Dennis Stallard’s side of the story reads like this:
“I don’t want to make it sound like I’m the guy who got this game to happen. I didn’t even connect the dots.”
Kevin Negandhi’s side of the story reads like this:
“Dennis is a modest guy, but he needs to be recognized.”
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Who is responsible for bringing ESPN to Bradenton, where the network will air tonight’s Kickoff Classic at Hawkins Stadium live on its main network?
Maybe it was Stallard, a longtime Manatee assistant who doesn’t think he deserves a horsefly’s share of the credit.
Maybe it’s Negandhi, who spent two separate stints with WWSB-TV in Sarasota before joining ESPN in 2006.
Then again, it’s probably the Hurricanes and Panthers, who met in last year’s Class 5A state championship game, that lured the sports behemoth to the Friendly City.
Or maybe it’s all of the above, everyone playing a role in what should be a memorable night for a couple of top-tier programs.
Stallard got it rolling when he arranged for one of his students, an aspiring broadcaster, to make his way to Bristol, Conn., so he could shadow Negandhi.
Manatee was in talks at the time to play Don Bosco Prep, the nation’s No. 1 team, based out of New Jersey. So Stallard mentioned it to Negandhi.
“The guy that should take the credit is probably Kevin,” Stallard said. “With his position of influence, a call to ESPNU saying, ‘Hey look, you’ve the No. 1 (team) playing the team that beat the (former) No. 1 (Fort Lauderdale St. Thomas Aquinas) ...
“Maybe that piqued their interest.”
The Don Bosco trip fell through. But the Manatee-Plant matchup, featuring two teams with a combined seven state titles and rosters that include superstars such as Mike Blakely and James Wilder Jr., was appetizing enough to ESPN to include it in its eight-game ESPN RISE High School Football Kickoff — even if it is a preseason game.
“I get a lot of requests — a lot of requests,” Negandhi said. “I just said, ‘Let me find out who the contact person is?’”
Manatee has no shortage of mystique, but last year’s upset of Aquinas in the state semifinals helped put the Hurricanes back on the national radar. Plant is there thanks in no small part to Wilder, considered one of the best prep players in the country who has verbally committed to Florida State.
“Last year, what (Manatee) did,” Negandhi said, “it gives them more of a selling point this year.”
Tonight, Stallard will be on the sideline, meeting with his special teams players before every kickoff and punt.
“To me, it’s been a community excitement,” Stallard said.
And Negandhi will be in Bristol, waiting to co-anchor the edition of SportsCenter immediately following the game.
“The cool thing is,” Negandhi said, “I get to be a part of the game.
“I’ve always said Philadelphia is my home, but my second home is the Sarasota-Bradenton area. I feel like I’m a part of all those programs.”
Thanks to guys such as Stallard and Negandhi, the rest of the country gets to be a part of it, too.
John Lembo, sports reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7080, ext. 2097.