When Plant High School won its 4-A state championship game against defending champ Ponte Vedra Beach Nease two Saturdays ago, it was the first state football championship for a Tampa team since Richard Nixon was a rookie president.
But this wasn’t just a long-awaited win for a Tampa team. It was also an urban “Hoosiers,” a feel-good, vicarious victory for the tight-knit, small-city community within the city that is South Tampa. And it was a well-savored triumph over a stubborn stereotype.
Look at the Plant student parking lot sometime, and you’re reminded that there is affluence here. Look at the higher education track record of its grads, and you’re reminded that academics have always been paramount.
And if you looked at the football team a few years ago, you were reminded that the Plant kids were considered too “soft” to be good at a tough, physically demanding, non-country club sport.
Well, so much for that myth. You don’t even get out of Hillsborough County without being tough enough – let alone skilled enough.
To Plant’s everlasting credit – and the stuff that legacies are made of – the (15-0) Panthers didn’t just run the table in a fanatical football state full of blue-chip college prospects and high-powered programs. They won with class.
No prima donna attitudes and no strutting, “look-at-me” boors. No recruiting, “remuneration” or criminality scandals. No marginal, athlete-luring magnets.
Just a bunch of talented, hard-nosed kids that bought into a philosophy and a value system. The one embraced and embodied by Robert Weiner, 42, the third-year head coach.
Weiner, the long-time Jesuit assistant who had been passed over for the JHS head-coaching job, is known for his uber organizational and motivational skills.
Nobody, he preaches, transcends team. Nothing is more important than loyalty and hard work. Everyone’s contribution – from All Everything, record-setting quarterback Robert Marve to kids whose roles are relegated to the practice fields – is valued and acknowledged.
Weiner’s a disciplinarian and demands that his players improve – on the field, in the classroom and in the community. And he doesn’t just talk a good game; he’s been a counselor at Muscular Dystrophy camp for more than 25 years.
Moreover, Weiner is the perfect role model for impressionable student-athletes. He didn’t let the Jesuit disappointment deter or discourage him. He’s Exhibit A for academic and athletic priorities – in that order. He’s an English teacher/coach. One who writes poetry and can quote Thoreau, Shakespeare or Dylan more readily than Lombardi, Rockne or Paterno.
One who made his players believe they weren’t soft. Who instilled a sense that life was not a spectator sport nor meant to be taken for granted. Who was father figure, big brother, favorite uncle and unabashed humanitarian.
And, lest we forget, one who provided a South Tampa community with its own Hoosiers-like rallying cry, focus of pride and storybook ride for the ages.