Sports

Florida Gov. DeSantis, other officials witness football season’s greatest comeback

NAPLES, FL. — This is a comeback story, but not like ones you’ve come to expect.

This one doesn’t have a breakneck rally by either team or a heroic rise from apparent injury by any player.

Govenor Ron DeSantis attends a football game at Naples High School just 10 days after Hurricane Ian ravaged the area. 

Govenor Ron DeSantis attends a football game at Naples High School just 10 days after Hurricane Ian ravaged the area. 

This is deeper than that.

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The Naples High football team played a game Friday night in front of a raucous home crowd at tiny Staver Field.

And that is the amazing comeback because Hurricane Ian unloaded on Southwest Florida only 10 days ago. There was 10 feet of storm surge not far from the school. Winds were so violent some doors in the school came off their hinges.

Despite that disaster Collier County schools reopened Thursday. And Friday night Naples and Barron Collier were on the field as if nothing had happened.

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Except, of course, something terrible did happen.

Hurricane Ian’s Terrible Consequences

“Quite a few players on our football team, members of the [junior ROTC], the band, the people here making this event what it is, they’re living on couches and in RVs or wherever they can find a place,” said Naples athletic director Cassie Barone.

“They lost every possession to their name. They showed up here in the same clothes they left in. And they’re all here.”

Govenor Ron DeSantis attends a football game at Naples High School just 10 days after Hurricane Ian ravaged the area

Govenor Ron DeSantis attends a football game at Naples High School just 10 days after Hurricane Ian ravaged the area
(Armando Salguero)

NFL players sometimes talk of overcoming adversity when plays fail or their performances don’t meet expectations. That stuff pales in comparison to going hungry a couple of days or sitting in darkness after sunset because of the power outage.

And so this game that offered a return to some normalcy — with bands and a crowd and actual power not produced by gas generators — deserved attention.

Resiliency On Display In Naples

That’s what brought Florida governor Ron DeSantis to this game. And Naples mayor Teresa Heitmann. And congressman Byron Donalds.

“I think this game and the schools being reopened is a testament to the resiliency of our Southwest Florida communities,” DeSantis said. “We have absorbed a real significant blow with hurricane Ian. It’s changed the face of this region and it’s going to take some time until we recover.

Govenor Ron DeSantis attends a football game at Naples High School just 10 days after Hurricane Ian ravaged the area.

Govenor Ron DeSantis attends a football game at Naples High School just 10 days after Hurricane Ian ravaged the area.
(Armando Salguero)

“But we will recover. We will bounce back and part of the reason we will is because we have Floridians united to stand with the people who have been affected by this…”

DeSantis, proud 99 percent of Floridians have power again, was something of a rock star before and during this return to football. He performed the coin toss, spoke to the crowd from midfield, and then spent a lot of time high-fiving, taking selfies with and signing autographs for fans.

‘Nobody’s Going To Be Left Behind’

“He’s been phenomenal,” said Donalds, whose 19th congressional district runs through the heart of Southwest Florida. “There’s a reason I call him America’s governor. He gets it done…

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“I was without power a couple of days and you just work your way through that. But in Fort Myers Beach, Bonita Beach, Sanibel, Captiva, Pine Island, it’s devastated. But as I’ve told the residents up there, we are going to rebuild. They have my commitment, the governor’s commitment, nobody’s going to be left behind.”

Naples left Barron Collier behind to the tune of a 41-23 final score. But that really isn’t what mattered most.

Football Can Lift The Community

A natural disaster did its worst and turned football players, students, and parents into survivors. So opening the school’s doors and the stadium’s gates so quickly was amazing for many tangible reasons.

“Unless you get the schools back open and the kids back in school you can’t get regular life going again,” said Florida commissioner of education Manny Diaz Jr. “Parents can’t do what they need to do. Kids get out of their routine, they’re sitting at home. You start to worry about their mental health. So this is significant, a lot of people won’t understand that.

Florida Commissioner of Education, Manny Diaz Jr. attends a high school football game

Florida Commissioner of Education, Manny Diaz Jr. attends a high school football game

“This game right here and getting the community out here like this, it’s inspiring. It gets not only the kids that are playing out here, but the kids that are out here watching and it just gives the entire community a lift. So that’s the No. 1 goal, getting the kids back into school, back into their routine,”

The old routine will take a long time to recapture, as DeSantis pointed out. But players and the adults who supervise will find some confidence from a return to school and football.

“The high school itself has such tradition and we all, I think, feel such a sense of belonging here and that’s what high school athletics is about,” Barone said. “The kids have a long way to recovery but hopefully we’ll be able to help support them through that.

“I think this is the home that a lot of them didn’t lose.”

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