If Pensacola Washington or North Fort Myers high school leaders were just looking for football coaches, they would have made a simple selection from a pile of résumés.
Each school, however, was in need of far more. The respective administrations were looking for not only someone who could draw up the Xs and Os, but also a person who could lead, mentor, guide and develop teens into young men; positive, contributing members of society.
Football, for most of them, is nothing more than an extra-curricular activity. It is not life.
So these schools searched for the men they thought could lead that type of forward-thinking movement. These players needed guidance. Any person can scream and berate them. The right person, however, would have better methods.
Both schools found their answers, in Charlie Ward and Earnest Graham, former stars who they believe will be the ones to make a difference.
It wasn’t easy for either school to bring them in. It took some coercing.
“I never once thought about it,” said Graham, the former Florida Gator and Tampa Bay Bucs running back who begins his first season as a football coach at North Fort Myers on Monday when high school football practice opens across the state.
He was approached this past winter about the job. The school needed Graham; and Pensacola Washington needed Ward.
Athletes at the two schools used to carry a swagger. They walked with their chests out when they wore their jerseys. Back then, guys like Deion Sanders and Derrick Brooks roamed these hallways.
Both are Pro Football Hall of Famers. Brooks was inducted Saturday night.
During the past seven years, however, the two schools have won just 32 games between them. For perspective, that’s 32 out of 70. In 2012, Washington was 1-9 and North Fort Myers was 0-10. These are not the kind of numbers upon which tradition is built.
It didn’t used to be that way. In a three-year span from 2004-06, both schools piled up 45 wins in 80 games. Washington has one state championship in its trophy case.
Both schools want the tradition back. Change is in the air.
“I didn’t think I would enjoy coaching, but I truly have,” Graham said, who cut his teeth on this initial foray into coaching during the spring practice session. “Every day you face something that you have experienced and you get a chance to teach … and learn again for yourself.”
Graham and Ward have taken different paths through life, but they each preach the same values and goals. Building football teams is one thing. Building young men is their platform.
Back to Florida
Ward, a former Florida State two-sport star and Heisman Trophy winner, was not only FSU’s starting quarterback in the early 90s, but also the point guard on a Seminoles basketball team that made the NCAA Sweet 16 in 1992. He led the football team to the national championship in 1993.
He spent 12 seasons in the NBA, 10 with the Knicks and the final two with the Spurs and Rockets. After two years as an NBA assistant coach in Houston, Ward decided to join the high school ranks and took a coaching position at Houston’s Westbury Christian School in 2007 to be able to spend more time with his family. The NBA grind had become too much.
“Family time. ... I wanted to spend more time at home with more of a regular schedule and high school was the next best thing,” said Ward, who has three children with wife, Tonja. Ward’s oldest child will start high school this year.