The hard-edged early-morning shadows zig and zag beneath pumping young legs. The dark shapes meet and clash on the cleat-chewed grass of the Venice High School varsity football practice field. The play ends and the shadows quickly stand tall, ready for the next call to action.
Overlooking these shadows is the long shadow of head Venice High coach John Peacock.
This is another good football team, he opines, in a Venice succession of good teams. There’s another stellar season ahead for a town enamored with football.
“GIVE US A ‘V.’ ‘V’ is for VICTORY!”
This practice day began at 7 a.m. for coaches and players. And when Peacock says “7,” he means 7.
“If you’re here at 7:05 and you were supposed to be here at 7, then you’re late,” the coach says. “And you’ll have to pay the price. These are life lessons. We teach life lessons.”
The players come to appreciate what Peacock requires: accountability. It serves them well, he says, in the world beyond Friday Night Lights.
Ask Trey Burton, a Venice football standout before playing for the Florida Gators and then going pro with the Philadelphia Eagles. “I grew up without a father,” Burton says, “so [Coach Peacock] was always there for me if I ever had any questions. He held me accountable for my actions.”
Or ask Trey”s brother, Clay, whose play at Venice, then at the University of Florida, led him to a tryout with the Buffalo Bills.
“Coach was a great mentor and role model,” Burton says. “He demanded 100 percent effort. He helped me reach the pro ranks by allowing me as well as other former players to come back to the high school and train to prepare ourselves to reach the next level.”
The brothers are just two of Peacock’s success stories. In his office is a wall covered with glossy black-and-white photos of Venice Indians at play. All 18 of these players, Peacock says proudly, earned full football scholarships to Division One colleges since he took over as head coach in 2007.
“GIVE US AN ‘E.’ ‘E’ is for EFFORT.”
There are differences between coaching a high school team, a college team or a pro team, Peacock explains. In the pros, if a player slacks off, there is a line of skilled players eager to replace him. In college, a coach’s success hinges heavily on effective recruiting to get the best high school talent. But in high school, you don’t pay players like the pros and you don’t recruit like the colleges. You take what you have, train them, discipline them, make them a team. You teach. You teach skills and life lessons and accountability.
And that’s where Peacock, a young-looking 40, excels. He joined the Venice High coaching staff in 1999 and took over as head coach in 2007. Year after year since then, Venice has been a division team to watch. The little island on the Gulf strikes fear in the hearts of opponents. In his second year as head coach, he led the Venice Indians to 10-0. It was only the fourth undefeated season in school history. Their average game totals stagger the football mind: 38.5 points per game, 425 yards per game.
In 2009, Venice was a force to be reckoned with. ESPN chose the Indians to open the televised high school football season, and millions watched the Florida team play. The team also took its third consecutive district championship title that year. That accomplishment was a first for Venice High.
In every Peacock year, Venice has reached the district playoffs. And they have not lost to a Sarasota County team in six years. The team’s success has led to some grumbling that Peacock and his staff persuade the best high school players throughout the county to enroll in Venice High School. “We don’t recruit kids,” Peacock counters. “They want to come here because Venice is successful. If football is what you want to do, and you’re in this county, why wouldn’t you want to play at Venice?”
What’s undeniable is that in his eight years as head coach, Peacock has amassed a 62-19 record. That’s not just good—that’s great. Peacock shoulders some of the blame for the losses. “My first year of coaching, we went 7-3 and lost in the playoffs,” he relates. “If we could go back, knowing what I know now, and given that same team, we wouldn’t be 7-3 and we wouldn’t have lost in the first round of the playoffs.”
Of the losses, he says, “There are about five or six games where we weren’t good enough. The rest I put on myself.”
Much of Venice’s recent success has come from stout defense. But talent is evenly spread, and that becomes obvious as morning practice hits its pace and the shadows quickly execute planned plays.
Taking snaps this year, as he did last, will be sophomore Bryce Carpenter. He’s a big boy. 6’3,” somewhere around 200 pounds. He’s growing. And learning. But one thing he doesn’t need to be taught: “He’s got nerves of steel,” Peacock says. “I’m not going to worry about if he’s going to compete. He’s our guy.”
Peacock now favors a fast offense. No huddles. He shouts in every play to
Carpenter. A play ends and the offense rushes back into position. Another snap. Carpenter has to make a decision in a second or two. Throw a pass, tuck the ball and run, or pitch it left or right to a running back. Fast. Fast. Decide. Peacock lurks behind Carpenter in practice, watching the decision, judging that decision, but also
offering support, encouragement.
There are 12 other coaches for this team. Assistants coach virtually every position. Linebackers. Receivers. Special teams. These coaches are his best friends, Peacock says, and they regularly grill out to chill out.
“GIVE US AN ‘N.’ ‘N’ is for NEVER QUIT.”
On one sideline, a girl presses a machine’s button, and two large speakers resting atop folding tables begin booming rap music at maximum volume. Conversation becomes difficult in the deafening din of unintelligible noise.
