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He went to cover sports, but became part of story

By ERNEST HOOPER
Published October 14, 2005


Plant City High senior Aaron Sullivan wakes up at 6 a.m. every day so he can watch ESPN's SportsCenter before school starts.

He dresses during the commercials.

Aaron's love of sports and interest in broadcasting brought him to One Buc Place on Wednesday to get a behind the scenes look at how the media operate.

A winner of the team's Work With The Bucs program, Sullivan figured he would shadow a reporter, mill about the locker room and maybe ask a question, if he could work up the courage.

Little did he know that he would end up answering questions.

WDAE-AM 620 assistant program director Darek Sharp had the task of escorting Aaron around the locker room during the team's lunchtime interview session. I tagged along to write about the success of the program, which takes area teens inside the world of sports reporting.

As we waited for the locker room to open, Aaron, the starting center on Plant City's football team, mentioned that the school's coach, Todd Long, abruptly resigned on Tuesday. Aaron explained Long was stepping down after tonight's pivotal game against East Bay to become an assistant principal at nearby Durant High.

Needless to say, it's uncommon for a high school coach to resign in midseason, even if he has a good reason. Darek and I were intrigued.

The business at hand, however, was bounding about the locker room. Aaron looked on as Sharp moved from player to player. At one point, Darek gave Aaron the microphone and thrust him into a cluster of reporters surrounding Bucs center John Wade. I kept needling Aaron, saying, "Get closer, get closer."

Soon he had the microphone under Wade's nose.

"At first, you want to stick it right in their face," Aaron said. "Then you start peeling back, but you don't know how far you can go back. It's all a game of guessing when you're new to it."

As the interview session wound down, I introduced Aaron to WFLA-Ch. 8 sports director J.P. Peterson and casually mentioned that Aaron's high school football coach had resigned.

Oops.

Peterson saw the information for what it was: a breaking news story. He seized the opportunity and began interviewing Aaron on the spot.

Luckily, Aaron handled himself quite well. His quotes were thoughtful and reflective. He even deftly handled a difficult question. Peterson asked if the team felt like Coach Long was bailing out on them.

Aaron explained that he believed the players recognized Long was doing what was best for him and his family. He added that he hoped the decision would be a motivating factor for the Plant City Raiders, not a negative one.

"At first, I was like, "Whoa, he's interviewing me, a high school senior in an NFL locker room,' " Aaron said. "When he asked, "Is the team upset?' I wanted to be defensive (because) I love Coach Long. I know him personally."

Overall, it was a great experience for Aaron. Bucs director of communications Jeff Kamis started the program in 2004 to give high school students a chance to learn more about how the media and public relations pros work with the players. Applications for the program tripled this season.

In addition to Wednesday's locker room session, Aaron also will sit in the press box at Sunday's Bucs-Dolphins game at Raymond James Stadium.

Just by chance, he was matched with Sharp, but there couldn't have been a better person. Like Aaron, Darek is a Plant City native who got into journalism shortly after high school. In fact, they both shared a smile about Mark Ackett, the longtime television production teacher at Plant City High.

Darek, 35, began freelancing stories for the Plant City Courier at 19 and broke into the radio business shortly after at the old WPLA-AM 910. From those humble roots, he's made a steady rise thanks to perseverance.

"If you like sports, my job is great fun," Darek told Aaron. "Some people like their jobs okay, but it's the same thing every day. Sports, it's not. It's different sports all year round. I love that."

Whether Aaron follows in those footsteps remains to be seen. He wants to attend college in North or South Carolina - maybe Campbell, Elon or Winthrop universities - and major in business while minoring in communications.

One thing is certain. If he does end up trolling for quotes in an NFL locker room, he will always remember the day he became the story.

That's all I'm saying.

Ernest Hooper can be reached at 813 226-3406 or Hooper@sptimes.com

[Last modified October 14, 2005, 01:40:20]


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