TAMPA — Every day for the past couple of weeks, Nick Reader has sat in the corner of the bleachers at Berkeley Prep and watchedfootball practice — while hundreds of thoughts run through his head.
He watches his sons, Tre, a senior middle linebacker; and Troy, a junior quarterback; and thinks back to when they were little, playing flag football on the field, sometimes playing catch with coach Dominick Ciao.
He thinks a lot about Ciao.
“I wouldn’t be who I am if it wasn’t for Coach Ciao,” Nick Reader, the former CFO of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and co-founder and current CEO of PDQ restaurants said Tuesday. “He changed my life. Even now, when I have a big decision to make, I will think, ‘Will Coach Ciao be proud of how I’m handling this situation?’”
Reader stood by practice and reminisced about 1992, the year he played guard for Ciao at Jesuit — the last time the Tigers made it to a state title game in football. They lost to Pasco, 28-16.
“It was surreal, because no one expected us to go that far (after finishing the regular season 7-3),” Reader said. “But we got hot at the right time. We believed in ourselves, and we believed because of how Coach Ciao had taught us to play and carry ourselves. It was Ciao. It was magic.”
Now things have come full circle, as Reader’s sons will play for Ciao in the Class 3A title game against Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna Friday in Tallahassee. And as in 1992, Ciao’s team will be the underdog.
Chaminade-Madonna, which has played in the last five Class 3A title games, winning three (2017, ‘18 and ‘19), is 10-1 and ranked No. 5 overall in the state. Berkeley Prep, making its first-ever appearance in a football state championship game, enters 12-0 and No. 15.
Chaminade-Madonna’s lineup features two of the state’s toughest defensive ends, Kenyatta Jackson and Jamaal Johnson, who are committed to Ohio State and UCF, respectively.
“But we are not intimidated, not at all, because we know all about (Chaminade-Madonna),” said Troy Reader, referencing the Bucs’ last-minute, 23-21 loss to the Lions in last year’s state semifinal. “Our offensive line — Chad Staley, James Hankerson, James Kavouklis, Nikhil Jefferson and Speros Grapsas — knows exactly what they’re up against, and they know they can do what it takes.””We believe it’s not about star power or recruiting rankings that makes you great. We believe in heart power, and how you play together that makes you great.”
Not that Berkeley Prep doesn’t have plenty of its own bright lights, including a dynamic rushing attack that has racked up 3,560 yards and 50 touchdowns.
Travis Bates has rushed for 1,803 yards and 21 touchdowns on 158 carries, while Iowa State commit Xavier Townsend has contributed 1,188 yards and 20 touchdowns on 107 attempts. Townsend also has hauled in 18 receptions for 417 yards and seven touchdowns.
On the defensive side, middle linebacker Tre Reader (a team-high 113 tackles) is flanked by 6-foot-6, 230-pound Notre Dame commit Keon Keeley, who has 16-1/2 sacks and shined in a nationally televised game Oct. 22 in New Orleans.
In that game against Isidore Newman and top nationally ranked junior quarterback Arch Manning, Keeley had two sacks and an interception in a 49-24 victory. Townsend, meanwhile, had five touchdowns and 409 all-purpose yards, including 244 rushing, 96 receiving, 46 on kickoff returns and 23 on punt returns.
“But the overall point to that game is that we all showed we were ready to play great on the biggest stage,” said Tre Reader, who has received offers from Fordham, Columbia and Stetson. “And that is because of everything Coach Ciao has taught us over all these years, all the way back to when we were in elementary school here at Berkeley.
“And now everything has led to this moment, the state championship game, to a chance to win the first-ever state title for Coach Ciao and my dad and brother and all my teammates and the school and the whole community.”
Said his father, Nick, “It almost seems too good to be true.”
at Gene Cox Stadium, Tallahassee
Class 3A: Berkeley Prep vs. Hollywood Chaminade-Madonna, 7 p.m. Friday
at DRV PNK Stadium, Fort Lauderdale
Class 7A: Tampa Bay Tech vs. Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, 7 p.m. Dec. 17
Class 6A: Jesuit vs. Pensacola Pine Forest, 7 p.m. Dec. 18