This, understand, is on purpose. Football games are not played in libraries. Stadiums filled with screaming-cheering-beseeching fans can get loud. Carpenter’s signal calls and snap count must be heard above crowd noise. Remember: There is no huddle in a fast offense. The team must hear Carpenter so each player knows what to do. Peacock is preparing this quarterback for Palmetto, for Braden River, for Lakewood Ranch. All will be tough this year, Peacock says.
Under even this pressure, Carpenter seems to throw the ball up for grabs sometimes, and his intended receiver most often makes the catch. But in a real game, with a defender in the vicinity, that completion might well turn into an interception. Peacock and the offense coaches know this, and make corrections.
“GIVE US AN ‘I.’ ‘I’ is for INTENSITY.”
Not far from the practice field is the Venice High School football stadium. Peacock has known it most of his life. He was born in Sarasota in 1974, went to Nokomis and Venice schools, then Cardinal Mooney, where he played linebacker and tailback. From there, he went to East Carolina and finally to Georgia Southern, a small college team that beat the mighty Florida Gators two years ago. How embarrassing was that for UF? Peacock loved it.
“I grew up coming to Venice High School football games,” Peacock says. “My brother is 10 years older than me and he played here at Venice. He was an All-Conference tight end. I was one of the kids throwing footballs in the end zones during games. I grew up here and [a football home game] is the biggest town gathering there is.”
That last part? True. Sellout crowds are almost expected. Season tickets are family heirlooms, much as they are in Green Bay for Packers’ games.
“GIVE US A ‘C.’ ‘C’ is for COURAGE.”
For Coach Peacock, the road to the sidelines of Venice stadium seems pre-programmed. He followed the GPS of his DNA. His father played football at Manatee High School, where a long record of excellence is showcased in overflowing trophy cases. His brother played for Venice. Peacock himself started playing football on the younger three levels of the Venice Vikings. He didn’t play the next three levels but started at Cardinal Mooney as a freshman. “I ended up being one of the starting linebackers for the varsity team my freshman year,” he says.
At Cardinal Mooney, he found a mentor in Coach Mike Dowling. “He’s probably the reason that I got into [coaching],” he says. A football-playing father also molded the person who became head coach John Peacock. “My father has been an influence on how I handle things,” Peacock says.
He learned from others, but ultimately, “If you’re going to be a coach, you’ve got to be your own man,” he says.
His teams have brought him and the school many accolades. Several award presenters have named him Coach of the Year. And he’s the only winner of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s Player of the Year and Coach of the Year awards, for his Cardinal Mooney and Venice efforts.
“GIVE US AN ‘E.’ ‘E’ is for EXCELLENCE.”
There’s no question that Venice is the football school in Sarasota County. And after drubbing Charlotte and Port Charlotte last year, it is likely the best high school team in this area.
College recruiters recognize that. Scouts attend Venice games, watch Venice standouts, seek out Coach Peacock’s advice.
“Recruiters trust me to give them an honest evaluation of a kid,” Peacock begins. “I’ll tell them, ‘We don’t have anybody who’s going to help you.’ And I think that honesty has helped me for future guys.”
Ten o’clock approaches. End of morning practice. The August sun rises higher and the shadows grow shorter on the cleat-chewed practice field. The players gather in a large circle, most kneeling on one knee, around Coach Peacock. Heat-trapping helmets come off. Sweat drips steadily from chins. They listen. Peacock plays back the day, mistakes and all. “It’s why we practice. But I don’t want you going away disappointed. This was a great practice.”
Had to be. The coming year will not be a Venice coronation cakewalk to division champion, he thinks.
“At this stage, everybody’s wanting to do great things, expecting to do great things,” he says. “There’s a lot of talk that Lakewood Ranch is good. A lot of talk that Braden River is good. That Palmetto is good. But we won’t know until we start playing. We don’t know how good we are! I think we’re doing the right things, and that makes me feel comfortable.”
But he smiles at some prospects on this team. “We’re starting 15 sophomores this year. There are some very good ballplayers in that group. I think people are going to be really surprised with sophomore Jaivon Heiligh, sophomore Caleb Smith, and Matt Laroche is going to burst onto the scene
And, he stresses, “This is not my team. This is the 2015 Venice High School football team. This is their team. I’m going to have another one next year. I’m going to start over. That team will be different than this year. But this is their team. I’m just here to guide them.”
Football and his players are a 24-7 passion for Peacock. But he’s a family man as well. His and his wife of four years, Georgia, have a 3-year-old daughter named Justice. “I try to spend as much time with my family as possible,” he says. “We eat dinner together every night, hang out and play.” Stepson Mikey plays on the football team. Stepdaughter Mariah attends Florida State University.
“V-E-N-I-C-E. WHAT HAVE YOU GOT? WINNERS.”
Every year, Coach Peacock will watch the players grow. Some might be good enough for a college scholarship. He’ll help them get it. But his job is bigger than that.
“Football is just part of it,” he says. “The competition, Friday nights, that’s the fun part. We put an awful lot of work in for 10 games. If we lose a game, we’re not going to make excuses, put blame on a call in the game. We’re going to cheer the guys that won, shake their hands and wish them good luck. That’s a huge lesson. A lot of teams don’t learn that. But we will strap on our boots come Monday and get back to work.”