Palmetto enjoys season of triumph as pain from tragedies ebbs

Winning football team helps Palmetto heal from past tragedies

adell@bradenton.comDecember 9, 2011 

PALMETTO

When Kenny Ansbro looks over the field tonight at Harllee Stadium, he will see a miracle and a chance for a community to heal some deep personal wounds.

The Palmetto High athletic director has been affiliated with the school for 26 years. A 1979 PHS graduate, he has witnessed nearly all of the highs and lows the school’s football program has endured, particularly in the past six years when off-the-field incidents seemed at times overbearing.

When his Tigers play host to Miami Norland in their Class 5A state semifinal game, he will see and feel things most others can’t or want to forget.

This has been a season of triumph for the 12-1 Tigers, a godsend for a football community that has had more than its share of tragedy.

Ansbro can’t forget the promising Palmetto High football players who lost their lives with untimely and senseless deaths that still shake parts of the community.

It’s as if the names are engraved in his mind.

“Losing somebody at such a young age just breaks your heart. I can’t even imagine what it was like for the parents. The sorrow never goes away,” he said.

Ansbro was in his first year as a freshman football coach and assistant basketball coach at Palmetto in the summer of 1986 when heralded football star Spencer Golfin tragically drowned.

Ansbro was reminded of how unfair life can be when others connected to the football program lost their lives.

In 2004, former Palmetto High football standout and war hero Paul Mardis was killed while serving in Iraq with the Marine Corps. The school honors him with a display of his football and military service in the lobby of the front office.

Trevion Murray was considered a college football prospect until he was severely injured in a dirt bike accident prior to his senior year. He survived but died in a motorcycle accident in 2009 when he was 20.

Former Palmetto High football player Julius Brown was shot to death in 2009, and Trayon Goff was killed in September’s shooting at a local nightclub.

Then there was the incident when former Palmetto players Marquis Sanders and Taheem Blake were involved in a home invasion that put both in prison for murder and left Blake paralyzed.

Mistral Raymond, the only Palmetto High graduate to play in an NFL regular season game, still waits as authorities determine if his sister’s death was an accident or the result of foul play.

Ansbro and Palmetto head coach Dave Marino say they believe some of these incidents portray their school in an inaccurate light, but they know the pain of the surviving families is all too real.

“There is no doubt it gives the school an unfair image because there are so many good kids here,” Marino said. “We are talking about 1,600 students, and when one or two does something wrong it’s a blemish, but it is what it is and the reason we are trying to do what is right and help kids make the right decisions.”

Ansbro agrees those negative incidents don’t accurately reflect the school.

“We have a great environment at our school, and the football program is a good example.” Ansbro said.

“The success of our football team has had a huge impact. Our players have done so much for the community going to the elementary schools to read to the students and delivering gifts. It’s why the people who have come out to see the kids play feel so much loyalty to the team. Sometimes the negative stuff gets the headlines, and the good things these kids do go unnoticed.’

The list of tragedies has hit the current roster.

No player has been more affected than two-way lineman Fitz Richards.

After his father was sent to prison when he was in the eighth grade, the now 6-foot-3, 300-pound senior had to grow up fast.

He lived with his mother and grandfather, Woodrow Pressy Sr., and five other children. Pressy died last year, and Richards suddenly become the oldest in the household.

Richards hadn’t seen his father since eighth grade and thought that would change when he was released from prison several months ago. But he was deported back to Jamaica.

“I had a lot going on, and that was even more disappointing,” Richards said. “It was hard for me when my grandfather died because he was the only person I could go to for guidance. He was all I had since my dad went away, and when I got the news about him being sent back to Jamaica that really broke me.

“But me and my dad talk on the phone. He told me to stay strong, do the right thing and not wind up like him.”

Marino said it was a tribute to Richards and his teammates that he was able to get through a very difficult time in his life.

“Fitz was hanging on the hope that his father would get out and come home for his senior year and see him play,” Marino said. “It was a devastating blow and an emotional setback when they sent him back to Jamaica, but Fitz endured his way through it.”

Richards doesn’t have time to enjoy his youth.

After his grandfather’s death, Richards was forced into an adult role. Every day after practice, he rushes home to make sure the other children (brother, three nephews and a niece) do their homework and take care of their chores.

“Coach Marino and the team helped me a lot,” Richards said. “They told me to communicate with them, and once I did they understood where I was coming from. Coach Marino’s dad passed last year, so he knew where I was coming from.”

Richard’s personal tragedies have enabled him to understand that football is more than just about winning games. He sees himself and his teammates as role models.

“We are helping the community because on Friday night it gives a young child a chance to come out and watch football and maybe decide to play someday instead of running the streets,” Richards said. “It gives him a goal to push himself for the better instead of being in the streets slinging drugs.”

Marino has added to that by starting a program that sends his football players to elementary schools to help the students read and get them to see athletes in a positive academic setting.

“We are trying to embrace the community from all angles, touching the old and the young by honoring the ’75 state championship team and wearing the Lincoln High uniforms, which we will do every year,” Marino said.

He says you often don’t see the rewards of your efforts until the kids have gone to college or other walks of life.

“You got to give these kids tough love, be demanding and teach them what it means to be successful,” Marino said. “A lot of times kids aren’t used to it, and they fight you and rebel, but they eventually get it. Whether they get it here or later on in life, the roots and seeds were planted at the high school level.”

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