TARPON SPRINGS — Tarpon Springs coach Jeremy Frioud stood in the middle of the practice field with a whistle around his neck, a little more gray in his beard and a bigger grin than many have seen in a few years.
He was surrounded by more than 50 of his players and several mentors, including his former high school coach, Don Davis, and the man he assisted for 12 years at Largo, Rick Rodriguez.
For moments around his feet, and sometimes in his arms, were his own children, 6-year-old Bjorn and 8-year-old Bas, who had just finished their day next door at the elementary school.
They were all at Tarpon Springs High, a place the 43-year-old Frioud has always called home.
“It’s a great day,” he said.
It was Tuesday, like any other.
“We’ve come a long, long way, brother,” Frioud said.
Indeed, they have. When Frioud took over the program two years ago, the Spongers had 13 players.
Thirteen total. No junior varsity.
“That was all,” Frioud said. “It’s very difficult to believe.”
With a wave of his tattooed hands Frioud openly, emotionally, painted pictures with stories and facts.
“I grew up right over there,” he said, pointing toward a nearby street before pointing straight down. “Then I went to high school right here (graduating in 1998).”
Frioud went on to play at Western Kentucky, then returned to Tampa Bay to assist for 12 years at Largo under Rodriguez before spending eight years as head coach at Northeast. He married former Olympic swimmer Brooke Bennett. He had Bjorn and Bas. Things were good.
Then, in the final few years at Northeast, things turned tragic.
On Sept. 17, 2019, one of his players, Marquis Scott, was fatally shot while riding his bike.
Three days later, under the Friday night lights, the unimaginable happened: After a routine defensive play, Vikings star Jacquez Welch didn’t get up. Frioud found himself over Welch pleading, “Wake up! Wake up!” Welch was lifeless. Strangely limp. His eyes wouldn’t open. He was, in fact, dying in Frioud’s hands.
Welch was taken to Bayfront Health, where his life ended from bleeding on the brain, an underlying condition that had nothing to do with football.
“This broke me,” said Frioud, who resigned from Northeast in 2020 and thought he might never coach again. “It changed me. It made me see many things clearly.”
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He did not coach in 2021.
Then his alma mater — “which was in dire straits,” Frioud said — called.
“People in the community, people in my life, my mentors, told me I should go to Tarpon,” he said. “They said, ‘You can do this. You should do this.’”
Last Friday, his 50 players ran onto their home field, the place packed and electric with 4,000 fans for a game against their archrival, East Lake.
The streets leading into the school, which graduated its first class in 1906 and supported its first football team in 1925, were lined with banners and decorated mailboxes — just like the old days.
“And what a feeling it was,” Tarpon senior quarterback Geramyah Porter said. “To see all those people in the stands and to hear them cheering for us, to see the community totally behind us ... it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It was special. It was truly amazing.”
It was, according to senior receiver Tyrek “Reko” Winthrop, nothing less than unbelievable, considering where the program was less than three years ago.
“There are so many words I could use to describe how I felt before Coach Frioud came to us,” said Winthrop, who on Tuesday wore his Spongers jersey from his days playing for the local little league. “I was sad, angry, frustrated, worried … Now the words are relieved, happy, winning and amazing.”
Porter and Winthrop said they were not thrilled about losing to East Lake (21-16), but they were not despondent, either. Ultimately, they are excited about the rest of the season.
Friday night the Spongers — 3-1 with quality victories over St. Petersburg, Osceola and Palm Harbor University (won with a two-point conversion on the final play) — are heavy favorites against Anclote (1-4).
“I am so proud of this team and this community and everyone around me and everyone who has helped me,” said Frioud, who last year finished 3-7 with more than 25 total players. “This football team, these kids, and my coaches and this community have helped me heal.
“I believe we have all helped each other heal and get stronger and better. I’m so happy to be here. Right here.”