The Panthers' 17-7 victory in the FHSAA Class 8A State Championship Game Dec. 9 was also the culmination of a journey for the team's head coach that began when he was a teenager.
ORLANDO Rodney Wells knows all the names.
Some of them were teammates. Others were players he coached. Some came inbetween.
The head coach of the Dr. Phillips football team doubles as a historian of sorts for the program when it comes time to talk about the greats that have come through the halls of the school in southwest Orlando.
HaHa Clinton-Dix. Doug Gabriel. Matt Milano. Kenny Shaw.
There are plenty of others — including Wells, himself — and he knows them all.
So it’s not surprising, then, that when his Panthers finally got the program to the promised land and won its first-ever state title Saturday night at Camping World Stadium, Wells was quick to point out that the moment — his team celebrating and hoisting a state championship trophy — was bigger even than it appeared.
“This is for the guys like me, who came through (the program) in the ‘80s and the ‘90s. This is for the guys who fell short last year — this is for a lot of us,” Wells said.
There are many of coaches who work tirelessly at the craft. There are many coaches whose passion for molding teenagers into men exudes in all they do. Both of those qualities describe Wells, but also many other high-school coaches.
What makes the the Dr. Phillips head coach truly unique, though, is his relationship with the school and the way he personifies the program.
“I can go back to me being a teenager, in seventh or eighth grade, wanting to play for Dr. Phillips,” Wells said. “I got there in ninth grade, had a really good career, and never thought I’d be back as a head coach.”
After a college career at Syracuse, Wells did come home, but at first as a defensive coordinator. Wells spent six years as an assistant before being promoted to head coach in 2011.
Since then, all he’s done is coach the Panthers to an 81-14 record over 7 seasons — an average of 11.5 wins and just two losses per season.
But, until Saturday night, the program hadn’t achieved the one thing its community yearned for most. That changed when two defensive touchdowns and a second quarter field goal were enough to push the Panthers past the Atlantic High Eagles of Delray Beach, 17-7.
"It’s been a long 13 years (of coaching at Dr. Phillips)," Wells reflected. "It’s been a process. I waited my turn, went through three head coaches — but now it’s our time."
And for the man who embodies Dr. Phillips football, the chants of "Awww DP" that echoed through the cool Orlando night could not have sounded much sweeter.