FORT MYERS, Fla — Cypress Lake High School football coach, Richie Rode, hopes his team will treasure what happened this fall for a long time.
If junior lineman, Tyson Eveque, is any indication, they will. He is still smiling about his team's district championship. “I love football. It’s just something that makes me excited," he says.
It was hard to get excited about Cypress Lake football for a long time. They recently went through a five-year stretch where they lost 44 games. Their last winning season was in 2006. Their last district championship was 1995. Their story is part of our series of SWFL Reinvented stories. These are stories about people who have turned their lives around or people who created something out of nothing, or people who failed at business and built something new and came back better than ever.
The last time the Cypress Lake Panthers won the district championship, one of their star players was Richie Rode.
“I was very fortunate, I had an awesome four years here," Rode says.
And when he graduated, he looked forward. He went on to play football at college and graduated with a dream of making it to New York.
“I thought I had aspirations of being a Wall Street guy and I got into the financial advising business and I was a financial adviser for a while," he says. “If you asked me the day I graduated college if I would be coaching, I would have said absolutely not.”
But Rode missed football and he decided to reinvent his career.
“I think I had something missing from my life after I stopped playing football after college," Rode says. "You know the bond you get being a part of a team, and just the comradery being a part of the locker room-type atmosphere, was just something I missed.”
So he got back into football. First as an assistant coach at Fort Myers High School. And then in 2016, Cypress Lake hired him to be the head coach. But he soon realized a lot had changed in the 20 years since he had been at the school.
“There was no real culture built, players weren’t held accountable," Quarterback CJ Shedd says.
Shedd was a freshman on that team. And right away he noticed Coach Rode wanted to build something new.
“Coach Rode came in and started turning the thing around," Shedd says. "(He) started getting people to buy into the culture.”
It wasn't immediate. In Coach Rode's first three years the Panthers went 3-7, 3-6, and 5-5. But what the records didn't show was how close the players were getting.
“We’re like a lot closer to the coaches, the players are more tight bonded," Eveque says.
And before the 2019 season started, the players made a commitment.
“There’s no magic, just work really hard," Rode says. "All offseason it was on them. And they decided to wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning and show up for workouts because they wanted to be different, they wanted to do things differently. They wanted to work harder than others and accomplish things that hadn’t been accomplished in a long time.”
It paid off right away. The Panthers weren't just winning, they were scoring a lot of points and blowing teams out.
"We could tell the school’s energy like turn around," Eveque says. "They were more with us. Games were getting more crowded, more teachers were supporting us. The support grew as we grew.”
They took a 7-2 record to Desoto County with the district championship on the line. The game was never close. Cypress Lake won 44-7.
The old cliche in sports is that you need to leave it all on the field. But coach Rode hopes his guys take a little of it with them too.
“You hope that you can give them some wonderful memories, along with some life lessons of how to succeed, which is important, but also how to fail. How to stick with it and get through," Rode says. “You just hope that this is something at a 20, 30-year reunion that the same guys are back talking together and we still have relationships with them."