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Plant High (Fla.) coach Robert Weiner encourages his players to volunteer at a week-long annual Muscular Dystrophy Association summer camp. This year, the camp was moved to the opening week of preseason practice. Weiner canceled practice so that his team could honor its commitment.

Plant High (Fla.) coach Robert Weiner had a moment of pause when he learned the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association summer camp had been moved to overlap his team’s first week of preseason workouts.

“When it first came up, I said, ‘Everything in football is negotiable’,” Weiner said. “The one thing that is non-negotiable is MDA camp. That has many positive values for our team. It’s the right thing to do. That’s the way we should live life. When we have the opportunity to help people in need – and the availability and resources to pull it off – we should take advantage of the opportunity.”

Weiner canceled the week of practice from Aug. 5 to 10 despite the fact that his team was scheduled to open its preseason schedule Aug. 18 against defending state champion Venice. He took 31 players to MDA camp to serve as counselors for children with muscular dystrophy. The Plant players pushed wheelchairs, swam with campers, attended dances, and lent their positivity to make it a special experience for everyone.

“This is about the development of individual people – not our team,” Weiner said. “We’re here in this world to help other people. It caught my breath for a second, but I said, ‘We’ll make a way or find a way. We’ll be there. You can count on us.’ It was the largest group of players we’ve ever taken.”

Plant is historically one of the strongest teams in the Tampa area, playing in 7A District 8. The Panthers won state championships in 2006, 2008, 2009 and 2011.

The coach first started attending MDA camp when he was a freshman at Jesuit High. Many of his former players have continued to volunteer as adults.

“I went my sophomore year with a group of football players,” Weiner said. “I kept getting letters asking if I was coming back. I was a 15-year-old man, and I had to ask myself, ‘Why was I doing it in the first place?’ Was it to be with friends or to be with someone in need? I decided to go back on my own without my classmates, and it was the most meaningful week of my life. From that moment forward, I knew I wanted to have a life dedicated to helping other people and also facilitating the opportunity for people I care about and work with on a daily basis.”

Weiner believes the annual week at MDA helps build a foundation for his players as they learn how to represent themselves in school and the community. After that week, he’ll often see football players sitting in the lunchroom with students who would otherwise be eating alone.

“We talk about taking care of other kids in school,” Weiner said. “With all of the discussion about bullying, we have an easy solution. Why don’t you look for the kid in a needy situation? Look at him like an MDA camper and treat him accordingly. We have 31 kids who are able to pass on those lessons.”

 

The Product on the Field

Perhaps making Weiner’s decision to skip a week of preseason practices to attend MDA camp all the more impressive is the fact that his team’s first-half schedule is among the toughest in the state of Florida. His team’s first preseason game on Aug. 18 was a 25-25 tie against defending state champion Venice. Then his team opened the regular season with a 45-28 victory over rival Hillsborough. After another win over a Tampa rival, Robinson, Plant fell to perennial state championship contender Armwood 21-18.

“Wins and losses are not the judgment of whether a season is successful,” Weiner said. “I felt the kids were 100 percent prepared for each game.”

Weiner said the players took it upon themselves to gather at sunrise at MDA camp each morning for some team drills before their daily schedule was packed with obligations for counselors.

“For the kids to come in and work for a while spoke volumes,” Weiner said. “I think we didn’t miss a beat. And even more important was the thing our kids discovered about themselves.”

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Dan Guttenplan

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