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Monday, November 18, 2013

Just too big and talented ... and they have Riley Cooper, too

The 2005 football season has been the best I've witnessed in my time working at the Palatka Daily News.

That season, both Palatka High and Crescent City Junior-Senior High, the team I primarily covered in my team at the paper, made the state playoffs and Interlachen, which has struggled for the better part of the last 15 years, had a 4-6 season, which in many ways was like going 8-2 for that program, under coach Bobby Humphries.

But to have two of our three county teams in the state tournament was a thrill enough, even if both Palatka and Crescent City were second-place teams in their districts that season. Palatka was up in Jacksonville to face Andrew Jackson High in the 3A playoffs. That's where my boss Andy went. As for myself, Crescent City was opening up the Class 2B playoffs ... but they weren't going to be anywhere near the Palatka office.

No, for their first-round matchup, the Raiders were to make a three-hour trek to Pinellas County to face off with Clearwater Central Catholic. So I had to make arrangements to get a hotel room for overnight and locate the nearest Kinko's since these were the days before I would get my own laptop. It's a lot of hustling around, but I was able to locate the closest one to the field I was going to be at was about 10 minutes away up US-19 and fortunately, it was a 24-hour store.

This meant neither Andy nor myself were going to be back in the office to write our stories and lay out the sports section. But unlike today where the backup system doesn't exist anymore, we had a backup plan as the nightside news editor -- and a former sports writer and editor -- named Bob was back in the office.

So leading up to the night of Friday, November 11, 2005, Andy, Bob and myself had to devise a plan to make everything work. In a bare-bones operation such as our newspaper, there could not be a slip-up. We would keep Bob up to date as to what happened that night and if there were any other sports going on that night, it would be up to either Andy or myself to track them down and get the results via cell phones. Thankfully, basketball season had not tipped off just yet, but on the schedule, the only team playing was the Crescent City Junior-Senior High boys soccer team, which was missing a couple of kids from the football team. Crescent City was playing Flagler Palm Coast on this evening, a non-district opponent. In the midst of having to cover and write up the football game, I had to try to remember to make a call to Raiders coach John Thomas after the game.

Such is the life of a small newspaper worker.

Not only did I have to make plans with those at work, I had a girlfriend at the time that I was living with and told her that I was leaving Friday afternoon to head to Clearwater and was not coming back home until Saturday night. Working at a sheriff's office, this was her weekend to work there and she had just switched from late nights to the morning-afternoon shift, so I was not going to see her as I left. As per usual, she would get up at 4 a.m. and take over an hour to get ready for work. I kissed her goodbye and jumped back into bed to sleep until about 11:30 that morning.

I left Palatka at just after 2 p.m. and made the long trek down US-301 and then down I-75 until connecting with the exit for I-275. When I got to where I-4 connected with the I-275 loop, I took that exit and headed east on I-4 for an exit or two. I arrived at the Days Inn in Ybor City. One thing, though -- the hotel people who I set my reservation up for failed to tell me that getting into the hotel was a challenge.

The main entrances were being blocked off for motorists to get into because they were in the middle of some massive upheaval of the roads there. I literally asked a worker how do I get into the hotel -- they had no freakin' clue.

"Just keep driving around" was all this low-brained construction guy could tell me. It took me about 20 minutes to figure out where and how to get into the hotel, but ultimately, I did. And then the first minute of my reservation confirmation was spent bitching out the person there because there was a lack of communication as to how to get in and out of the hotel in which that person kept apologizing for the inconvenience.

Thankfully, my hotel room didn't have a window anywhere near the eyesore of the construction. I had relaxed for about 60 minutes, then it was back out the door again and heading to Clearwater Central Catholic, a school that I vaguely remembered was off of US-19 because there were signs going both ways on that highway that led you in the direction of the school.

With the darkness now settled in since the recent move from standard time to daylight saving's time, I maneuvered my way around the traffic on I-275 until I got to the exit for SR-60 and a long trip over the Campbell Causeway and toward the tricky turn onto US-19 in Clearwater. State Road-60 has a ton of traffic on it, so you have to move fast in getting to where you have to go.

Thankfully, I caught the turn-off and found myself going south on US-19. Now was a matter of finding that sign I had seen a number of times before while I was down that way. And in the flood of night lights and headlights, it was right there on the right side of the road -- CLEARWATER CENTRAL CATHOLIC HIGH SCHOOL, NEXT LEFT.

