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THE BEST PAL ANYONE COULD HAVE…

WORDS: Bre Jones Mulock

PICTURES: Whitney Patton

With a towering frame over six-feet tall, Deputy Ralph Bryant exudes a bigger-than-life, stoic force field and a nature so humble and serious you may wonder if this 26-year employee of the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) will ever crack a smile.

However, last January, Bryant, who molded a fierce basketball program for the Police Athletic League of Manatee County (PAL) over a course of two decades and now serves as the director of football, not only beamed with contagious smiles, but also cradled his face in his hands – overwhelmed with tears and emotions – the second he stepped onto PAL’s new basketball court.

Roaring chants of “We love Coach Ralph” echoed through the gym as the faces of nearly every player Bryant has coached, friends, family, and every MCSO deputy he has ever served with lined the gym during a surprise floor dedication in his name. Looking around he saw giant block, black letters spelling out Coach Ralph Bryant streaming across both ends of the court.

“He was overwhelmed and had to collect his emotions before he could throw the first free throw,” said Deputy Francine Houston, a former star PAL and pro basketball player and now director of basketball for the very same program. Keeping it a secret from even Bryant’s closest circle, Houston orchestrated and pulled off the surprise for a man she has looked up to as a father figure since she was 13 years old.

This man, who has poured his heart into growing PAL’s basketball program into competitive, respected teams that now travel the country, is known as an under-the-radar hero in his community, quietly working magic each day to cut down the weeds and obstacles that detour unguided youth and pave a clear path of opportunity for them. 

He has walked the isles of Walmart, filling carts with food for needy families. He has paid countless light bills and rent checks for others. He’s bought basketball shoes and paid health insurance for his players. In the wee-hours of the night, he won’t hesitate to answer a phone call from a kid who just needs an ear to listen or sit patiently in a living room, offering support to a child who’s just witnessed domestic violence.

But he won’t tell you any of this. He won’t reveal that everyone on the last female basketball team he coached achieved a college scholarship or that countless Manatee County youth see him as a second dad. He will only share in a humble, low-tone voice that he’s just here for the kids.

“I just give them a place to go and some discipline and some structure,” said Bryant, proudly sporting a PAL 30th Anniversary T-shirt and ball cap and checking his watch to make sure he would make it out to cut the football field grass before it rained. “I give them structure and opportunity to see things they otherwise wouldn’t see. We travel a lot across the U.S. for basketball tournaments and even take them on college tours. We’ve been to Texas, New York City – played in the Bronx – Atlanta, Las Vegas, and more. Many of these kids have never been outside of Bradenton.”

After four years serving on an MCSO special task force, Bryant stepped in as a basketball coach in 1997 for PAL, whose mission is to bring law enforcement, kids, and families together in a positive, safe environment through sports and academics in order to build a strong community. Offering basketball, football, cheerleading, soccer, baseball, and boxing, PAL employs athletics and recreational activities to tighten the bond between police officers and children, sending the message to avoid gangs, drugs, and alcohol, and incorporating life skills.

According to the sheriff’s office, when kids respond to police officers in a positive way on the ball field or in a classroom, they will likely respect the laws that police officers enforce. Currently one of the strongest in the state, the Manatee County PAL has a membership of 1,200. In Florida, 54 chapters serve a total of more than 275,000 children, and this year the American Youth Football and Cheerleading decided to relocate their home base for their South Florida Conference to Manatee County.

When the clock strikes 4 p.m. each weekday, kids ranging in age from elementary to high school stream through the doors at PAL excited to share stories about their day and seek homework guidance. After all work is complete, they hurry out to the fields or the court, anxiously meeting doctors, nurses, teachers, police officers, and business owners who generously trade off their careers for volunteer coaching positions during the afternoons.

“We are a place for kids to come if they get locked out of their house or they need help with school,” said Gina Spicer, Manatee County PAL director of fundraising and events planning, who often pitches in to help kids with homework or console a child who needs a female to listen.

