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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.
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Prep football's sweet soul
Early edition: Jeff Curry reminds people of "Radio" from the movie. He shows up for almost every practice and game at Jefferson High School.
By SCOTT PURKS
Published November 9, 2006
TAMPA — The chances of Jeff Curry and Stephen Garcia ever talking, let alone becoming friends, would seem remote.
Garcia is an 18-year-old quarterback at Jefferson High School and one of the most hotly recruited athletes in the country. He speaks like he plays football, without hesitation.
Girls, classmates, even parents flock to him.
Curry is a 34-year-old man with a boy’s mind; a sweet soul who loves Spanish television (though he doesn’t speak Spanish), eats to the point his prodigious belly tightens like a drum and, when he gets excited, fumbles over words between long, desperate pauses.
This week at practice, Garcia walked by Curry and asked a question he has for years: “Hey Jeff, what’s up? Seen any good movies lately?”
Curry then went into, Garcia said, “ extremely long detail about this movie I’ve never heard of, which is fine because I haven’t heard of most of the movies he talks about, and still he always makes it interesting. I always enjoy talking to him. I almost look forward to it.’’
Said Curry, grinning as if speaking about his best buddy in the world, “Stephen is very nice. He is a great player. He could play … in the NFL someday. And, yes, he is my friend.”
Curry was standing on the sideline during a practice … watching, as he has almost every day for 13 years.
What was he doing there?
The answer begins at his birth, when a lack of oxygen led to brain damage. He never fully developed mentally and still stumbles over words and struggles with directions.
Still, in his own way, Jeff thrived through the years. He loved his schools, making friends and eating everything in sight. He grew into a burly man. He saw almost every movie that came out and every day read the newspaper cover to cover.
He danced for hours to ABBA. He seemed blessed with happiness and curiosity. But, his mother, B.J., worried.
“I was overly protective,” said B.J., an officer for the Tampa Police Department for 28 years. “I knew there were bad people out there who could take advantage of him.”
Into Jeff’s early 20s, B.J. worried that she might be holding him back too much, but she didn’t know how to appease his curiosity and her concern.
Then, 13 years ago — on one of the many days he was driven from his home in Temple Terrace to his aunt, Johnnie Mae Lane’s, house next to Jefferson — Jeff stood staring out the window. Across the street, teenagers in blue jerseys and pads tackled each other.
“I remember that day distinctly, because he kept on staring and staring, watching those boys practice,” Lane said.
“Then he told me, 'I’m going over there.’ I said, 'Why you want to go over there? That doesn’t look like something you should be doing.’
“He said, 'I have to have a life!’ Then he walked out the door and across the street. I watched him say hello, and then I watched him stand there for the whole practice. Watching. Just like that. Been like that ever since.”
Last Wednesday afternoon , Jeff was standing on the same sideline , calves the size of softballs below the seam in his shorts. Jefferson coach Mike Fenton said hello. So did every other assistant. So did players.
“If Jeff wasn’t here,” Fenton said, “it wouldn’t be a Jefferson High practice. It would be distracting, honestly, if Jeff wasn’t here.”
Jeff sometimes takes water to players or paces the practice field like a coach. Periodically, he will leave the action to lift weights underneath the stadium.
On game nights, Jeff sits in the stands, near baseball or softball players he has befriended.
One day, it was raining so hard the football team piled into a room to break down film. Less than 10 minutes into the session, Fenton stopped and barked, “What is that?! … Snoring?! Who’s snoring?! Somebody snoring?!”
The lights went up, and in the corner was Jeff, “ still snoring,” Fenton said. “I mean, I know I’m boring, but gee whiz.’’
When Fenton greeted Jeff on the field that afternoon, he asked, “Have you seen any good movies lately?”
“Oh yes, yes,” said Jeff, who stutters slightly when he gets excited, which happens sometimes when he talks about movies. “I saw Invincible and World Trade Center. Very good. Very good. World Trade Center is serious, and sad, but it is very good.”
His eyes beaming, his cheeks plump as gigantic peaches, Jeff’s big face seemed to say that at that moment there was nowhere in the world he would rather be and no one he would rather be with.
Fenton gave Jeff a hug.
Just before Fenton trotted off to practice, Jeff rubbed his tummy and said, “I’m getting hungry.”
“He gets hungry about this time every day,” Fenton explained. “Starts rubbing his tummy like that.” Someone asked Jeff his favorite food.
He grinned. “Everything.”
When B.J. is told these stories, her smile is almost as big as Jeff’s. It doesn’t matter that she didn’t attend Jefferson (she attended Middleton before integration), doesn’t live near Jefferson (she lives closest to King ) and doesn’t follow sports.
What she knows is this: She is confident — “ completely and totally,” she said — that Jeff is treated well at Jefferson, whether it’s with the football, baseball or softball teams, all of which he follows closely.
“I feel blessed that he can go over there and see his old friends and make new ones and go to the practices and games and everything will be okay,” B.J. said.
“Everyone there knows him and treats him fantastic.”
On Oct. 28, Jeff was seen in a “knight in shining armor” costume, dancing all night long at a party with friends he met through sports at Jefferson. The party, including Jeff, has become an annual tradition. This year, he won best costume.
Many times through the past few weeks, Jeff asked if all the interviews and pictures represented his “15 minutes of fame.”
“Is my 15 minutes over yet? … Is my 15 minutes over yet?”
“No way, Jeff,” Fenton told him . “Around here, you get way more than 15 minutes.”