smalley said. "It was big for them because they were being treated as if they were any other person. We all became friends."
There were times when Weiner wondered if people would second-guess his decision to miss such a valuable week of practice. Once the Panthers returned from MDA camp, they had to get ready for a preseason game on the road against defending Class 7A state champion Venice.
Plant had some miscues, committing two first-half turnovers that contributed to scores. A few players hobbled off with cramps.
But the Panthers also showed resolve. They fought through fatigue, rallying from a nine-point deficit to tie the Indians at end of regulation.
"The things that we needed to win, about toughness and not feeling sorry for ourselves when we were burning on empty, I think we learned at MDA camp," Weiner said. "I don't know if we had a lot of plays out there where we didn't know what we were doing that would have been the detriment to being away for a week. We didn't see any backlash effect from that.
"I think what we saw was a team that was really unified and really together and really knew how to fight for the moment. I would have to look back on it and say I'm super happy that we did that."
Contact Bob Putnam at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @BobbyHomeTeam.