SARASOTA, Fla. - Playoff football at Riverview High School in Sarasota is usually a time for celebration. Last Friday, however, that celebration was muted when the players and coaches learned that former long-time head football coach, John Sprague, died at the age of 74.
The news came down just hours before the Rams were set to kickoff in their regional semifinal game against Manatee High School.
"It was tough. It was hard to hear," said Todd Johnson, Riverview High's assistant coach and a former player.
Sprague took over the Rams' football program in 1981 and spent the next 30 years building the team into a local powerhouse.
"He built such an incredible legacy," said current Rams Head Coach Josh Smithers. "I take this position seriously, and I just want to honor him by doing right by players and being successful."
Along the way, Sprague would serve as the school's athletic director. More importantly, however, he served as a mentor to countless students over the decades.
"As a coach, he was like a father figure for us," said Anthony Campbell Jr., a former player of Sprague's. "If you needed anything, he was there for you."
Many of those former players, such as Campbell and Johnson and Bernard Ziggler, would return to coach on the very sidelines that Sprague did.
"Now I understand, as an adult, what he was trying to, how he was trying to get the team together, work together, and it worked," Ziggler said.
Despite the news, the Rams still had a playoff game to prepare for on Friday in the second round of the playoffs.
Carrying a picture of John Sprague with them on the sidelines, the Rams knocked off Manatee 35-30 to advance to the regional title game.
"I was nervous all day," said Johnson. "But when I got to the game, I thought 'There is no way we're going to lose this game, today.' And the kids went out there and did a fantastic job for him."
Friday's win over Manatee isn't the only thing Riverview has dedicated to their former coach, however. Earlier this year, the field at their stadium, the Ram Bowl, was dedicated in John Sprague's honor.
As it turns out, John Sprague is a name that carries weight far beyond the lines of the Ram Bowl.
"I played seven years in the NFL and when professional coaches found out I was from Riverview High School, it gave me instant credibility," Johnson said. ''They would say 'Coach Sprague! I love Coach Sprague!' Because they recruited here during their college days."
While Coach Sprague was loved by players and coaches around the country, something he loved was earning the right to practice on Thanksgiving.
This Thursday, as the Rams prepare for their regional title matchup with Venice, Sprague will very much be on the minds of the Rams as they meet for yet another Thanksgiving practice.
"It's going to be tough, but we know he is going to be with us in spirit," Campbell said.
After dedicating a lifetime to Riverview High School, Sprague is truly a Ram in mind, body, and now, in spirit.