Alan Dell

Commentary | Area football icons inspire, provide hope

The prevailing opinion is that football in the state of Florida is at its worst.

There are no college teams ranked in the Associated Press Top 25, and our three NFL franchises give us more reason to cry than cheer.

But football couldn’t be better in Manatee County.

Things are so good Barack Obama might want to launch his re-election campaign at Joe Kinnan Field and finish it down the road at Harllee Stadium.

Manatee and Palmetto have reached the state final four in their respective classes, which says something for a county that has only six public high schools.

And there is a kicker.

Mistral Raymond, the Palmetto graduate no football program wanted, is slated to make his starting debut for the Minnesota Vikings today.

This week, Manatee County is inspiration central, and it couldn’t come at a better time with Christmas around the corner and many people struggling.

Raymond, Palmetto head coach Dave Marino, Manatee defensive coordinator Jim Phelan and Hurricanes’ legendary head coach Joe Kinnan are living testaments to what personal fortitude can bring.

Willie Taggart, a Kinnan disciple who is turning the college football world on its ears with what he has done at Western Kentucky, is icing on the cake.

Perhaps no one has suffered more indignity than Raymond.

He had to beg his way onto the football team at USF, where he was taken as a walk-on. In his first year, an assistant coach joked if he ever had to put Raymond in a game it would be time to go to SweetBay, get a bag of chips and a Mountain Dew and sit back because there was no chance to win.

Raymond never got an angry and politely said the coach didn’t know him.

He continued to show his restraint following the death of his mother and then his sister in a case that has yet to be declared a murder or accidental death.

If Raymond had a penchant for revenge, he probably would be in prison. Instead he is in the NFL.

Today, he faces Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos in a long-awaited debut that has Palmetto buzzing. Tebow may be a national phenomenon, but Raymond is the prototypical comeback kid.

“I had to kick Mistral off the basketball team because of his attitude and running around with the wrong crowd. Now I am so proud of how he turned his life around,” says former Palmetto High basketball coach Ken Ansbro.

Phelan and Marino are two coaches that no one wanted to hire and proof that it often takes one genius to recognize another.

Both have a tendency to speak their minds, which frightened many prospective employers.

Phelan is a walking football encyclopedia, an eccentric college professor-type in cleats. People say he is a rough around the edges, but there’s nothing that gets past him. He has had more coordinator jobs than any coach in Manatee County, but never got a head coaching job.

He once became a stay-at-home dad, taking care of his children and cooking and cleaning while his wife worked. Phelan now presides over one of the best defenses in the state.

He refused to allow others to determine his fate and knows how to motivate his players. No one saw his virtues better than Kinnan, who has an innate wisdom for those things.

As depicted in a story last week, Marino was passed over for numerous head coaching positions but never gave up. He recently received the ultimate compliment when his peers voted him Florida Athletic Coaches Association (FACA) Coach of the Year for District 16, which includes all of Manatee and Sarasota counties.

It’s not a coincidence that the only principal in the area to hire Marino is Willie Clark, who played for Notre Dame and put in some time in the NFL. He saw what others could not.

Kinnan’s battle with cancer is well known and another example of how resiliency often leads to greatness. He is to Manatee County what Bear Bryant used to be to Alabama.

He has a feel for the game of football that is reserved for a very special few. He would’ve been a successful college coach if he had chosen that path.

A Chinese philosopher once said sports is the opium of society because it takes people away from their real problems. Here in Manatee County, it is a spark that is bringing two communities together and providing hope.

Alan Dell, Herald sports writer, can be reached at 941-745-2112.