“So many of them are without fathers, so many of them, the mothers are there but they have multiple children,” Manley said. “Our boys in elementary really, really need a role model.”
SENSE OF LOSS
Manley and his Norland teammates learned early on just how fragile a life without guidance can be. Twenty-one months before the state championship game, the Vikings lost perhaps their most promising player.
Damien Miller was just 15 when a friend, Derrick Lee Cockroft, fatally shot the high school sophomore in the neck. Miller was playing video games; Cockroft was playing with a stolen gun.
Miller was one of the few underclassmen to start the previous fall. Cockroft, who was not a member of the team but Miller’s neighborhood friend, pleaded guilty to manslaughter and other charges. He was released from prison in January 2011 after serving six years.
The killing rocked the team. Bobbie Williams fainted at Miller’s funeral. Coach Dunn, who had spoken to Miller many times about the need to distance himself from the streets’ more unsavory elements, was crushed.
Three years later, Dunn and his team experienced a sickening sense of déjà vu when news spread of Donald Redding III’s death.
Redding, a burly offensive lineman who transferred to Norland the summer before the state championship season, disappeared on Dec. 21, 2003. Redding was packed to visit his parents in North Carolina the next day, but never made it home from his job at Popeye’s. Authorities discovered his pickup truck, its door ajar, parked alongside the Snake Creek Canal near where it crosses under Ives Dairy Road.
On Christmas Day, he was found in the water, dead at 19.
Authorities surmised it was a suicide, but the case remains open.
“With his character, no way he committed suicide,” Manley insisted. “He had too much to live for.”
Another death in the Norland family hit just as hard. Cindy Toussaint passed away after a brief, painful bout with breast cancer. Roughly half of the state championship team gathered for her service.
She was the mother of former Norland linebacker Vilbrun Toussaint, and also the 2002 team’s spiritual leader. Just 51 when she died, Toussaint was head of Norland’s Fellowship of Christian Athletes during her son’s high school days. “Miss Cindy” not only traveled with the team during its championship run and led the pre-game prayer, but also acted as a surrogate mom for many.
“It uplifted me, knowing that mom made an impact in their lives,” said her son, who still lives locally.
For others, life after high school football has been troubled. Kareem Williams, a senior defensive lineman on the state championship team, enrolled at Florida A&M after graduating from Norland. A year later, he was caught dabbling in check forgery and identity fraud, police say. He received probation. A subsequent arrest resulted in 16 months behind bars. Efforts to reach Williams, who was released in 2009, were unsuccessful.
Keon Braswell, a Norland cornerback who signed with Rutgers after graduation, only to get booted off the team his freshman year because of grades, has been arrested both in Tallahassee and South Florida on charges that include drugs, sexual battery and aggravated assault with a weapon in the years since. Convictions have resulted in jail stints and probation, and yet he seems to keep making the same mistakes.