Bingo! One turn and the parking lot wasn't that far away. I had settled into my spot, grabbed my things and got to the fairly spacious press box that overlooked the field by around 7 p.m. for the 7:30 kickoff.

Now did I think Crescent City had a shot of winning this game? I did -- but it was a puncher's chance. The Clearwater Central Catholic Marauders were 8-2, so they weren't invincible by any means even if they had won eight in a row going in. But for 5-5 Crescent City to beat the Marauders, a whooooooole bunch of things needed to go just right. Quarterback Louis Haines, now a sophomore, needed to be on his game. Running backs D.J. Johnson, B.J. Sharper, Kerlon Williams and Daniel Wortman had to find the holes and make plays. And the offensive line had to be strong.

The latter was going to be a challenge. For as big as Crescent City was -- this included 6-foot-2, 225-pound Rudy Davis, 6-2, 240-pound Leviticus Bennett and 6-2, 252-pound Antonio Henderson, their center was all of 5-foot-3 and 138 pounds ... soaking wet. But for as big as senior Patrich Buenaventura was, his heart and determination were far bigger than he was.

Still, this was going to be a bit of a challenge because one look at CCC's big senior boys told you everything you needed to know about this group. Toby DeJarnatt was a 6-4, 290-pound center and defensive lineman. Austin Gould was a 6-0, 270-pound guard and defensive lineman. And the biggest of the big boys -- offensive and defensive tackle Kevin Young -- was 6-6 and 320 pounds.

Good luck with handling this situation, Crescent City. While Al Wisnoski, the first-year head coach of the Raiders and a longtime assistant before getting the job, acknowledge the challenge would be burdensome to handle that line on both sides, he still felt confident his coaches would be able to figure out something and expose it during the game.

Well even if he did, there were three skill players to worry about on the CCC side. There was quarterback Anthony Nowels, a 6-4, 211-pound junior who presented a challenge to Crescent City to bring down. There was little Ron Harris, a 5-5, 150-pound sparkplug with blazing speed.

And then there was the best of all these players on the field, a smooth-as-silk, 6-4, 205-pound senior who played wide receiver and free safety and was being recruited by a bunch of schools, including Florida, Texas, Oklahoma State and Tennessee, where he just happened to be flying off to for a recruiting trip that weekend.

His name was Riley Cooper. Had heard a lot about his prowess as one of the 10 best senior players in the country. Now I was going to get the entire Riley Cooper experience on this night.

The Raiders won the coin toss, but opted to defer to the Marauders, sending the message they were ready to play on this evening. And it seemed to work in the first six minutes of the game. The Raiders stopped the Marauders with a three-and-out and got the ball back off a punt at the Raider 48. Williams went eight yards with a handoff, but fumbled. Thankfully, he recovered his own fumble. Then on third-and-1, Haines drew the Marauders off sides for a first down. Wortman, a fullback, went 11 yards up the middle with a dive, then Sharper went 22 yards with a run to the Marauder 5. A face mask call on the play moved the ball halfway to the goal to the 3.

The Raiders were in business to score and dictate the tempo. Sharper, though, got nothing on first down. Johnson, a 1,000-yard rusher his sophomore year, also got nothing on second down. That set up third and goal from the 3.

The play Wisnoski called in was brilliant in diagram -- Sharper would take his defender out wide on a fake handoff and then Johnson would get the ball in the hole created by the defender trying to get to Sharper. It may have worked out if not for one little detail.

Cooper stayed at home on the play. Cooper followed Johnson to where he was going and tackled him for the 2-yard loss. Cooper would say later to me he knew the play was coming from seeing it on film during the week and that he just "followed the play to where it was being run."

Wisnoski needed points and from the 5, a 22-yard field goal with sure-footed kicker and freshman Nate Brown was a good option. But from the time the ball snapped to Brown putting his shoe on the ball, something went wrong. He miss-kicked it and the ball wound up slamming off a Raiders lineman blocking on the play and bounced through the end zone.

No points. Little did any of us know that for all the momentum the Raiders had in those first six minutes of the game, that would be the closest they would get the rest of the night to the end zone on offense.

The Maurauders moved the ball to the Raider 40 on their next drive, but a false-start penalty and two incompletions ended the drive. Crescent City started at its 12 and got a couple of first downs, however the Raiders stalled at the 35. So Davis was called in to punt the ball away.

