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Area coaches and players react to protests and police matters

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Mike Williams

Mike Williams was in a car with three other Plant High teammates. They were celebrating their third straight win over Jesuit in boys basketball.

Moments later, the four were surrounded by nearly 20 police cruisers. Officers had guns pointed in their direction. Williams, along with two other African-American teammates, were each handcuffed and escorted to the back seat of a police car. Their other teammate, who is white, stood outside explaining the situation to the police.

“Someone called and said there were guns in the car, which was completely untrue” said Williams, who went to star at Southern California in football and became a first round pick of the Detroit Lions. “We still joke with our white teammate that he had the complexion for protection. He was able to explain away the situation and we were released. We were never more happy than to be able to drive off and go home.”

That situation 20 years ago shaped Williams’ philosophy on coaching — and life. The first-year Wharton coach constantly preaches to his 8-year-old son and his players about surviving the moment, particularly when it comes to dealing with the police. 

“I’m trying to keep them here in one piece,” Williams said. “If you’re black and you’re confronted by a police officer, that’s not the time to voice your opinion about being disrespected. Get through it and then we’ll work on getting your just due after that.”

As tensions continued to rise and riots kept escalating near University Mall in Tampa, not far from where many of the Wildcats live, Williams spent hours on the phone this past weekend instructing his players to stay out of harm’s way. For them, rule No. 1 was always in effect: protect the team. 

“I knew for many of them it was an emotional situation,” Williams said. “I just wanted to make sure they were not jeopardizing their future.”

Williams was raised by his grandmother, who was a nanny for several white families in Tampa. The two-sport star attended Plant, a predominantly white school. 

“I have a somewhat unique experience growing up with all walks of people,” Williams said. “At Plant, I would have some white students who would say things to me, but then I would have other white students who would be the first to condemn them. 

“Right now, we’re at a fever pitch with the climate of our country. But this is not a black vs. white thing. It’s a black vs. racist thing. If you’re white, and you’re not a racist, then there really is no problem.”

Williams’ coaching career is just as diverse as his upbringing. He started off guiding middle schoolers in Brentwood, a swanky Los Angeles suburb, then took on jobs in Compton and Watts. 

Last year, Williams returned to Tampa after reading about the death of Middleton incoming freshman Hezekiah B. Walters, who collapsed after a summer conditioning workout in June of 2019. Williams took over the Tigers program before moving on to Wharton this offseason.

Those stops on different coasts helped Williams understand just how important football is in bridging the gap between black communities and police force. 

For years, Williams has served on the board of a little league in Watts that is now sponsored by the Los Angeles Rams. Police officers serve as coaches and role models for players, some of whom start at 6 years old. Williams wants to eventually start his own mentoring program in the area. 

It is not just Williams. Other coaches are looking for ways to create a positive change. John I. Leonard’s Keith Chattin, who previously coached at Lennard, is putting together a Zoom meeting with 50 high school coaches from across the country in hopes of creating more dialogue and better understanding of societal issues. 

Players are doing their part, too. Former Sickles and Clemson standout Ray-Ray McCloud, now with the Buffalo Bills, organized a cleanup crew for the area near University Mall that included his younger brother Jordan (Plant/USF), as well as Auden Tate (Wharton/FSU/Bengals) and Isaiah Rodgers (Blake/UMass/Colts). 

Other players wanted their frustrations to be heard. Former Armwood running back Larry Anderson took part in the protest in downtown Tampa this past weekend. He also attended a protest in 2012 for Trayvon Martin. 

A few years ago, Anderson and his brother were pulled over and surrounded by cops on their way to buy a car. They were never arrested. Anderson said he encountered more racism with students than with authorities. 

Former Zephyrhills Christian standout Javion Hanner planned to attend the protest in Tampa but his mother said it would be too dangerous.

Last month, Hanner and his cousin were leaving a Clearwater Beach parking garage. As they were loading the car, two police officers drew their guns and told them to sit down. The two provided identification and were eventually released. 

“(The officer) said we didn’t have any warrants so he was gonna let us go,” said Hanner, who played at Urbana this past season before the school closed down. “What made it bad for us is that there were other people getting in their cars, too. The officers walked past them and came to us. It was just embarrassing sitting with the cops by your car while people walked by and you didn’t do anything but try and leave.”

Javion Hanner
Javion Hanner

Still, despite that incident, Hanner said there is hope for the future. 

“I think if we all just admit there is a problem and stand against it together then all the riots wouldn’t happen,” Hanner said. “People feel unheard. We tried to be peaceful. We’ve everything. What will it take?

“Honestly, though, I’m proud because it’s more people uniting than ever before, no matter what color. It’s a blessing to see.”

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College football: Athlete update

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The top performances from former area stars in week five of the college football season. 

DB Dane Belton, Jr., Iowa: The former Jesuit standout had one of the Hawkeyes’ six interceptions in a win over Maryland.

QB Devin Black, Sr., Bethune Cookman: The former Armwood standout accounted for 258 yards (131 rushing, 127 passing) and two touchdowns (one passing, one rushing) in a loss to South Carolina State.  

DL Zachary Carter, Sr., Florida: The former Hillsborough standout recorded three tackles and a sack in a loss to Kentucky.  

QB Austin Day, Sr., Marist: The former Clearwater standout threw for 149 yards and two touchdowns in a win over Valparaiso. 

RB Jerome Ford, Jr., Cincinnati: The former Armwood star ran for 67 yards on 17 carries in a win over Notre Dame. 

RB Dominic Gonella, So., North Dakota State: The former Bloomingdale standout ran for 37 yards on seven carries in a win over North Dakota. 

