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OPAA greats honor icon coach Wilbert

By Randy Lefko Sports Editor
Posted 7/13/22

ORANGE PARK - Former football stars for Orange Park High School and also Orange Park Athletic Association history, led by the driving force of Edward Keyes and his Foundation for Life, reunited to …

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OPAA greats honor icon coach Wilbert


ORANGE PARK - Former football stars for Orange Park High School and also Orange Park Athletic Association history, led by the driving force of Edward Keyes and his Foundation for Life, reunited to honor long-time Raider coach Herbert Wilbert Saturday morning at the OPAA fields.

“Coach Wilbert is the first African-American football coach at Orange Park High School and also here at OPAA and we wanted to honor him with today’s youth football camp and with the collection of former players that came back to their community,” said Keyes, who played under Wilbert along with his brothers Adrian and Arthur White. “His influence on us back then when we used to practice next to a garbage dump where Grove Park Elementary School is now is a testament to his love of his community.”

At Saturday’s camp, former players include the Whites and Keyes went back to University of Alabama standout Lamont Floyd, Gonzalo “Pookie” Floyd, who was the first Clay County signee to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Arthur White was an OPHS MVP under Wilbert with Adrian White playing in the NFL for the New York Giants, Green Bay Packers and the New England Patriots after a standout career at the University of Florida.

Also attending were, from more recent teams were Lorenzo Ferguson who played at South Alabama (2012) and Brian Swinton who played at FAMU and Valdosta State.

For Wilbert, now 85 and retired since 1996, seeing the impact of sports on the athletes he has interacted with brings back his memories.

“It was Mayor Hoyt Cotney and Mr. Fromhart that made the way for me to teach and coach at Orange Park,” said Wilbert, originally a graduate of Florida Memorial College, then Florida. “Mayor Cotney helped to get me recertified to teach.”

Wilbert’s best advice to the athletes at the camp was twice said.

“Listen to your parents, listen to your teachers and listen to your preacher,” said Wilbert, who was a physical education teacher throughout the county making three cents a mile. “One of my favorite proverbs; If you cast your bread along the water, it will return after many days, and I can look out here and look back to my coaching experiences here and the many football players that are here today and see that this is amazing how much we have grown as a community.”

Wilbert noted that prior to Cotney’s involvement, Orange Park athletes had to travel.

“We had to drive to Duval County to play and then we played next to a garbage dump before things changed,” said Wilbert. “We had a lot of great athletes back then in the early Pop Warner days.”

Lamont Floyd, a 1993-1996 player for Alabama, reiterated the strong optimism of Wilbert on him and his brothers, Gonzalo and Todd. Gonzalo, nicknamed “Pookie” played at Texas El-Paso and in the Canadian and National Football Leagues while Todd excelled at FAMU.

“He told us that your work ethic is the most important thing,” said Floyd. “All the natural talent you may have, speed, strength, height, is less important that your ability to want to succeed and to work hard to achieve it. My brothers and me were blessed to have been coached by coach Wilbert not only in football, but as men.”

Once Wilbert started mobilizing his area athletes into the Gateway Conference, the reputation of the Raider teams started to take effect.

“We turned the Gateway around, they hated to play us,” said Wilbert. “They underestimated us as the stepchildren of the area.”

For Keyes and his football entourage, Wilbert was instrumental in the push past integration and also back to community.

“When I used to see other athletes that went into the NFL or do well in college go back to their hometowns and make a difference, I wanted to start that process here,” said Keyes, a standout for the Raiders and The Bolles School in 1991. “My mom, Annie Lee, just got Railroad Road changed to Annie Lee Keyes Boulevard because of her work to revitalize our community. She went through integration and segregation and lived, she’s 85 now, to see a black teacher teaching white students.”

Keyes’ foundation as given out awards to nearly 60 people for their impact on adding to the community.

“The Foundation for Life is to give kids in our community an improvement in life through sports,” said Keyes. “Coach Wilbert did not just coach football, but he coached and mentored young boys to be men.”