Standing at the other end of the field was Cooper, the all-everything Marauder. Davis got the punt off and it was a pretty nice one I admit. It took a bounce around the 25 and Cooper had to get it on a hop at the 22. But just as Cooper got the hop on the ball, flying in like a Ninja was a Raider defender who had ideas of making himself a highlight reel hero. He smashed into Cooper with everything he had.

Cooper, though, didn't flinch. He absorbed the hit and stayed on his feet. Heading toward the closest sideline to my view, CCC's sideline, he found what he was looking for -- a block from teammate Colin McCarthy. That sprung him loose and he picked up a wall of blockers, who took care of Davis, the closest person to Cooper on the play. Cooper went untouched the rest of the way and finished out a 78-yard run to give the Marauders the lead with 9:42 left in the first half.

There was excitement upstairs where I was, but it was tempered ... as if they've seen this happen before. To these people, the only things Cooper was missing were the "S" on his jersey and the cape behind him.

Nonetheless, the onslaught was about to begin. On the next Crescent City possession, Haines lost the handle of the ball and fumbled. Marauder defensive end/ tight end Ted Wunderlich, a 6-2, 205-pound senior, snatched the ball at the Raider 34. Four runs and an incomplete pass later, Harris scampered around the left side, found a block to his liking and found paydirt for a 14-yard score with 6:16 left before halftime to make it 14-0 after Anthony Leandri's extra-point kick.

Both teams traded possessions and even though Crescent City got a first down on the next possession after the tradeoffs, they were forced to punt again. Cooper got just eight yards on his return this time and the Marauders had the ball back at their 38. On second and 9 from the 39, Nowels dropped back, practically far from pressured by the smaller Raider linemen, and dropped a perfect pass to McCarthy for 35 yards to the Raider 26. On the next play, Nowels dropped back again and hit Cooper with a perfect slant-pattern throw. Cooper did the rest from there to finish out the score with 20 seconds left before halftime, making it 21-0.

If I wasn't sure the game was over before that, it was over now. For as hard as the Raiders tried in the first half, they were trailing by three scores and after that first drive to the 3 ended with no points, it was highly unlikely they were coming back on this night.

I made the phone call to Bob back in the office that this one was not going to be close and Andy called me with what was going on in his game. Palatka was trailing in its game at halftime, 14-10, and seemed to have a far better chance of winning than Crescent City did.

Glum? Yes I was. But I knew there was a possibility of this happening, too. Now it was a matter of pride in the second half.

Leandri put the second-half kickoff out of bounds and the Raiders opted to move the Marauders back five yards to the 30, hoping to capitalize on field position. But when the Raiders muffed the kickoff on the second go round and Johnson had to retrieve the ball at the goal line, only to get to the 10, it told me all I needed to know about the Raiders' enthusiasm toward the second half.

Three runs by Johnson got eight yards and Wisnoski was not taking any chances. They punted the ball away, but Davis' punt was a poor 18-yard attempt and the Marauders had the ball at the 36. A holding call against the Marauders (for as big as their line was, they weren't very clean as the 15 penalties backed that up on this night) moved the ball back to the 46. Nowels hit Chris Campbell with a 12-yard pass back to the 34, but two false start penalties moved them back to the 44.

Still, the Marauders had confidence and a 9-yard run by Harris and a 4-yard reception by Harris put the Marauders at the 31 with fourth and 5. They went for it and when Nowels hit Cooper with a 7-yard pass for the first down, you can see the deflation of enthusiasm on the other side of the field.

A couple of plays later, I saw worse. Buenaventura, who was also the nose guard of the team, was literally speared in the back by 280-pound center DeJarnatt, who was attempting to block, and he wasn't moving. Whether there was intent or not, and I don't believe there was, it was a pretty mean-spirited spearing.

After the game, Wisnoski was not all too happy with either DeJarnatt or his head coach, Mike Jalazo. He even said he thought it was one of the dirtiest things he'd ever seen in his long coaching career. But no official saw it and Buenaventura had to be taken off the field.

Talk about adding insult to injury by taking out the 5-3, 138-pound nose guard because you could.

The Marauders continued to drive and got a pass interference call against the Raiders to move the ball to the 11. Two Harris runs later, he was in the end zone on a 5-yard score to cap off a nine-play, all-over-the-place 46-yard drive.

After Davis' fifth and final punt of the night, the Marauders went to work one last time against the struggling Raiders. They crafted a beautiful 15-play drive with 10 runs and five passes, and marched 71 yards where Harris finished it off with a 3-yard run to cap off an 18-carry, 106-yard night.

