By GREG AUMAN
© St. Petersburg Times, published August 30, 2001
BROOKSVILLE -- The first friendships formed in third grade.
By middle school, they had been playing together for years in youth league football, so by the time they made Central's junior varsity squad as freshmen, they were already close.
As sophomores and juniors, they grew together, and now as seniors starting on the same offensive line, Billy Wood, Willie Winslett, T.J. Hedick, Andrew Bourgignon and Doug Crowley share more than a three-point stance and a big number on their backs.
"We always have total trust in one another," said Hedick, the center. "For some reason, I know that if I miss something they'll be there for me to get it on the other side."
With the exception of their freshman year, when Winslett was up with the varsity, they've played on the same line and walked off the same field together after hundreds of practices.
"I trust all of them," said left tackle Wood. "I trust them with my life. I can't explain it. We just go way back."
Wood recalls the way Winslett would stay over at his house "for weeks" as best friends in middle school, how he and Hedick would hit the buffet at Golden Corral every Sunday, doing all sorts of damage. Hedick recalls smiles on faces when the Bears upset unbeaten Crystal River in their Homecoming game as sophomores.
"We're pretty much inseparable," Hedick said. "If you see us outside of here, we're always together. There isn't a time you see me without Doug or Billy or Willie. We're always around each other. We live together, we party together, everything."
At 280 pounds, Hedick is the biggest of the five, and by all accounts, the strongest. Winslett is the fastest, running the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds, though Wood has clocked a 4.9 despite the fact he considers himself the biggest eater of the lot. ("I think I've got them beat on that one," he says without pause.)
Crowley has grown four inches since his sophomore year but still isn't tallest or biggest, and Bourguignon, the latest arrival to the group and the one who graded out highest this spring, has added 30 pounds to his frame in two years, but is still easily the lightest at 195 pounds.
Three years together on an offensive line is a rare commodity, and coach Steve Crognale said this is a season he has looked forward to since the group joined the varsity in 1999.
"I've told them this is the year," Crognale said. "It's time to put up. I thought we played fairly solid last year, but they need to get more consistent.
"If you have a good offensive line, I honestly believe at any level that's where games are won and lost. I'm an old lineman myself so I might be prejudiced ... A good offense needs a good offensive line, a good defense has to have a good defensive line."
Crognale recalls his college days at St. Mary of the Plains College in Kansas, when three of his fellow starting linemen were also from Florida and that helped forge a strong bond. "It's five guys working together," he said. "These guys, they're a pretty close-knit group on the field and in the locker room. They know they've got to get it done."
The experience has given them confidence as well.
Said Wood: "When we click, you can't stop us." Added Winslett: "I don't feel we should give up any sacks. If we do, it won't be more than five."
As the strongest part of a large senior class, the linemen have stepped up in guiding the underclassmen as well -- some vocal, like Hedick and Winslett, others more by example, like Bourguignon. The responsibility of leadership is a burden they share together.
"I think it's all on us," Wood said. "Everyone looks up to us. I remember when I was a freshman, we all looked up to (seniors) Ed (LaRose), Joe (Condron), everybody. Now we are Ed, Joe and everybody. I've been thinking a lot about it. I get nervous all the time. This is our senior year. Like Coach says, this is our last dance. What if this is my last time ever playing? Every game, I just want to play my heart out."