BRADEN RIVER — With an air of discipline that would have made their old coach proud, the Braden River High School football team hit the field for spring practice May 1.
The practice was the first of the year and just one day removed from Josh Hunter’s resignation from the sideline. And although no one could’ve blamed them for crumbling from the recent tragedy they endured, the Pirates marched onto their practice field in determination.
Interim head coach Ed Volz ran the team through the basic drills that will become the routine for the Pirates next season. And, with the exception of the unison handclaps that echoed off the surrounding trees, the coaches yelling instructions and the pounding of cleats on grass, the field was silent.
All were focused on football. Coach Hunter wouldn’t have had it any other way.
The news of Hunter’s resignation came about a month after the tragic death of Assistant Coach Doug Garrity.
According to Florida Highway Patrol reports, Hunter was driving his Ford truck at about 11:50 p.m., March 21, at the on-ramp to Interstate 75 at State Road 681 in Nokomis. The truck veered off the road and overturned after Hunter failed to negotiate a curve in the roadway, Florida Highway Patrol Public Affairs Officer Lt. Chris Miller said.
In the weeks that followed, Hunter tried to resign on several occasions. But instead of accepting it, Athletic Director Bob Bowling urged Hunter to continue.
“He came to me and said, ‘I can’t do it,’” Bowling said. “I said to him, ‘Don’t tell me that. What would you tell one of your players if he came to you and said, ‘I can’t do it?’’
“It was hard, because of course, I had compassion for him, but at the same time, I put my foot in his back and told him to get back to work,” Bowling said.
Hunter pressed on as hard as he could.
“Some days, you’d go down there, and it was like he was back to his old self,” Bowling said. “Other days, his arms would be folded and he’d say, ‘What am I doing here?’”
Finally on April 29, Hunter and his wife met with Bowling.
“He told me again he couldn’t go on,” Bowling said. “He said that the teaching didn’t bother him but the coaching did — that’s where his heart was. He said he was sorry that he was letting me down, letting the kids down and letting the school down. But I told him — he wasn’t letting anyone down.
“Josh did everything he could to overcome this, but nobody really knows what he’s going through,” he said.
Bowling met with the team the following morning to tell them the news.
“Coach is like my second father,” said Pirate Chris Garcia. “It’s a sad day for a program on the rise.”
Hunter was tapped to start Braden River’s football program when the school opened in 2005. Hunter played high school ball at Southeast High School before heading to Division I-AA at Eastern Kentucky. Before Braden River, Hunter coached at Lakewood Ranch.
“When we first hired him, we were looking for someone who was big on discipline — that was one of our biggest things,” Bowling said. “He taught those kids right. He taught them that there was a right way and a wrong way to act, and he set a good example for them.”
Rallying around their coach, the inaugural Pirates built Braden River’s tradition for gridiron excellence almost immediately. Last season, the Pirates earned their first playoff berth and even beat favored Palmetto in the Class 4A-Region 3 quarterfinal game.
“He started our football program, and he has done everything we’ve asked him to do,” Principal Jim Pauley said. “He established a first-class program. It’s a huge loss for us.”
In many ways, Hunter personifies Pirate pride. His papa bear stature appears menacing but hides a soft side that touched many students on and off the field.
“The general public doesn’t understand what coaches do for kids,” Bowling said. “Some of these kids don’t have parents, or don’t have a dad, and coaches fill that void. Sometimes, that’s the only person they gravitate to. And he was there for all of them.
“He gave them a lot to hold on to,” he said. “And with all the tragedy we’ve experienced, I don’t want them to forget that part.”
Although Hunter will no longer be on the sidelines, he will remain a physical education teacher at Braden River. Volz will serve as interim head coach this spring.
“We’re going to keep things going the best we can,” Bowling said. “And slowly, we’ll put the Band-Aids on. We’ve preached being a family here from day one, and right now, that’s what we need.”
“There have been a lot of tears shed, and there’s no playbook here to tell us how to handle this,” Pauley said. “But like a family, we have to draw together and do what’s best for our students. That’s our job.”
The Pirates are scheduled to play their spring game May 28 against Riverview.
Contact Michael Eng at [email protected].