Whenever Xavier McCray needs a source for inspiration, he looks back to Carol City, a Miami Gardens neighborhood where he found football and his life outside it.
It provided no better place to teach the second-year Cypress Lake head football coach about sacrifice, healing and hope.
So when he sees his student athletes struggling through hardships, he looks back.
“I was raised by a single parent mom, four kids,” McCray said. “A tough part of Miami. First one in my family to go to college.”
He uses his success — a four-year letterman at the University of Florida, part of four SEC championships, member of the Gators’ national title team in 1996 — as his testimony.
But he doesn’t rely on those things, either. He rarely shows his rings to anyone.
“They say, ‘Coach, why don’t you wear your rings?’” McCray said. “Because I’m working on my third diploma. I want them to understand that more than anything.”
Teaching football has always been a blessing, but it’s never been his heart’s center. He doesn’t want it to define his character, nor does he want his life to be measured only by his successes on the field.
That became clear after the death Nuk Johnson, a sophomore at Cypress Lake who had become a new father just five months earlier.
Johnson was 17 when he was killed in a shooting alongside his uncle, Andrew Chisholm, in Dunbar on July 2. The case is still being investigated by the Fort Myers Police Department.
It came at a particularly somber time for McCray, whose grandfather passed away just two days earlier. His grandmother found herself in the hospital shortly after.
Johnson wasn’t a star player. He likely wouldn’t have earned a college football scholarship. But to McCray, and really for coaches everywhere, that’s never the point.
He was there for his team in that moment. He knew what it meant to be present in the face of tragedy.
Johnson had reached out to McCray in the months before. Coach wanted to be there for his guy.
Many times they found themselves speaking about life. What made you a good father? What made you successful? How did you find yourself leaving Carol City?
“He had a hard life and he didn’t have a lot of people he felt he could go to,” McCray said. “He had his coach he could testify to and say ‘Coach, this is what I’m going through.’ How do I go through that?”
Since Johnson’s passing, McCray has felt more of an urgency to be a figure of responsibility. It’s nothing new, it’s just amplified. He said that’s what all coaches do, whether the public knows it or not.
He doesn’t treat his athletes like kids. He yells, he urges, he ushers them toward goals. He wants them to understand that it’s never easy.
His days at Florida, and those long nights in the college library studying for subjects, taught him that.
He graduated with a degree in health sciences, then got his Master’s from Nova Southeastern. He’s at Barry University now, reaching for another degree.
In a lot of ways, he’s that way because of Walt Frazier, his former coach at Carol City.
In the early 90s, when he was a prep player with promise, he often went to Frazier to talk about these things.
The lesson Frazier instilled was this, ‘Never stop working.’
“That’s one thing, a good coach that teaches life first, and everything they do, every play you do, every conversation you have with a kid, it’s about life,” McCray said. “You stop lifting weights? Are you going to stop in life? Are you going to give up?”
McCray never has, and he tells himself every day he never will.
Since his days at Carol City, to his time at Florida, to his first years coaching in Miami, to his new beginning at Cypress Lake, McCray is always looking to get better and learn.
He uses his life’s journey as lesson for his players.
You might be going through something you can’t quite describe, he will tell them, but if you keep working toward that dream, you’ll see that life keeps going forward.