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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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Former PHU/UCF star Jacob Harris goes to Rams in 4th round

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Jacob Harris, a former star at Palm Harbor University and Central Florida, was taken in the fourth round by the Los Angeles Rams.

Harris, a former soccer standout who did not start playing organized football until senior year at Palm Harbor University, has gone through a meteoric rise to become a sleeper pick in this year’s draft.

He started off as a walk-on at Western Kentucky before transferring to UCF. For the past two seasons, Harris was a dependable receiver for the Knights. As a senior, he had 30 catches for 539 yards and eight touchdowns.

Harris’ most memorable game came against USF this past season when he had five catches for 110 yards and three touchdowns.

With the Rams, Harris will join former East Lake star Tyler Higbee in a group of tight ends that features plenty of locals.  

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College Football

The local list of potential NFL picks

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The NFL Draft concludes Saturday. Plenty of locals have the potential to be picked. Below is the list of former area stars who could hear their name called. All were either on mock drafts or were selected to an all-star game or NFL Combine. 

Photos courtesy of UCF Athletics

TE Jacob Harris, Palm Harbor University/UCF

Harris, a former soccer standout who did not start playing organized football until senior year at Palm Harbor University, has gone through a meteoric rise to become a sleeper pick in this year’s draft. He started off as a walk-on at Western Kentucky before transferring to UCF. For the past two seasons, Harris was a dependable receiver for the Knights. As a senior, he had 30 catches for 539 yards and eight touchdowns. Harris’ most memorable game came against USF this past season when he had five catches for 110 yards and three touchdowns. 

OL Shane McGough, Gaither/Florida International

The younger brother of former Gaither and FIU quarterback Alex McGough redshirted as a freshman before becoming a consistent starter on the Panthers’ offensive line. He was an all-Conference USA honorable mention selection in 2018 and 2020. This past season, McGough started in four of FIU’s five games as a center.  

WR Antonio Nunn, Jefferson/Buffalo

Nunn, a dynamic deep threat at Jefferson, redshirted his first season at Buffalo before rocketing up the depth chart. He started every game the past two seasons, finishing with a combined 86 catches for 1,271 yards and eight touchdowns. Nunn was a third-team all-MAC selection in 2019 and second-team selection this past season. 

Photo courtesy of Indiana University Athletics

WR Whop Philyor, Plant/Indiana

A first-team, all-state selection at Plant, Philyor became Indiana’s most dependable receiving target during his college career. He finished with 2,316 all-purpose yards (2,067 receiving, 134 rushing, 66 kick return, 49 punt return) in 38 games (22 starts).Philyor also is the Hoosiers’ s all-time leader in double-digit catch games (7), ranks fourth in receptions (180), fourth in 100-yard games (7), ninth in yardage (2,067) and is tied for 16th in touchdowns (12). He capped off his career by setting a Big Ten bowl and Outback Bowl record with 18 receptions for 81 yards. 

DL Justus Reed, CCC/Virginia Tech

A first-team, all-state selection, Reed led Clearwater Central Catholic to its only state final appearance as a senior in 2013. He started out at Florida before spending three seasons at Youngstown State. This past season, Reed transferred to Virginia Tech as a graduate student. He started in 10 of the Hokies’ 11 games, finishing with 28 tackles and 6.5 sacks.  

Photo courtesy of USF Athletics

DB K.J. Sails, East Bay/USF

A highly touted high school recruit, Sails spent his first three years in college at North Carolina before transferring to USF. As a junior, he led the Bulls in interceptions with three and recorded 22 tackles this past season. Sails gained notoriety this past summer when he organized a unity walk during the social justice movement that was attended by about 400 teammates, coaches, administrators and community members.  

Oregon's Jordon Scott/Photo credit: Oregon Athletics
Photo courtesy of Oregon Athletics

DL Jordon Scott, Pinellas Park/Oregon

The three-star high school prospect originally committed to Florida before signing with Oregon. He immediately became a force on the Ducks’ defensive line, earning FWAA freshman all-America honors in 2017. Scott opted to return to Oregon as a senior rather than turn pro and helped the Ducks reach the Pac-12 title game for the second straight season. 

Photo courtesy of TCU Athletics Communications

TE Pro Wells, Hollins/Texas Christian

As a senior at Hollins, Wells had a breakout season, finishing with 31 catches for 952 yards and five touchdowns. He played at Milford Academy and Northwest Mississippi Community College, where he became the No. 4 JUCO tight end in the nation. After redshirting in 2018 at Texas Christian, Wells turned a reliable red-zone target and led the team in touchdown receptions each of the past two seasons. 

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College Football

Tre McKitty goes to Chargers in the third round

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Georgia tight end Tre McKitty, who spent time at Wesley Chapel and Tampa Catholic before transferring to IMG Academy, was selected at the end of the third with the Los Angeles Chargers’ compensatory pick (97th overall). 

He becomes the first player with area ties taken in this year’s draft. 

A three-star recruit at IMG, McKitty started his college career at Florida State, where he played in 35 games and caught 50 passes for 520 yards and a pair of touchdowns. 

McKitty (photo above courtesy of UGA Athletic Association) went to Georgia as a graduate assistant this past season. He finished with six catches for 108 yards and a touchdown. 

The Chargers have a knack for bringing in local talent. Former Admiral Farragut standout Rayshawn Jenkins was selected in the fourth by the Chargers in 2017. Sean Culkin (Indian Rocks Christian/Missouri) and Artavis Scott (East Lake/Clemson) spent time with team as undrafted free agents.  

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