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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
Lee Meitzler has converted Jefferson's defense into one of the county's best units.
By SCOTT PURKS
Published September 22, 2006
TAMPA - He's quiet. When he does talk his voice is low, even gentle, you might say.
He says "Yes, sir" to almost everybody, no matter what age.
"Respectful," Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia said. "Lee Meitzler is very respectful."
Also tough as rawhide.
True story: In 1984 when Meitzler was a student at Louisiana's McNeese State, he went to a rodeo to watch a friend ride a bull. In the middle of the competition, Meitzler jokingly was asked if he wanted to ride because one of the riders had bowed out.
"Sure," Meitzler said, "I'll try anything once."
He rode. Got thrown off.
"But," he said, "I liked it right away."
Turns out he had such a knack for it that after a few cold-turkey amateur rides, he caught the attention of the McNeese State rodeo coach (yes, there is such a thing). Not long after that, Meitzler had a full athletic scholarship for the McNeese State rodeo team.
Midway through college Meitzler took it a step farther and became a professional bull rider. Three years and a torn-up left knee later (see 10-inch scar), he was teaching math and coaching football at a Louisiana high school.
"That's the first love," Meitzler said. "I played in high school and tried to walk on at McNeese State, but they told me I was too short for a linebacker (about 5-foot-10) and too slow for a fullback."
Like bull riding, though, he said he had a knack for coaching, which no doubt came from a deep love of the game.
So he went to work. Learned everything he could. Soaked up everything football.
He coached a while in Louisiana and in 1999 came to Tampa with his wife, Ramelle, who had ties here. He coached at Hillsborough, switched to Alonso, and in 2003 came back to Hillsborough, where he was a linebackers coach.
This year at age 39, after applying for a couple of head coach positions, he "jumped on" the opportunity to become Jefferson's defensive coordinator.
"And he has done a fantastic job," Jefferson coach Mike Fenton said. "And I do mean fantastic."
The Dragons' defensive stats in four games back it up: Two shutouts, two touchdowns allowed. "Overall," Fenton said, "he's made them a tough and disciplined bunch."
Some might call it a transformation after years of Jefferson giving up 20, 30, even 40 points (in half their games in 2005, the Dragons allowed 20 or more).
"We always said that if Jefferson ever got their defense going real good they would be really, really tough to beat," Hillsborough coach Earl Garcia said. "Well, it looks like Lee has got them going pretty good."
Garcia said he knows what's coming tonight: a "stack" defense, featuring three down lineman and four linebackers, who fill a different gap on almost every play.
"You never know who's coming at you and that has caused a lot of frustration for other teams," Fenton said. "In spring drills it caused our offense a lot of problems and that was against our defense, which, of course, we knew very well."
Perhaps the ones who have taken the most notice are players.
"The difference with Coach 'Mets' is like night and day," offensive and defensive lineman Mike Williams said. "We know that he knows what he's talking about and we're ready to listen to everything he says. He's brought a lot of spirit to our defense and our whole team."