WR Travell Harris, Sr., Washington State: The former Jesuit standout had seven catches for 46 yards in a win over California. 

DB Kym-Mani King, Jr., Iowa State: The former Mitchell standout recorded three tackles and picked off a pass in a win over Kansas. 

RB Keyvone Lee, So., Penn State: The former American Collegiate standout ran for 74 yards on eight carries in a win over Indiana. 

DB T.J. Limehouse, Jr., West Florida: The former Armwood standout recorded a team-high 16 tackles in a win over Delta State. 

LB Micah McFadden, Sr., Indiana: The former Plant star recorded eight tackles in a loss to Penn State. 

QB Braxton Plunk, Jr., Mount Union: The former Plant City standout threw for 313 yards and five touchdowns in a win over Otterbein. 

QB Tyler Riddell, Fr., East Tennessee State: The former Chamberlain standout threw for 268 yards and a touchdown in a win over Wofford. 

WR Mike Roussos, Sr., Columbia: The former River Ridge standout averaged 19 yards per kickoff return and 15 yards per punt return in a loss to Princeton. 

RB Deon Silas, Fr., Iowa State: Ran for 30 yards and a touchdown on three carries in a win over Kansas. 

RB Brian Snead, Jr., Austin Peay: The former Armwood standout ran for 73 yards and a touchdown on seven carries in a loss to Tennessee State. 

TE Michael Trigg, Fr., USC: The former Carrollwood Day/Seffner Christian standout had two catches for 51 yards and a touchdown in a win over Colorado. 

RB Treshaun Ward, Fr., FSU: The former Tampa Bay Tech standout accounted for 95 yards (66 rushing, 29 receiving) in a win over Syracuse. 

LB Kee Whetzel, Sr., West Florida: The former Countryside standout recorded 10 tackles and a ½ sack in a win over Delta State. 

WR Mario Williams, Fr., Oklahoma: The former Plant City star had three catches for 29 yards in a win over Kansas State. 

LB Stephon Williams, Jr., West Florida: The former Calvary Christian standout recorded five tackles and 1 ½ sacks in a win over Delta State. 

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College Football

Iowa State now a hotspot for local football recruits

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Since arriving at Iowa State five years ago, Matt Campbell has guided the program to four straight bowl appearances, including a Fiesta Bowl win this past season that vaulted the Cyclones to No. 9 in the final AP poll, the highest ranking in school history. 

That success is due in part to the talent accumulated in Florida, especially the Tampa Bay area. 

There are currently five local players on the roster, all of whom were recruited by Campbell’s staff. Anthony Johnson, a former standout at St. Petersburg, starts at cornerback. Two other defensive backs, T.J. Tampa (Lakewood) and Kym-Mani King (Mitchell), should get significant playing time this season. 

It does not end there. 

This offseason Iowa State had perhaps its biggest haul of local talent with three offensive stars — Wiregrass Ranch quarterback Rocco Becht, Tampa Bay Tech receiver Greg Gaines III and Berkeley Prep athlete Xavier Townsend — all committing to the Cyclones as part of the 2022 class.  

Gaines is a four-star recruit while Becht and Townsend are both three-star prospects according to 247Sports. The addition of that trio helped the Cyclones’ current recruiting class rise to No. 5 in the Big 12 and No. 23 nationally. 

The recruiting efforts are not just limited to the staff. Becht, who committed in April, said he tried his best to get more offensive talent from the area to join him. 

“I talked to Greg and Xavier everyday,” Becht said of his recruiting pitch to that duo. “I was on them from the beginning.”

Rocco Becht

Iowa State’s staff also zeroed on those targets — and the area.

“The Tampa Bay area is a huge priority,” said Cyclones assistant head coach/linebackers coach Tyson Veidt, who recruits locally. “Some of our best players are from there and it has helped us develop some all-around continuity.”

Iowa State has a knack for landing playmakers in the bay area, particularly on the defensive side. It started more than a decade ago with linebacker Jeremiah George (Clearwater) and defensive back Leonard Johnson (Largo), both of whom played for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their NFL careers. 

There has been even more of an emphasis on the area with Campbell and his staff.

That comes from experience. 

Before taking over the Cyclones, Campbell was an offensive coordinator (2009-11) and head coach (2012-15) at Toledo. During his time with the Rockets, the program landed several prospects from the area, including former Lakewood star Bernard Reedy, who went on to play in the NFL. 

In fact, Campbell had at least one local commit in each of his recruiting classes as Toledo’s head coach. That helped the Rockets rank among the top two recruiting classes in the MAC in three of the four years during Campbell’s tenure. 

The trend has continued at Iowa State. 

And it is having an impact, especially with the camaraderie among locals. 

“Well, of course, the decision was for me and my future as a student athlete,” said Townsend, who committed to the Cyclones on Sunday. “But it was icing on the cake knowing a couple of my boys are coming up with me.”

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College Football

Lakewood’s Amari Niblack commits to Alabama

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Lakewood’s Amari Niblack had offers from 15 schools entering this week, including Florida, Florida State, Georgia and LSU. 

Then Niblack went to a camp at Alabama and picked up an offer from the Crimson Tide. 

That was all the three-star prospect needed to make up his mind. 

On Thursday, Niblack announced on social media that he committed to Alabama. 

A 6-foot-4 pass catching target, Niblack can play receiver or tight end. This past season, he had seven receptions for 126 yards and two touchdowns according to the stats listed on MaxPreps. 

This is the second straight season Alabama has landed an area receiver and the third time in the past five seasons the Crimson Tide has picked a local skill player.

Agiye Hall, who starred at Armwood and Bloomingdale, was part of the 2021 class. He was an early enrollee and has already made an impact with several highlight-worthy catches in the spring game. 

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