TAMPA — Jayson Roberts sat at a stoplight when his eyelids grew heavy, then closed.
His foot slipped off the brake. His 2008 Acura SUV rolled forward and BAM!
Roberts awoke to find his front bumper crunched against the back of a big truck. No damage to the truck.
Tampa Bay Tech’s football coach had driven an Uber for hours the night before, then stayed up to care for his crying newborn son. That was followed by his day job routine of teaching biology classes, cleaning football uniforms and coaching practice. Such an accident seemed inevitable.
As his car sat in the driveway with half the bumper hanging off, he explained to wife Rose what happened.
Rose demanded that her husband — who had added the Uber gig to help pay the bills — go straight to bed.
The next morning it was Rose who drove to the school to meet with offensive coordinator Anthony Palmer.
“I told her that I knew he was doing too much and that I would get together with all the coaches and we would get this situation changed,” Palmer said.
That was in the spring of 2019. The problem, Roberts admitted, was himself.
“I simply could not bring myself to ask my coaches to do any of that extra stuff like doing the laundry,” Roberts said. “My assistants are basically coaching for free. I didn’t have it in my heart to ask them to do more.”
Until his foot slipped off the brake.
“And that really scared me,” Roberts said. “I knew I had to change some things.”
It helped that his assistants said they wanted to do more, and that of course they weren’t doing this for the money and doing extra stuff was part of the deal.
“We wanted to help more because Jayson has the biggest heart of anybody we’ve ever known,” Palmer said. “All he does is try and help other people. It’s so unbelievable that you can’t help but root for this guy.”
None more so than this week when after 15 years of coaching at Tech — the last 11 spent as head coach — the Titans (14-0, ranked No. 2 in Class 7A) will play Friday night in the school’s first state football final against perennial national power Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas (13-1, ranked No. 1).
Roberts said he is excited, and well rested.
His assistants are buzzing around, doing their jobs, calling their shots, and Roberts, 40, is overseeing and consulting — just like they all have done throughout the season.
In the process, Tech has never played sharper.
The offense is balanced behind a stout offensive line and a solid quarterback in junior Xavione Washington (2,238 passing yards, 23 passing touchdowns, 495 rushing yards); a couple of big, strong running backs in seniors James Evans (1,009 yards, 15 touchdowns) and Ronald Sims (592 yards, nine touchdowns); and a group of dynamic receivers led by senior Greg Gaines III (63 catches, 830 yards, 10 touchdowns).
Defensively, the Titans have often been devastating throughout their lineup, particularly with their front four — juniors Antonio Camon, Jahiem Borden and Donteye Drew, and senior Keyon Clark — who have a combined 115 tackles for loss and 41 sacks.
Roberts stood by last week and watched his assistants — including first-year Tech defensive coordinator Kevin Hobbs (2001 Titans grad), who went on to play at Auburn and in the NFL for five years — work their drills on time and with precision.
Then he took a moment to think back to when he first came to Tech as a volunteer assistant in 2006, a year after he graduated from West Virginia’s Fairmont State University where he played receiver and earned a degree in biology.
“Oooh man, that first year here was rough,” he said with a grimace. “We went 0-10.”
Coach C.C. Culpepper turned things around in 2007, then stayed until Roberts took over in 2011.
What followed was 11 straight years of winning records, 10 playoff appearances and most importantly, Roberts said, “I believe we’ve helped a lot of kids prepare for better lives.”
“I don’t do this to be the best X’s and O’s guy, or to win a bunch of games for me,” he said. “What I want to give these guys is the ultimate high school football experience. I want them to know that we care about them and that when we get after them, and sometimes yell at them, it’s because we are trying to make them better — better football players and better people.”
Gaines, who is committed to Iowa State, took a moment Monday to put add more perspective.
“We know the history of Coach Roberts’ time here,” Gaines said. “He helped bring Tech from the bottom to a powerhouse. He has put everything he possibly could into this, and we appreciate it. Now we would love to win this state title for him and for all the players, coaches and parents he has helped over the years.”
As the sun went down and the sky turned dark, there was Roberts, waiting with a few players for their rides home.
“He waits every day for the very last kid to be picked up,” Palmer said. “Then the next day he’s the first one here. You see how much he works and you say to yourself that if he’s doing all that for everybody else then I need to step it up as well.
“He’s made all of us closer, just by how much he gives. He’s made all of us better.”
AT DRV PNK STADIUM, FORT LAUDERDALE
7A: Tampa Bay Tech vs. Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas, 7 Friday
6A: Jesuit vs. Pensacola Pine Forest, 7 p.m. Saturday