“Many Manatee County youth live in neighborhoods threatened by gangs, drugs, and violence. Here we try to instill pride, responsibility, self-confidence, and teamwork. Coach Bryant has been a huge reason for our growth. He is a humble man. He is so humble he won’t tell you all of the great things he has done.”

And the list is long and great. When Bryant entered the doors of PAL for the first time, the teams played on recreational levels.  Bryant focused on carving out elite travel teams that claim titles and, more importantly, the undivided attention of college recruiters descending from big player schools ranging from Florida State and University of Florida to Yale University.

“Ralph has been a huge asset for PAL, and under his leadership has built an outstanding basketball program,” said PAL board member and MCSO Major Patrick Cassella. “Most importantly, he has made a difference in the lives of thousands of kids by being not just a coach, but also a positive role model and mentor.”

Glimmering and reflecting light in a hallway outside the gym, layers upon layers of trophies in  bright reds, blues, and golds stand tall and proud. Alongside the accolades, pictures – some faded with age – of kids beaming in their PAL jerseys smile back at you. Many have moved on to score college scholarships and degrees and a way up and out of poverty.

“I was just given a task and told to grow (the program),” said Bryant who grew up between Tallevast and Sarasota and has four grown children who thrived in the PAL program. “The goal is college. And I mean college for everyone. We’re on the radar at high-profile tournaments like the Adidas, Nike, and Disney. These kids get a lot of exposure. Every workplace now is looking for at least some college, and we want these kids to focus not on a job, but on a career.”

Perhaps Bryant’s greatest success story now works beside him just down the hall. A little more than 20 years ago, Houston was a 13-year-old basketball player with natural, star-power talent and a self-described arrogant attitude. Meeting Bryant at a Hoop It Up Tournament in Orlando, she confidently walked up to him and said: “I’m going to walk into your gym and be the best player who ever comes out.”

Chuckling at the memory, Houston said: “He told me I could play, but then he said we need to work on that attitude.”

Struggling with the absence of a father figure, and no support network to decipher the meandering paths to college, Houston immediately connected with Bryant who took her under his wing when she failed the math portion of the SAT twice, despite having a high GPA and college promise.

“It was one of the most depressing times in my life – especially when I failed the second time,” said Houston, shaking her head as if reliving the dip in her life. “Schools that were looking at me went on to sign other players. I did not think I could pass, but Coach Ralph believed in me.”

For seven days a week, six months straight, Houston would wrap up basketball practice at 9 p.m. and Bryant would tutor her in math until 11 p.m. On the day of her test, Bryant, along with his supportive family, drove her to Tallahassee before a tournament to take the SAT and even paid for the hotel rooms and cost of the exam.

“He called me the next day and said it was time to celebrate,” said Houston. “But I told him I couldn’t do that until I knew if I passed. Then he told me he had paid the $75 fee over the phone to get the results right away, and I had passed. I was screaming!”

Within a week, Florida State University offered Houston a full scholarship to play basketball. Ultimately graduating from University of Central Florida, Houston moved on to play pro ball overseas. Even before crisscrossing the court in Turkey, Bulgaria, and Romania, Houston talked to Bryant before every game.

“We even have a secret handshake,” said Houston. “He’s also looked over every single professional contract I’ve had.”

Bryant not only encouraged Houston to embrace her basketball talent, but he also inspired her to give back to the community. In an awe-inspiring full circle story, Houston returned to Bradenton, forged through starting a career as an MCSO deputy, and ultimately landed the position of director of basketball for PAL.

“I wouldn’t trade working alongside Ralph for a million dollars,” said Houston. “He is the most giving, selfless individual. And now I get to coach basketball and help kids get opportunities and doors opened. I want to be a difference-maker in the same way he was for me.”

When Bryant leaves PAL each evening, he’s usually not heading home to relax. This die-hard Tampa Bay Buccaneers fan and lover of seafood hardly rests or takes time off. He runs off-duty security jobs for the sheriff’s office until the early morning hours.  Family bonding and vacations often spin out from taking his wife and kids along with him to tournaments. But Bryant is quick to say PAL is like home to him.

“Many of these kids don’t even realize I’m a deputy,” said Bryant. “I can connect with any kid, and they connect with me.”

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