They were only in shorts, jerseys and helmets, and they weren’t even practicing for long.
Stormy weather across South Florida on Monday afternoon forced the Northwestern Bulls off the field about 45 minutes into their first practice of the fall. But all that hardly mattered to the 50 kids donning the blue and gold. Football was back and so were the smiles.
“I’m just glad to be out here and not on the track any more,” senior receiver and team captain Marcus Williams said. “Summer conditioning was crazy. We’re all just happy to be out here.”
Monday was the first day high school football teams across the state could officially practice. And at Northwestern, a storied program that has won four state titles, a national title and sent countless players to the NFL, including recent first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater, it was another chance to catch up to neighborhood rivals Booker T. Washington and Central.
The Tornadoes won last year’s national title. The Rockets, Northwestern’s district rivals, claimed their third state title in four years.
The Bulls? They’ve fallen on hard times. Northwestern finished 5-5 last season and has missed the playoffs twice in the past three years. That’s stunning when you consider Northwestern set a Miami-Dade County record with 19 consecutive playoff trips from 1992 to 2010.
“Last year was unacceptable,” Williams said. “We’re going to be way better than that.”
New coach Eddie “Rabbit” Brown, who arrived in April, certainly believes the Bulls can be. For Brown, who turns 45 in October, this is a dream job.
He grew up across the street from Northwestern. His parents went there. His aunts and uncles went there. Brown? He went to rival Central.
Why? “Because [famous coach Irv Balkman] came to my house and told my mom he’d give me a ride to school,” Brown says with a chuckle. “Every day, he’d pick me up and drive me to school. I didn’t have a choice. My mom said I was going with him.
“Before I interviewed for this job, I went to his house and got some encouragement, advice from him. He’s the reason I coach. He saved my life and did some great things for me, got me on track. Because of the things he did for me, that’s my goal. I want to give back to young men, the kids I used to be like.”
Brown is no fool. School boundaries have never stopped the best football players in the city from flocking to play for coaches they trust and believe in. Booker T. and Central have had those type of leaders for the past few years.
Tim “Ice” Harris, hired as the running backs coach at the University of Miami last week, and Roland Smith, who led Central to the state title in his first year there last December, have been friends with Brown since they were all kids. They grew up playing football together at the Northwest Boys and Girls club in Miami.
“I think we only lost one game our entire [youth] careers,” said Brown, who in 2006 was tabbed the greatest player in Arena Football League history and whose son, Antonio, is a Pro Bowl receiver with the Steelers. “We were pretty good.”
Brown believes he can guide the Bulls back to that championship level.
“I wouldn’t have come here if I didn’t think we could get to that level,” he said. “This is Miami Northwestern. We have phenomenal athletes here, and the sky is the limit for what we can do here.”
Upon his arrival in April, Brown cleaned house and brought in an entirely new coaching staff. Among his assistants are former Central and Dillard coach Manny Martin, who is in charge of the defense. Offensive coordinator Quincy Woods came over with Brown from Wyandotte High School in Kansas City, Kansas, where they had been coaching together since 2010.
The Bulls will play to host Palm Beach Central at Traz Powell Stadium on Aug. 22. The season opener is Aug. 29 against Hialeah Mater Academy.
The Bulls are loaded in the secondary, led by cornerback Deandre Baker, a University of Georgia commitment. Defensive end Aaron Kinsey (6-4, 220) had 15 sacks last season. Quarterback, a position of concern since Bridgewater last played for the Bulls in 2010, might finally have a young talented star waiting in the wings in freshman Tutu Atwell.
“Right now we just need to put some more weight on him,” Brown said.
Brown said at the end of camp the best players are going to get on the field.
“I don’t care what grade you’re in,” Brown said. “We’re going to play the best guys that give us the best opportunity to win.”