Max Edwards stood proudly on the podium as the sun set over Camping World Stadium early Saturday evening.
He had another medal around his neck after watching his team, which was given up for dead seven weeks ago, win a second consecutive state title following Northwestern’s 22-0 victory over Seffner Armwood in the 6A state title game at Camping World Stadium.
But this medal had an entirely different feel to it. As well it should have.
That’s because the combination of a brutal regular season that saw his team at 3-5 with two games left and having to scramble just to make the playoffs, along with what has notoriously been an impatient fan base, led to what was rumored to be his dismissal preceding the Nov. 2 Soul Bowl matchup against Jackson at Traz Powell Stadium.
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But the unconditional love from his players who affectionately refer to him as “Coach Max” rose to the surface when the rumors surfaced that he was going to be fired and would not be on the sidelines for the Soul Bowl.
“We had heard the news that Coach Max was going to get fired, we got together as a team and knew that we had to rally around him and come together for him,” defensive tackle and Pittsburgh commit Calijah Kancey said at practice during the week leading up to Saturday’s game. “It made us mad and more hungry. We weren’t going to play the Soul Bowl unless he was coming back. When we got the news that he was back, we just went out there and gave it 110 percent and we just took off from there.”
When approached after the game on Saturday, Edwards denied that he was actually fired and blamed it on former players who got on social media.
“They went to social media and said things that I didn’t say and weren’t true,” Edwards said. “The alumni, the administration backed me up because they knew it wasn’t true. I was never fired. It was social media driven by former players. Once it got out there, I couldn’t get out there and fight that. I’m not a social media guy.”
Defensive end and University of Miami commit Samuel Brooks didn’t mince words and indicated that Edwards’ situation was the kick in the pants players needed to start playing up to their potential.
“I think almost losing Coach Max was probably the biggest thing that brought us together and probably the main reason we made it up here,” Brooks said. “They tried to fire him and we felt bad about that, we felt like we were responsible because of the way we were playing. We love Coach Max to death and just said we’re going to go out there and play for him.”
Despite being a defending state champion and facing a challenging schedule — the five losses were to Columbus, South Dade, IMG Academy, Carol City and Central — things went south quickly as Edwards absorbed the heat for the team not getting it done on the field.
“Coach Max always preached to us that no matter what happens, no matter what kind of adversity you go through, that family always sticks together and you fight your way through it,” said running back Jacquez Stewart. “You never leave a brother and we were never going to leave him. Looking back on it, I think that’s where everything turned around for us. We were embarrassed how bad we were playing and went out there and did something about it.”
When reached after the game on Saturday evening in the bowels of Camping World Stadium, Northwestern athletic director Andre Williams also denied that Edwards was ever informed of a firing.
“It was a difficult period during that time for the principal [Wallace Aristide] and myself,” Williams said. “It was strictly an internal school situation and had nothing to do with the alumni, booster club or community.”
When asked specifically if Edwards had been informed that he would be fired, Williams shook his head from side to side in denial.
“I have to look out and evaluate what’s best for the program and team,” Williams said. “And at the end of the day, when we all reconvened again, we came to the agreement that Coach Max was the person to continue coaching this team. The kids showed their support but we never let him know anything. The public, the media, everybody assumed we had fired him. That never took place.”
But when asked if Edwards would return next season following his second straight state title, Williams hardly gave a ringing endorsement.
“The principal and I will meet and will have discussions,” said Williams. “Certainly Coach Max will be involved in those discussions and then we will determine what direction we want to go with the program.”