When she played the role of the ill-tempered Bernice on the docudrama ‘South Beach Tow’, Lakatriona Brunson wasn’t afraid to exchange body blows with the angry people whose cars she towed.
These days, Brunson still isn’t scared to get mean or nasty if she has to. But the personality she played on TV seems far removed from the person currently serving as the head football coach at Miami Jackson High.
This Brunson, or Coach B as she likes to be called, is measuring every step she takes heading into Thursday’s preseason game against Coral Reef at North Miami Stadium. This will be her first game calling the shots, and also the first time in the football-crazed state of Florida a woman does it at the high school level.
“I think I’m more nervous than the kids,” Brunson, 39, said Tuesday as she watched her squad of 45 boys practice on a football field where the first school in the neighborhood of Allapattah was built in 1898.
“I’ve got a good poker face, but I’m always nervous. Like I told them, I had an anxiety attack when I first got the job. Nobody really knew that. It’s just a lot [to deal with]. At the end of the day, being an athlete myself, when I played I was nervous. So, I know I’m going to be nervous for them — every game. But my poker face is going to be on.”
A former girls basketball and flag football coach at Jackson, Brunson has been a physical education teacher at various schools — from elementary to middle school to high school — in Miami-Dade County over the past 16 years. She was an athlete first, starring on the track and on the basketball court at Miami Northwestern in high school before continuing her athletic career at Tennessee State University. Later, she played as a lineman, linebacker and fullback for the Miami Fury, a team that competed in the Independent Women’s Football League.
Football has always been in her blood. Brunson said she has been a huge fan of the Miami Dolphins her entire life and there’s usually nothing anyone can do to drag her away from the TV set on Sundays. Naturally, Thursday’s game is something she has been dreaming about since she got the job in early February. Her players say they’re just as excited to take the field with her.
“It feels great knowing we’ve got Coach B, something different,” said running back Nakia Robinson, one of six seniors on the team and a North Carolina State commitment. “I’d like to shock a lot of people. That’s what we want to do.”
While some might see her hiring and pairing with assistant head coach and former 2 Live Crew rapper Luther Campbell as a publicity stunt, Brunson said she didn’t take the job at Jackson so she could keep the spotlight.
She did it to help shine a bit of light on the kids at Jackson. The Generals finished 3-6 last season, haven’t won a state title since 1952, and they have watched innercity rivals Northwestern, Booker T. Washington and Central rack up 14 combined state championships over the past 20 years.
She also took the job because she believes she can help teach male athletes a thing or two about respecting women on and off the field. And it’s something she hopes she could parlay into another career down the road.
“We have a couple rules — respect your teammates, respect women, respect your teachers and be on time, work hard,” Brunson said. “That’s it.”
With domestic violence arrests a frequent occurrence in the NFL lately, Brunson says she would eventually like to become “a life coach” in college or the pros. A close friend of former University of Miami offensive tackle Bryant McKinnie and a handful of other local football stars who ended up playing in the NFL, Brunson said a lot of her football friends “had no one there to teach them how to treat women when they were growing up.”
She’s trying to do that at Jackson, talking to her team regularly about how to treat and talk to women. She also has a strict rule in place: seniors aren’t allowed to date freshmen. She has already stopped a couple of players from doing it — going as far as to call their parents or speaking to the girls directly.
“I just want to save them from stuff they aren’t ready for,” Brunson said. “Those girls are young and weak, easily manipulated.”
According to USA Today, Brunson is the fifth woman to get hired as a high school football coach nationally in the past three years. The longest tenured female football coach overall is Amy Arnold, who has spent eight years at Great Hearts-Arete, a small school in Arizona.
Brunson says her focus over the past six months hasn’t been to come in and put her fingerprints all over the team. Rather, she has tried to avoid stepping on the toes of her assistants while learning from them.
“Every coach here provides a little something different,” said Brunson, who focuses mostly on coaching the special teams so she can roam free around practice. “I’m the one that’s going to be on [players’ butts] about their grades, their attendance, how they look, if they’re at practice on time, what they’re doing in practice. I’m that person that makes sure they’re on their P’s and Q’s.
“As coaches, we don’t cross-coach. If he’s got the wide receivers, I don’t talk to the wide receivers. I talk to the wide receivers coach. I’d rather to talk to the coach so those kids respect that coach and whatever he’s telling them to do. They’ll have that rapport and everybody has their group of guys they’re dealing with, and it won’t be me trying to deal with 50 kids.”
Back in April, Brunson attended her first coaching convention in Orlando. Southridge coach Billy Rolle, who was Brunson’s P.E. coach in Elementary school, said dozens of male coaches were stopping Brunson to take selfies with her. He did, too.
“She’s got a strong foundation,” said Rolle, who had Brunson serve as a coaching intern on his staff when he spent a few months as the coach at Miami Central in the spring of 2008. “She got love for sports, period. Outside of being an athlete herself, I remember she did everything we told her to do as a kid. She was one of our leaders, along with the boys. We could count on her to keep them inline. We used to tell her to straighten them up. And they would. She’s in the right situation at Jackson. She’s got former classmates whose kids go there now, know her.”
Brunson said she has been thankful for the support local churches have given the team by providing free meals this summer. She says she’s not sure how some of her players would have eaten a meal otherwise. She’s also thankful for the support she’s received from her coaching staff. Although a couple of assistants have left, so far she says, no player has thrown a sexist comment within earshot and she feels like she has the respect of the team.
“They respect her,” Campbell said of the players. “She’s more like an executive coach. So, they know any kind of paperwork, she’ll take care of any stuff like that. In the beginning it was kind of weird. But now, it’s like anything. Whenever something new comes around it kind of works itself out. A lot of head coaches want to get out there and be offensive coordinator, defensive coordinator. She’ll tell you in a minute, I’m here to learn.”
Brusnon said her average work days last about 13 hours. She says she gets to school at around 6:45 a.m. and spends a few minutes praying in her car before heading off to tackle the day.
Once school starts next week, she expects to have a class schedule that includes at least seven periods of teaching before she’s able to turn her focus to football. After practice, Brunson said she usually gets home and watches game film or responds to text messages from her players and assistants.
“It’s really an all day job because you dream about it,” Brunson said. “You wake up in the morning and dream what’s next.”
The next step is a bit of history Thursday. As for her first pregame speech, Brunson said she won’t be writing anything down or rehearsing any of it.
“Everything has to come from the heart,” Brunson said. “Or it ain't going to be real.”