BRADENTON -- Midweek earlier this season, a handful of Manatee High football coaches sat down and addressed the Hurricanes.
They didn't break down that week's opponent or critique a month's worth of film.
Instead, they talked about their experiences as fathers.
Every Wednesday after practice, the team and their coaches take the short walk from the fieldhouse to the media center and participate in Beyond X's and O's: The Manatee Hurricanes Character Development Program.
For roughly 10 to 15 minutes a week, the Hurricanes take a break from talking, thinking or practicing football. Instead, they listen to guys such as Tony Dungy, Henry Lawrence and others discuss life away from
the football field.
On Wednesday, two days before they headed to Apopka for a Class 8A state semifinal, the Hurricanes listened to an alumnus: Austin Jensen, a 2007 graduate of Manatee who made a pair of all-state teams and earned a scholarship to Florida Atlantic University before a near-fatal car accident ended his career in 2010.
Jensen talked about waking up from a medically induced coma and seeing his old Manatee jersey, a gift from his former Hurricanes teammates. He talked about all the support he received from Manatee's coaching staff.
And he implored the players to enjoy every game as if it were their last, a scenario Jensen knows all too well.
"I don't think I have given back as much as I'd like to give back," Jensen said after his speech. "I had been given so much from the community, my teammates, the coaching staff, everybody, that I think this is a more subtle way to give back, that I could leave a good impact on guys' lives. Maybe they could look at me and think, 'Well, if he got thrown from a car, and he can talk to me right now, I don't think I'm doing too bad.'"
Special teams coach Dennis Stallard coordinates the program and got the idea from former Ohio State coach Jim Tressel, who wrote the book "The Winners Manual: For The Game of Life." After reading the book, Stallard approached former Manatee coach Joe Kinnan about imparting some of the book's teaching to the players.
So they wrote a letter to Tressel, who sent Kinnan and Stallard a copy of the manual he put together while coaching at Youngstown State. The manual served as a basis for the book.
"There's some football in it," Stallard said. "But it's mostly about life."
Aside from weekly speakers, the character-building program includes a binder given to each player prior to the season. Full of newspaper articles, mottos and inspirational stories, as well as a list of sports figures considered to be positive role models (Ben Zobrist, John Wooden, and former Venice quarterback and current Philadelphia Eagle Trey Burton) and not-so-positive (Mike Vick, Pacman Jones), the binder is supposed to stay in each player's locker and be returned to Stallard at the end of the season.
During the annual football banquet, Stallard gives each senior a binder. It is theirs to keep.
"When they automatically put 'Coach' in front of your name, you get credibility with kids. And I think that carries with it a huge responsibility," Stallard said. "Yeah, we play great football here. But when they walk away, are they going to take anything else with them?
"That's our hope. They'll be better men, better citizens, better dads, better husbands. And I tell them, 'We'll see you 10, 20 years later in the grocery store. And there's nothing prouder than seeing you as a dad and a husband and being proud of your kids and introducing them.'"
Jensen's talk was accompanied by pictures of him lying in a hospital bed days after the accident as well as an X-ray of his broken pelvis. The moral of Jensen's message, Stallard said, was all about fighting through adversity. Though Jensen, the heart of a Manatee defense that led the Canes to back-to-back Class 5A state semifinals in 2005 and '06, never played football again, he regained his ability to walk and talk and is now studying physical therapy at Keiser University.
It was the second time Jensen spoke to the Hurricanes. The first time was two years ago, not long after he told his FAU teammates he couldn't play anymore. Jensen was so overcome with emotion in 2012 he nearly walked out of Manatee's media center.
"It took me quite a while to compose myself before I could actually talk," he said. "I decided to stick it out and suck it up, so to speak."
Stallard is confident the character-building program, which was hatched about five years ago, will live on, especially since John Booth, hired in July to follow Kinnan, has embraced it.
And he hopes the players do, as well.
"That's why we're here," Stallard said, "to shape young men."