Alan Dell

Commentary: Easy to choose sides in Manatee-Aquinas matchup

Manatee vs. St. Thomas Aquinas:

It’s easy to draw up sides for this one.

Two successful football programs built in two different ways.

Manatee quarterback Cord Sandberg lives so close to his school he can hear the bells ring. His mom graduated there.

Aquinas’ long arms reach out all over the Broward-Dade County area with some kids coming in from other states. How they got there is anybody’s guess!

You play to win the game, an NFL coach once said.

Was he talking about Aquinas? Did he mean high school football?

The school’s website boasts about its 28,000-square-foot athletic center that includes a fitness center, training and rehabilitation rooms and a video room. It brags about all the athletes it sent to college.

Manatee High is a mom and pop store; kids just playing the game they love for a school many of their parents attended.

The Hurricanes website is typical for a high school, but pales compared to the one Aquinas puts up.

Good guys vs. bad guys?

That would be too harsh and unfair to the Aquinas players; they are just kids caught up in all the frenzy.

Those who laid the bricks for this palatial football palace and continue to feed it could be labeled the culprits, but even they deserve forgiveness.

For some, it’s easy to be blinded by the winning at all costs mentality. You lose sight of reality and can only see the endzone.

Dollar signs, glory and a trip to the NFL promise land are the lures.

Rashad West, the starting quarterback at Southeast in 1995 and ’96 and now head coach at Western High in Broward County, believes Aquinas doesn’t have to go out and find players; that they gravitate to the school through trappings that were set long ago.

“That place recruits for itself. They don’t have go and do it. It does it on his own,” West says.

“We don’t have that problem in Bradenton because there are no private schools to speak of (that size for football). But it’s not just the private schools in Broward and Dade County. It’s a nightmare here. A lot of kids just want to go to the hot school. Schools go after players in the Optimist youth leagues.

“One thing good about Manatee County is that most kids go to their neighborhood school and most of them want to play for Joe Kinnan and (Southeast head coach) Paul Maechtle.”

Parents see the Aquinas football program as a place where their sons can win a college scholarship and reap fame and fortune on the next level. They’ve got former NFL stars and some ESPN folks touting their program.

Manatee’s football tradition was built with a bunch of blue collar workers -- Henry Lawrence and Willie Taggart to name a few -- guys whose families worked the fields picking fruit to put food on the table. Guys who had to fight for every scrap of respectability they could get from the game.

Former NFL great and ESPN commentator Cris Carter has been an active promoter of the St. Thomas Aquinas football program that he has showered with praise on numerous occasions. His words are worth millions of dollars of free advertising, which cannot be taken lightly at a private school that depends so much on its tuition.

At Manatee, news about the virtues of its football program often travels by word of mouth on a road built by more than three decades of football success that includes four state championships and a legendary coach.

The magnetism of playing for Manatee High can never be underestimated, West says. What separates the Hurricanes and the Raiders is how the two programs go about their daily business.

Want to pick a team to root for? It’s an easy choice.