BRADENTON -- The Saint Stephen's Episcopal School football team gathered around Tod Creneti before its fourth game of the regular season against St. Petersburg's Canterbury School for one of the head coach's pregame speeches.
Creneti pulls his wisdom from wherever he can find it. Sometimes it's a contemporary story he might read in The New York Times. Often he draws from history, United States or other. This tale came from the Book of Nehemiah.
The 46-year-old coach spent five years as a pastor at First Presbyterian Church in St. Petersburg 1999 and still maintains his ordination. In the week leading up to the game against Canterbury School, Creneti said his interest was piqued by Nehemiah's story.
Nehemiah was no longer living in his homeland Jerusalem, instead serving as the cup bearer to Artaxerxes I of Persia. Nehemiah asked the king for permission to leave and rebuild the walls around Jerusalem. Some people thought he was crazy, but Artaxerxes was so struck by Nehemiah's request he aided him with resources. It took 52 days and the walls were back. The people could return to a part of their life, which had been missing for half a century.
"It's the classic story of rebuilding," said Creneti, who took over at Saint Stephen's in spring 2011 after a 2-8 season.
Each of Creneti's two previous head-coaching stops in Florida were rebuilding jobs, too.
Melbourne Central Catholic High School and St. Petersburg Catholic High School were recovering from sanctions when he took those two jobs.
He no longer practices as a full-time pastor, so he coaches for a purpose. These are all chances for him to directly affect lives, he said, a mission affirmed in 1999 before he became offensive coordinator at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg.
Creneti, who was a quarterback at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, spent years bouncing around the high school and NCAA coaching ranks. He spent time at Hilton Head Island High School in South Carolina, West Springfield High School in Virginia and Georgetown University.
He finally decided to conclude his coaching career and become a full-time pastor. He sent resumes to five churches across the country. First Presbyterian Church was the only one to offer him a job with one condition: He had to continue coaching.
"We feel that a person needs to be where the kids are," said Jennie McCoun, who was on the selection committee. "It allowed him to interact with the kids directly on their turf."
Although Lakewood High School is secular, Creneti's entire roster was religious, attending church Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings. They prayed before and after practice and twice received letters from the state urging them to stop. Usually faith and football intersected positively, giving Creneti an extra way to relate and give advice to his players.
He did, however, arrive late to his first intrasquad scrimmage. The night before, his church had a runaway girl and Creneti was out deep into the night trying to bring her home. He got two hours of sleep and overslept for the start of the Friday morning scrimmage.
"The head coach never let me live that down," Creneti said. "It was just one of those moments when it intersected and I was doing what I absolutely had to do."
The first inkling of his desire to become ordained was placed in his brain before he was 5. He comes from a religious, church-going family. Even now, he sends his mother a roster so she can pray for every player on game days.
The Crenetis moved to Dale City, Va., when Tod was 4 and until he was 16 he lived next door to a pastor named Bill Clark, who was starting First United Presbyterian Church of Dale City.
"He was like the most normal guy in the world," Creneti said.
The North Carolina native cut wood, worked on his truck and raised bees. Creneti learned pastors weren't actually any different than their congregations. Most SSES players now don't know Creneti is ordained.
They do know his lessons, though. Fred Billy, a quarterback in the midst of a breakout sophomore season for the Falcons, was thrust into a starting role as a freshman. He was only 14 and had to command the respect and lead 18-year-old seniors. One starting guard, Wyatt Knopfke, now plays at Boston College.
Billy had never played quarterback so he had to pick up a new position while also joining a rigorous academic private school and being asked to lead players several years older than him. Billy's charisma and energy, Creneti told him, was given to him for a reason. He could be a positive influence for his teammates.
"He just took me under his wing," Billy said. "It made it easier knowing he was in my corner."
At his latest Jerusalem, Creneti said he is happy to settle down. His two daughters attend SSES, and the Falcons are 4-0 and atop the Sunshine State Athletic Conference's Coral Bay Division.
He doesn't want to say full-time ministry is in the past. For now, though, he's fully committed to Saint Stephen's.
"After five years of being in a church full time, I felt the best place I was able to serve was in the school setting," Creneti said. "I get to do the ministry that's important to me through the work that I do."