The first time Rodrick Lawson heard Florida Air Academy might restart its football program that had been dormant for a decade, his bosses at Palm Bay High talked him into remaining as defensive backs coach for the Pirates.
Eventually, the 1992 Rockledge grad took the opportunity to become a head coach, joining FAA in the spring of 2004 as it started the varsity program that had disbanded in 1994.
Dropping football in ’94 had been tough for the school’s president, James Dwight, whose dad founded the academy in 1961 and was its first football coach.
Talking Monday, Dwight said conditions were similar the first time the decision was made to those of today. FHSAA reclassification that would have moved FAA football to Class 3A played a role this time. Dwight said in 1994, the football team was playing bigger schools with bigger players.
“We’ve certainly given it a good shot, but I didn’t want to get to the point where we are having losing seasons” and the program begins to decline, he said.
Lawson left FAA for Ft. Pierce Westwood after leading the Falcons for five seasons. He later returned to Brevard as an assistant coach at Eau Gallie.
Lawson was surprised and disappointed to learn of the end of the football program at his old school, remembering when he helped to rebuild it from the ground up.
“I remember the butterflies I had the first game,” he said. “I didn’t know if I was going to make it because of the anxiety I had.”
His first team included players from Haiti, Bermuda and all over, and he and his staff were truly teaching them how to play a new sport. They still managed to go 6-3 the first year despite playing only established teams.
“Our first center was from Puerto Rico, so we had offensive line calls in Spanish,” Lawson said. Mostly, he remembered the kinds of players the program attracted and what it did for them.
“What Florida Air offered to those young men was different than what MCC and Holy Trinity offers,” he said. “We got kids that weren’t fortunate enough to have some of those things. Florida Air could provide that structure and discipline that those kids needed.”
A mother once told him her son has used the phrase, “Yes, ma’am” for the first time after attending the academy. He is particularly proud of the players who weren’t at the top of recruiting lists but who had become successful in the classroom and earned athletic scholarship dollars.
“We had more success getting kids in the small schools like that, because of the respect those colleges had for Florida Air,” Dawson said. “I was able to get them in schools that I never heard of. These schools gave them money to play football and to go to good academic schools.”
Consider the fact that Florida Tech will begin playing football for the first time in the fall. How many Panthers might have come from the ranks of the FAA program had it survived? Would lives have been changed for the better?
One more obvious question is this: FAA once lost football for a decade, under what the president described as “similar conditions.” Could it return again someday?
“I would say that’s very unlikely,” Dwight said Monday, “but you never want to rule anything out.”
It seems doubtful it would happen any time soon, but Dwight is a football fan himself. He has memories not only of watching the birth of FAA football but of living in Miami when a new team called the Dolphins began.
If nothing else, he expects the school to put more emphasis on programs such as soccer and swimming.
That is some good news out of what is otherwise disappointing. Perhaps some young athletes from those teams can find enough success to make it big, or at least to make it.