Fuller's passion steers Jaguars

Fuller's passion steers Jaguars

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Fuller's passion steers Jaguars

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Corey Fuller smiled as the question was asked, almost as if he had been waiting to pounce with a response.

The query came almost a full hour into the conversation and Fuller, dressed in his East Gadsden football coaching shirt and a pair of gray sweatpants, was all too eager to provide the answer.

Fuller laughed to himself, unplugged his iPhone from its recharging cable and navigated the touch-screen until he found one of his most frequently called numbers.

“Coach Hickman,” Fuller yelled, holding the phone up after highlighting the speaker function. “He wants to know how I stayed out of trouble.”

It was a proud moment for Fuller as he pointed to the phone and grinned as Hickman’s voice came through the speaker.

“How did you stay out of trouble?” Hickman said, repeating the question.

It was a loaded question, of course. Fuller knew the answer. Hickman knew the answer, too.

The fun part, though, was waiting for the response.

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Loyalty is a sacred word in Fuller’s vocabulary. So is family. And when those two words intersect, they form a perfect union with passion.

“I tell these kids all the time,” Fuller said. “We are our own family. The kids in this locker room and the coaches in this locker room — we are one family. It’s nobody else but us.”

Fuller is proud to sit at the head of the table of the East Gadsden football family. It’s a seat that fits him well.

He is a month or so away from completing his third season as the Jaguars’ head coach. The team clinched its second straight district title a week ago – a first in school history. It’s also believed to be a feat never achieved at the old Shanks High School, which merged with Havana Northside to form East Gadsden a decade ago.

A year ago, East Gadsden won two playoff games before losing to Jacksonville Bolles in the Class 4A state semifinals. The last time a football team from Quincy advanced further in the playoffs came in 1970, though Shanks won two playoff games under former coach Andy Gay in the late ’90s.

“I know we can win state,” Fuller said. “I know we can do it. That’s why I get on these kids every day. It’s my job to look at the big picture, to look at Bolles and beyond. It’s my job to get us there. But they have to believe in us. They have to believe in their coaches.”

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Traveze Robinson quit the football team three years ago. He was in line to be the Jaguars’ starting quarterback, but he struggled in the transition from former coach Scott Anderson to Fuller.

Robinson had gotten used to the old coaching regime, the one that looked the other way when players skipped practices. That all changed when Fuller arrived in the spring of 2010.

“The first couple of weeks we didn’t even touch the ball,” Robinson said. “He just broke us in with discipline and running. Respect – that’s what he focused on. I actually quit. My first full practice, I walked off the field.”

He wasn’t the only one. But, unlike some of the others, Robinson came back. He’s now a senior and already holds a scholarship offer from Florida A&M. Other schools have hinted at possible scholarship offers.

Robinson points to Fuller as the biggest reason why he’s so close to becoming a college football player.

“He’s like a father for most of us,” he said. “A lot of us don’t have our fathers. I’m lucky. I still have my mom and dad. But he steps up for all those guys who don’t have a father.”

One of those guys is senior Jarrell Reynolds, whose father died when he was 2 years old.

Reynolds, who earned first-team All-State honors as a junior, has been a target of Fuller’s fury for the last three years. Even as a senior, Reynolds is not immune from the yelling and screaming.

“He gets on us about everything that’s wrong,” Reynolds said. “He makes sure that everybody here – if somebody has a problem at home, he’ll help them out. He’s showing us that he doesn’t want us to stay in Gadsden County. That we can use our talent to go to someone else’s school and get a degree.”

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Fuller mixes plenty of salt and vinegar with the sugar and honey.

He’s quick to praise one of his players to an outsider, but he’s even quicker to bark at them any time he sees a missed step. Often, that bark is laced with plenty of venom.

In his mind, he has to be so much more than a football coach. He has to be a father and a mentor, a brother and a leader, a drill sergeant and a disciplinarian.

Coaching, he said, is only 10 percent of his job description.

“These kids, they live in a microwave society,” Fuller said. “They think they just pop it in and everything comes out ready to go. That’s not how it works. The real world isn’t like that. You have to work to get what you want. You have to be disciplined and focused to get where you want to be.”

Fuller had plenty of mentors in his own life to help him understand that same concept.

One of those mentors was a friend he will only refer to as Montee, his neighbor in the Orange Avenue housing project where he was raised.

“He was a few years older than me,” Fuller said, “and he was the one who would grab me and take me the other way when kids in the project were doing the wrong thing. I don’t know why he did it. He just looked after me and made sure I didn’t get in trouble.”

Another of those mentors was Willie Williams, his receivers coach and track coach at Rickards High, where Fuller was a star athlete in the late 1990s.

Fuller brags about the lessons learned at Florida State, where he was a star cornerback for legendary defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews. He still cherishes the time he spent playing for Andrews and Bobby Bowden – and still refers to them as father figures in his life.

But Fuller says the one reason why he is where he is today – a successful high school football coach who played 10 years in the NFL – is Mike Hickman, his coach at Rickards who is now the athletic director at Florida High.

It was Hickman who Fuller called on Friday, just an hour before East Gadsden played Florida High. The Seminoles are now coached by Jarrod Hickman, Mike’s son.

The bond between mentor and teen, coach and player, is as strong today as it ever was.

“Coach Hickman drove me home one night after practice,” Fuller said. “We were parked on the road and just talking. And someone came out and pulled a gun on him. I knew who it was. I got out of the car and I yelled at the guy to stop.

“I was going to take a bullet that night if I had to. I was going to die right then if I had to.”

At 41 years old, Fuller’s playing days have long since passed. He still has plenty of NFL war stories to share, about former teammates and former coaches and the business side of the sport.

But his favorite football stories are the ones he is now authoring at East Gadsden. It’s this next generation of players that has captured his attention, that reminds him so much of the father-less environment in which he was raised.

“Most of these kids, they don’t have a father,” Fuller said. “They need someone to show them the way. That’s why I’m blessed to have the coaching staff I have. They all believe in the same thing – that these kids need us.”

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The phone conversation lasted just a few minutes. Mike Hickman answered the question perfectly, as though it was rehearsed.

“Corey, I may have helped push you the right way a time or two,” Hickman said, “but you did it yourself.”

Fuller smiled with pride as he listened through the speaker at his former coach. Then he jumped back into the conversation.

“Coach, if you don’t bring those pictures tonight I’m not letting you in the game,” Fuller barked.

Hickman brought the pictures. They were 8×10 prints of a photo of Fuller standing between Mike and Jarrod Hickman.

One of the prints was signed by Mike Hickman.

“Corey, I’m so proud of you,” Hickman wrote.

Fuller took one of the prints, grabbed a black Sharpie pen and wrote his own message.

“To my real dad,” Fuller wrote. “Thanks for everything.”

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