Alexander Snipes has been around for many of the tough times in Telly Lockette’s life.
He was there for him in middle school when Lockette’s mother was arrested in a drug-related incident and spent a few years in jail.
He was with him at a South Beach nightclub the night Lockette nearly died as a college freshman, his skull cracked open by a bottle during a barroom fight.
And he was with him five years ago when former Miami-Dade Schools Superintendent Rudy Crew fired a total of 21 people, including everyone on Miami Northwestern’s football staff, and accused them of covering up a sex scandal involving former star running back Antwain Easterling and a 14-year-old girl.
“It didn’t run across the ESPN bottom-line ticker the day all of us were found innocent of all charges,” said Snipes, now an assistant coach under Lockette at Miami Central. “But it did the day they accused us and told us we might not ever coach again.”
The tough times never seem to end in Miami’s inner city. But now is certainly one of the better times — especially for Lockette.
The 37-year-old former star running back at Northwestern High and a Division I-AA All-American linebacker at Idaho State has succeeded where others have failed, building a powerhouse football program on 95th Street in West Little River that even the rival Bulls have not beaten since Oct. 8, 2009.
The fourth-ranked Rockets (11-2) will play in their third consecutive Class 6A state championship game Saturday afternoon when they take on No. 1-ranked Gainesville High (14-0) at the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. Lockette, who took over at Central in 2008 and is 59-10 on the field (46-23 according to the FHSAA, which vacated the Rockets’ 13 wins in 2011 for having an ineligible player), is the first coach to take a Miami-Dade team to three consecutive title-game appearances.
Central has not lost to a team from Dade or Broward since falling to Miramar’s 2009 state championship team in the state semifinals.
College coaches from just about every big-name program in the country makes sure to stop by Central. In his first four years, Lockette said he has had roughly 70 players sign scholarships. As many as 13 seniors, he said, will sign in February — players such as linebacker Marquez Hidge (Syracuse), safety Da’Wan Hunte (N.C. State) and linebacker Ahmad Thomas (Oklahoma). But Central’s junior class — featuring star tailbacks Joseph Yearby (Florida State), Dalvin Cook (Clemson) and offensive tackle Trevor Darling (Miami) — figures to be even bigger with between 18 to 24 signees.
Nothing, Lockette said, makes him happier than National Signing Day.
“You get up every day and you have to look out for these kids,” said Lockette, who makes a $2,800 coaching supplement in addition to his base salary as a physical education teacher. “If you are in this for the pay, you’ll never get rich. You’re making damn near 10 cents an hour — and that’s not counting the kids who ask you for lunch money or bus fare home.
“College is a blessing, and it’s great to see it change the lives of these kids and their families. I ask them all the time: Do your parents have a quarter of a million dollars? I tell them when colleges want to invest in you, take that opportunity and don’t blow it.”
That’s why Lockette was angry when University of Miami sophomore Thomas Finnie, a former star cornerback on Central’s 2010 state championship team, was arrested and suspended indefinitely earlier this week by the Hurricanes for stealing a laptop computer on campus from a former teammate.
Every one of his players, Lockette said, has been warned by him “not to think they’re invincible.” He said he tells them horror stories — from his life and others — in hopes they won’t mess up, too.
The last of three boys raised by a single mother in Overtown, Lockette said he was lucky enough to “be poor, but not know we were poor.” After his mom went to jail for a few years while he was just beginning his football career at Northwestern, Lockette said his stepfather, Ernest Lawson, and other family and friends (including Snipes’ father) helped raise him. But it still didn’t stop Lockette from blowing an opportunity of playing major-college football.
After getting into a few fights and getting suspended at Northwestern, Lockette said Purdue, Tulane, Georgia Tech and Florida State all cooled on him. The only college that stuck by his side was Idaho State. After a stellar freshman season in college, he came home for winter break and nearly died. Doctors took about a quarter of his skull out and used two metal plates to fill the gaps.
“I still remember hearing people saying, ‘We’re losing him, we’re losing him,’ ” Lockette said. “I was in the hospital for almost six months. I had to learn how to walk, talk again. People look at me now and say ‘Why is this guy wearing shades on the sideline? He must think he’s cocky or cool.’
“I wear them so I don’t get migraines. My eyes are sensitive to the light.”
As painful as that experience was, nothing compared to what he and the former coaches at Northwestern had to deal with in 2007 when Lockette said he didn’t know if his coaching and teaching careers were over.
“Imagine getting fired on national TV and having a wedding that same week,” said Lockette, who was teaching at Highland Oaks Middle School when the alleged cover-up took place.
“My wife’s family is looking at me like I’ve got eight heads. Who is this guy you are marrying? To go before a grand jury and be prosecuted and have your name slandered makes it kind of hard for people to look at you and believe you. After we were cleared, the people here at Central gave me an opportunity to redeem myself, and I jumped at it.”
Now a happy father of three — Jakari, 17, a junior receiver at Central, Tellek, 8, and Skylar, 4 — Lockette said his ultimate goal is to coach on the college level. He had offers after the Rockets won a state title in 2010 but decided not to take any because his daughter had just been born.
“This time around, we’re going to look at it pretty hard,” Lockette said.
But for right now, his sights are set on Saturday’s showdown with Gainesville.
“[Winning] would mean the world,” Lockette said, “to me and everyone in this community.”