And with 9:06 left in the game, that meant the clock got to run to zero unstopped with the Raiders down 35-0 and the mercy-rule lead taking effect in the fourth quarter. But just as it looked as if there would be no highlights from the visiting team on this night, the Raiders got the one big moment they were hoping to have.

Leandri kicked it off and sent it toward returner/wide receiver Chevelle Taylor. Taylor took the ball and was looking to run a fake play with fellow returner Johnson ... or at least that's what he said to me after the game. But when he saw Johnson go off to block, he knew he was on his own. The senior found his blockers to run behind, then broke into daylight where no one was going to catch him. By the time he was done, he had a 95-yard return for a touchdown in the books and Brown's extra-point kick made it 35-7.

Just two years earlier down the road a bit in St. Petersburg, I had seen Taylor return a kickoff 100 yards for a score against St. Petersburg Catholic and earlier in the season, he had a kickoff return for a score in a Crescent City 18-14 win at Wildwood.

The Marauders had the ball one more time with backups in the game and got the ball to the 32, but Leandri missed a 48-yard field goal. And on the first play after the missed kick, Haines was intercepted for his only time of the night by Nathan Lenz with 2:01 left to put a ribbon on the 35-7 CCC victory.

And there were a lot of Crescent City kids in tears afterward. As I would write in my lead after the game, "About the only thing that came easy for the Crescent City Junior-Senior High School football team Friday night were the tears that flowed freely from each player's eyes after what turned out to be the final game of the season."

I had interviewed Wisnoski, still seething over the spearing of Buenaventura, and Taylor. I also interviewed Jalazo and Cooper afterward.

And I left the field and parking lot that night, heading north on US-19 to the Kinko's in Clearwater, located on the southbound lane. It was tricky to find where I had to go, but I did. I wrote my story up as quick as I could and sent the statistics of the game to Bob, who seemed to be in control of the situation. Bob was done with the news side pages earlier in the evening and all he had to do was fill in the blanks that Andy and I left him for our section, which was about three-plus pages.

Oh, how I miss Bob a great deal. Bob could jump in and help lay out the sports section if need be. We only had him do that twice while I was there and he made our front look fantastic. We sadly do not have someone else to take on that responsibility at the Daily News anymore like we did when Bob was there. It makes our job that much more difficult and it made us appreciate what we had while he was there.

At around 11:30, I had sauntered into my favorite restaurant in all of Florida, Pete and Shorty's, located on US-60. The people and the service are both fantastic. About 20 minutes into being there, I suddenly realized that I still had a soccer match to go after. I made a call to John Thomas, who was already home and he had told me they lost the match, 1-0. I said to him I'd get the results in the paper on Tuesday and he wasn't all that upset about it one bit.

By the time my night was done, I was back at the hotel with the difficult parking lot entry. And the next day, I was back over the Causeway and back into Clearwater after checking out. I ate my lunch at -- you guessed it -- Pete and Shorty's and indulged in an 18-hole round of golf at a resort somewhere in the southern part of Clearwater. I can't remember the darn name, but I can still see me driving to the place. I went to my step-grandmother's house for dinner that night in Clearwater and then made the long trip back to Palatka where I didn't get back home until just after midnight.

Palatka, meanwhile, would lose a tough one in the end to Jackson High, 21-17, to see its season end.

Clearwater Central Catholic went on to beat Sarasota Cardinal Mooney, 24-17, the next week in the playoffs, but would ultimately lose to Pahokee in the state 2B semifinal, 35-16. As for Cooper, he would ultimately choose to go to Gainesville and the University of Florida, where he would get the ball thrown to him quite a bit by a guy who was leading Nease High to the state 4A title in the fall of 2005, Tim Tebow. He would be part of two national championship teams at UF before the Philadelphia Eagles drafted him in the 2010 draft.

I got to interview Cooper when he was a senior at UF after a win against lowly Savannah State, then got to interview him the next year as a rookie after his Eagles defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field with the big story being quarterback Michael Vick's first big start with the team.

To this day, Riley Cooper is the only player I ever got to interview as a high school athlete, a college athlete and as a pro athlete. And unlike the ugly incident at a Kenny Chesney concert in June 2013 in which he made indecent racial remarks that gave his credibility a black eye, I found him to be a very good quote. It's a shame he's defined the way he is now.

I love the road trips I would take for high school football games even if I don't take as many as I used to. And even if the team I'm covering loses, the players and things you get to see on these trips -- like I did in 2005 in Clearwater -- are well worth it.

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