‘Really starting from scratch’

Richard Pettus, seen here leading a practice in 2003, has led the VHS football program from the beginning.

What started out as a dream in a pasture is now a lesson in determination and perseverance. The Villages High School football team celebrates its 20th anniversary season this fall, after the program kicked off in 2003 under the direction of head coach Richard Pettus.

That inaugural campaign opened with three varsity contests — all losses — and concluded with five junior-varsity matchups — all wins for the Buffalo.

VHS opened with a 47-0 loss to Providence in its first official game on Sept. 5, 2003, before suffering two more losses to Calvary Christian and Cambridge, respectively. The Buffalo then rattled off five straight victories, including a momentous 16-14 road win over Trinity Catholic (Ocala) on Oct. 30, 2003.

The first season served as a springboard into the first full-time varsity season in 2004 and seemingly each year after that, as VHS wrapped up its 15th season with a winning record just last fall.

To look back on the first year that was in Buffalo football, the Daily Sun gathered the thoughts of those who were there and had a hand in the program's birth.

Once the idea for a football program came into focus, The Villages High School hired Richard Pettus, from Marion County, to lead the new squad.

Mike Kelly, former VHS principal: I remember standing with Richard (Pettus) in the middle of this field, right where we were going to build everything, and we really just stood there and painted the picture. We stood there and thought of all the special things we could do and have right in front of us, and the opportunity that could be here before us.

Richard Pettus, 20th-year VHS head football coach and athletic director: I always wanted to build a program. I got here and I was just hoping that I landed in something special, and I think I did. The beauty behind all of it is we were able to do it from the ground up. We were building this thing from scratch.

David Johnson, a sophomore lineman on the 2003 team and current VHS assistant coach: I think it feels like yesterday, but I've also got kids and I know when you blink, the time just goes. Coming back and coaching now, it's funny seeing how much things have changed and some things are still the same. We try to do some things the same way and you can see why, because the program has had a lot of success over those 20 years.

Kenny Dyson, a freshman tailback in 2003: It's crazy that it's even been 20 years. It definitely doesn't feel like 20 — it feels like two. It's always fun to look back on it, though. I miss it and I miss the guys, miss the camaraderie with them.

Djuan Graham, VHS assistant coach from 2003-07: Some days in some ways, it feels like 20 years and in some ways on some days, it doesn't. I almost hate to admit I'm that old. But it moves so fast — time moves so fast — and it's always fun to look back.

With the current VHS campus still a year away from completion in 2003, Pettus and Kelly organized an introductory meeting and workouts for prospective players in the fall of 2002.

Pettus: We had 72 kids show up for this and I was excited. It wasn't long after being out there that I realized I needed to ask, 'Who out here in this group has ever really played football before?' And only three of them raised their hands when I asked that. I knew right then and there we had our work cut out for us. We were really starting from scratch. But I told myself, this is something you've always wanted to do, big boy, so embrace it.

Johnson: I raised my hand, but I know not many others did. I was excited to be part of it and help it grow. It was this fresh thing and we had the opportunity to put our own stamp on things. We weren't built into some legacy, we got to create our own legacy.

Graham: There were a lot of novices, putting it nicely, for a high school football situation. At most places, you've at least probably got kids who've played youth football or Pop Warner, whatever, but we didn't really have that. We were really starting new.

VHS held a three-week mini camp in the fall of 2002, before hosting spring football in May 2003.

Pettus: There were challenges that you wouldn't even imagine — like putting on thigh pads. We had kids putting thigh pads on their hamstrings. I knew we weren't just building a football team, we were having to build an entire football program. These cats didn't know a whole lot, but that's what made it beautiful.

Dyson: I don't think many of us knew what we were doing. The coaches really had to have a lot of patience with us — and they did, to their credit — they were patient. A lot of us were learning how to play the game, really, for the very first time.

Graham: Essentially, I remember that we had to introduce them to the sport. We were teaching them things for the very first time, and then we were basically auditioning kids for different positions to see what they might be good at. 

Pettus: Even though we had our challenges, I just remember this excitement. We had this excitement about ourselves and starting our program, moving into the new school and beginning our own football program in the fall. It was a special time.

The Buffalo downed Nature Coast, 21-6, in a preseason Kickoff Classic, before officially opening their program on the road in Jacksonville against Providence High School.

Kelly: I think (Pettus) was a little more worried than I was, since he was the head coach. I went into it just trying to focus on the potential we had. I knew we were going to get beat. We knew it was going to be tough going in, but we had to get started sometime.

Graham: There was a lot of nervous energy on the way up there. I remember somebody had their (shoulder) pads on backwards. There were so many little things like that, which were funny, but kind of sad at the same time.

