SARASOTA, Fla. –As a teenager, Willie Taggart spent many afternoons daydreaming under the oversized oak tree outside his family’s apartment complex in Palmetto, Fla.
Then a rising star in the football-crazed area surrounding Bradenton and Sarasota, Taggart’s mind often drifted toward touchdowns, and, one day, using his talent to provide for his family.
Nearly 30 years later, that tree is still standing.
Taggart, now the head football coach at Florida State after first quarterbacking Manatee High to a state championship, makes sure of it every time he visits his hometown.
“I always go by the apartment complex that I grew up in,” Taggart said during a recent Seminole Boosters tour stop at the Mertz Theater in Sarasota, about 20 minutes from his childhood home.
“I always ride through there, and whenever I have my kids with me, I always drive them through there as well. It’s always important to me to go back, remember where I grew up.”
Taggart made his latest visit home to speak to a packed house of fans, family and friends catching their first public glimpse of him since he traded his Oregon-green polo shirt for garnet and gold.
More than 600 people filled into the sold-out theater, and, during the hourlong meet-and-greet session, it was clear that this was a family affair.
Taggart’s mother, Gloria James, was in attendance, alongside several members of their immediate and extended family.
Taggart’s boyhood friend and crosstown rival, Peter Warrick, came, too. As did two of the most influential figures of Taggart’s young life: longtime Manatee High head coach Joe Kinnan, and quarterbacks coach Frank Turner.
As Taggart took the stage, the Manatee High drum line led the crowd in the FSU Warchant – quite a departure from the theater’s usual fare of “Guys and Dolls” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
The evening served to highlight a point central to Taggart’s path – he may be the head coach at Florida State now, but Bradenton and Sarasota had him first.
Actually, Taggart reminded, it’s more specific than that.
“Palmetto,” he said enthusiastically when asked what he claims as his official hometown. “Played high school ball in Bradenton, but I’m from Palmetto.”
Growing up where he did helped inform Taggart’s love for the Seminoles.
He grew up in a family of Florida State fans and often sat under that tree, imagining what it might be like to play for legendary coach Bobby Bowden.
That particular dream didn’t work out. But the one Taggart is living is pretty good, too.
“It’s great,” he said. “I think for me personally, growing up and understanding how much people love Florida State football here, and now to come back and you’re representing the football program as the head football coach, its big-time.”
Kinnan, a local legend who won five state titles as the Manatee head coach, remembers Taggart’s first taste of the “big-time.”
It was October of 1991, Taggart’s sophomore year at Manatee, and Taggart was biding his time with the junior varsity team while a senior quarterback named Tommie Frazier guided the big squad.
Frazier, of course, would go on to win two national titles at Nebraska. But midway through his senior year, Frazier suffered an injury the same week that the Hurricanes were set to play regional rival Brandon.
Which left Kinnan with a decision to make:
“The backup at the varsity level wasn’t as good as Willie,” said Kinnan, also a former FSU defensive lineman (1966-67) who played under coach Bill Peterson. “So Willie comes in, we beat Brandon and he makes player of the week.”
According to the Tampa Bay Times, Taggart completed 10 of 16 passes for 100 yards, threw a 34-yard touchdown and added another 54 yards on the ground.
Taggart took the reins following Frazier’s departure, and in 29 games as a starter threw just five interceptions.
“I just can’t say enough wonderful things about him,” said Turner, Taggart’s quarterbacks coach at Manatee and previously the coach at Tallahassee’s Rickards High.
“There’s always a few that are special. And you see it pretty early. They’re a cut above. They’ve got something that others don’t have.”
Taggart wasn’t the only one getting in touch with his roots in Bradenton.
Demarcus Christmas, Florida State’s fifth-year senior defensive tackle and himself a Bradenton native and Manatee alum, made the trip with Taggart, and took the stage with his head coach in front of the hometown crowd.
While the 6-4, 310-pound lineman has professional aspirations on the football field, he also hasn’t been shy about his desire to work with underprivileged youth once his playing days are done.
So Christmas embraced the opportunity to stand and speak in front of FSU fans and community leaders, and show that he was on the right path.
“It meant a lot to me for (Taggart) to believe in me,” Christmas said, “and know that I could come back here and do this for everyone in the community and show them the success I’m having and the success they can have if they work hard for it.”
Taggart and Christmas actually first crossed paths more than five years ago, when Taggart was the head coach at South Florida and Christmas was garnering a wealth of scholarship offers from around the country.
Taggart’s sales pitch tempted Christmas to spurn offers from the likes of Florida State, Alabama and Florida and stay closer to home, but in the end, the allure of playing in Tallahassee was just too strong.
Five years later, the two can say they’ve traveled the same road from Manatee to Florida State.
“Once he got to FSU, (Taggart) said ‘See? You didn’t want to come play for me, now I’m here with you,’” Christmas recalled with a laugh. “‘The tables turned.’”