Atlantic Eagles football working to overcome adversity – on and off the field

By Gary Curreri

Sun Sentinel Correspondent

Aug 20, 2021 10:31 AM

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The Atlantic High School football team recently had a prayer circle and balloon release for Jekkaven Smith, whose father was murdered after being shot while outside a convenience store in Boynton Beach.

The Atlantic High School football team recently had a prayer circle and balloon release for Jekkaven Smith, whose father was murdered after being shot while outside a convenience store in Boynton Beach. (Fred Self/Courtesy)

New Atlantic High School football coach Jamael Stewart didn’t expect his first year to include so much adversity.

First, he learned that he would be suspended the first three games of his tenure because he unknowingly played ineligible athletes in the Eagles’ spring jamboree with Miami Edison and Southridge.

He said the transition from former principal Tara Dellegrotti-O’Campo to new principal Sandra Edwards was also difficult. Then, tragedy struck as the father of senior defensive back Jekkaven Smith was murdered after being shot while outside a convenience store in Boynton Beach.

“It definitely hasn’t been easy, but the boys realize this is what happens in life and they can grow from it,” Stewart said. “We just have to accept it and move forward.”

Stewart succeeded T.J. Jackson, who in February announced that he was stepping down at Atlantic and taking a defensive line coaching position at Charleston Southern University.

During Jackson’s eight-year tenure, the Eagles went 68-23 and made the playoffs each year from 2014-2019. Jackson’s teams went 14-6 in postseason play.

Atlantic finished as the Class 7A state runner-up in 2017, falling to Orlando Dr. Phillips in the state title game. Atlantic did not play in the Florida High School Athletic Association state series this past season, but the Eagles won the Class 7A Tri-County championship with a 44-6 win over Plantation to finish 12-1.

When players transfer to another school during that same school year, they’re not allowed to play in the spring game. They have to sit out and play in the fall. Stewart also mistakenly thought a player was academically eligible but found out the student’s GPA was not high enough when the sport started.

“When the state came down with the ruling, I took that on the chin,” Stewart said. “That was on me. My ignorance is not an excuse. For me not knowing what the rules are and I told the boys the same thing that I should have known. It bothers me that my first season as a head coach, sitting for the first three games of my head coaching career is not a good feeling. I have to swallow that and I respect the decision.”

Stewart gathered the team after its Green and White scrimmage was canceled due to the threat of a tropical depression hitting and had an event for Smith as well as the team.

“We had a barbecue and championship ring ceremony to celebrate last season being that we never had a chance to do it,” Stewart said. “We met in the courtyard and had a prayer circle around [Smith] and we released balloons with messages inside. Jekkaven is using this energy to fuel his senior season and the team has dedicated this year to him.

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“Our [new] principal [Sandra Edwards] was there along with a lot of our sponsors and donors,” he said. “We had a couple of guest speakers and gave out the championship rings to the returning boys who were on the team last fall. That was a surprise. They had no idea they were getting any. We couldn’t find the time to do it because we had the transition between principals and it was hard because the district didn’t want us to do anything off-campus, so I just had to wait for the right time.”

Stewart called the day “bittersweet.”

“We brought all of the kids out in the courtyard and kids said some words of encouragement to Smith and the principal did a nice prayer and showed him love and that we would be there for him this whole season,” Stewart said.

He said Dellegrotti-O’Campo meant a lot to him.

“She was the reason I am here as a coach,” Stewart said. “She had a lot to do with the success as a leader and set the standards for coach Jackson and the staff and what he passed down to us.

“I think they did a good job in choosing Sandra Edwards as our new principal,” Stewart said. “She went to Atlantic High School and she is from the community. Her father is a hall-of-famer in the community with youth sports and actually coached me as a kid. I think that was a sigh of relief. It has been an up and down of emotions and you just wonder, ‘oh my God, what else is going to hit us?’ I just think whatever else is going to come our way, we are just going to pull together as one.”

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