Dyson: We got off the bus and started looking at them, and they had some big dudes. (laughs) I'm not going to lie, just speaking for myself, it was a little scary and intimidating. They looked a lot bigger, a lot older, a lot stronger and a lot faster. But we were already there, so we might as well try and compete against them.

The inaugural game went as expected, as the Buffalo dropped a 47-0 decision to Providence.

Pettus: After the game, I told the guys, 'Welcome to high school football.' We were primarily a JV team trying to get experience. 

Johnson: It showed we had a long ways to go. We thought we were prepared and ready, we believed, but we were definitely undersized and didn't quite have the athletes to match them. You can only do the X's-and-O's so much, and sometimes it's more about the Jimmys and the Joes.

Kelly: I remember we also had to make it look and feel successful, like we were making progress, to keep drawing students and athletes to us. We had to paint that picture of the future. If we would've dwelled on that first loss, as bad as it was, we would've never grown.

Pettus: Our kids were disappointed, but they didn't really know how to feel. They'd never been in that position before. So we show up to practice again that following Monday, and the excitement was just as high — if not higher — than before. We wanted to get better.

VHS returned to action each of the next two Friday nights, eventually falling 22-20 to Calvary Christian and 40-15 to Cambridge.

Pettus: We go down to Calvary Christian and had a chance in that one to kick a field goal to win the thing.

Dyson: We should've won the Calvary game. We were right there and just didn't make a few plays at the end. I remember feeling disappointed after that one because it felt like that was our chance to get our first win and we didn't do it.

Pettus: We didn't play all that well against Cambridge, but that one really set us up going into the JV portion of our schedule.

Kelly: We lost the varsity games like we were expected. We were a JV team, basically, all freshmen and sophomores that first year.

VHS closed out its first season with five straight junior-varsity contests, winning all five, including a 16-14 win on the road at Trinity Catholic in late October.

Johnson: We got our butts thumped early on, but we ultimately showed how much we bought in. We did things better as the year went on and we did the right things, and you saw what it all turned into.

Dyson: You could just see us get better as the year went on. We started playing better and playing more as a team. We weren't as intimidated or afraid, especially once we got into the JV games.

Kelly: That Trinity Catholic game, I remember it specifically, because that was a special night for us. They were established and had some things going for them. We knew they were a great measuring stick and it was a great game. A super fun game that was back-and-forth with a good crowd there. Everything seemed to click that night and we knew we were on the right path at that point.

Dyson: It showed a lot to me, not just about football, but about life, too. You trust the people around you and you put in hard work, good things can happen.

Pettus: Those kids didn't look at it like varsity and junior-varsity. Those kids feel like they were 5-3. They had a winning season. Unfortunately for them, the FHSAA don't let you count those five wins, so our record says 0-3. But it was exciting and we were eager to get to the next year.

The Buffalo geared up for their 2004 season — a full-time varsity slate — which opened with a 43-13 revenge victory over Providence.

Kelly: The thing I remember most is there was a hurricane starting to come ashore that next day. We had to hurry up and get up there, play the game, and then get back before a hurricane came up the coast. There was a lot of trepidation about that night to begin with, but once we finally played, it ultimately proved how far we had carried ourselves forward.

Graham: We knew it wouldn't be a repeat against Providence — it couldn't be — it couldn't be that bad. We had a full year under our belt and we knew it wouldn't be the same. Plus, we had payback on our side, too.

Johnson: It's always good to go back and get the games that you lost before. Going back there and getting that revenge, it felt special. We had this mentality that we weren't going to get manhandled like the year before. We were going back to give them what they had given us.

Dyson: I can't even describe it. It was a complete change in emotions from the year before. We were so happy and I remember Coach Pettus talking to us after like it was yesterday.

Kelly: We went up there to a team that beat us soundly the year before, completely turned the tables on them, and that let us know that we could do this.

Pettus: I think looking back on that night — and looking back at those two years before it — we were so blessed. I just remember feeling so thankful and blessed for how committed those kids and coaches were, how supportive the community and administrators were.

Kelly: That really was the stepping stone I think for us. That first year in 2003, taking the lumps we did, to winning that first game in 2004, to where you see the program is today. It's a lot of the same things and a lot of the same successful things, too. 

Pettus: Challenge wise, from a football standpoint, 2003 is kind of like where we're at right now. It really is and it's really kind of funny when I think about it. This 2022 team reminds me a lot of that first team in 2003 in a lot of ways. We've got a lot of young and inexperienced guys. It's like we're starting over and having to coach things for the first time over, over and over. You're just hoping that it sticks. But hey, it did back then and hopefully it will for us this fall, too.