Milton, Fla. - On a makeshift football field in north Santa Rosa County, cut-off foam swimming noodles serve as yard markers. Here, Haynes Gandy and Scott Hoodless prepare to lead a team of nearly 50 football players through practice.
For many of the players, it’s their first time on a football team. Gandy and Hoodless, both Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) employees, helped create football programs in the rural communities of Chumuckla and Milton after recognizing a gap in the community.
“The community embraced the new football program,” Gandy said. “I’ve never seen anything like it.”
Together, Gandy and Hoodless coach three youth teams: 8-under, 10-under and 12-under with about 14 to15 players on each team. By comparison, the nearby town of Pace has at least seven teams in each age group.
“Nobody argues about playing time,” Gandy laughed. “Most players play both offense and defense. They come off the field to get some water, then go right back in.”
Gandy met with the county school board last year and convinced it to add football to its high schools. His 14-under team last year is now the junior varsity team (8th through 10th graders) at the high school. There’s no football field yet, so all of the teams’ games are on the road, but that doesn’t stop the droves of family and supporters from attending.
Fans filled the parking lots and visitors’ bleachers during a recent game at Jay High School. A few miles north of Florida’s state line, in Atmore, Alabama, a concession stand ran out of food during the game.
It’s a shared dedication that inspires the coaches and players’ families. In the inaugural season, Hoodless stayed up late at night, putting graphics on football helmets. At the game, team moms served water, while Hoodless’ wife, a nurse at a local hospital, tackled player injuries.
Meanwhile, 40 to 50 girls are on the same field practicing as cheerleaders for the teams. Coaches say it’s a community effort made possible with the help of generous donations, including a community grant from FPL.
“It’s just phenomenal how it worked out,” Hoodless said. “We’ve got a lot of support from the community.”
But it’s not just about the sport. Gandy and Hoodless say they are teaching kids about life through football.
“I have no say over what their grades are, but I tell them I expect them to let me know if [they’re] in trouble, we’ll get [them] some help,” Gandy said. “I can’t tell you how many kids come back to me and say, ‘hey, coach, I made A-B honor roll.’ And a mom or dad coming back to say, ‘I’ve never had him make A-B honor roll before. Thank you for what ya’ll are doing.’”
Daniel Baxley is just one of many parents who say they are grateful for the doors Gandy and Hoodless are opening for their kids. After graduating from Central High School, what he calls a basketball school, Baxley takes pride in watching his two sons play on the junior varsity and u-10 teams.
“Football has a different atmosphere and intensity from other sports,” Baxley said. “Gandy did all of the leg work and without him, [none] of this would've happened.”
Joe Surratt, a junior varsity head coach and a former Florida State football standout, said the players who came up from Gandy’s program are just starting their journey of hard work and practice.
“They came out with excitement and the traits that Gandy brings,” Surratt said. “He brings the want-to and the boys represent that.”