Last spring, former University of Tulsa safety McKinley Whitfield was looking ahead to a potential NFL career as he participated in a New York Giants mini-camp.
Five months later, Whitfield is an Edison Eagles assistant, coaching the team’s defensive backs and receivers.
“I thought I played pretty good (in the camp), made plays, but things didn’t go my way — so when I got back this summer it was a good wake-up call for me,” Whitfield said. “When I got back, I had to be a man about it, go out and get a real job, and use my skills somewhere else, coaching kids, coaching football.
“I’m enjoying it, but at first it was kind of tough, seeing them (Edison players) here on game day. It’s been a big adjustment because I still wanted to play football a little bit deep down inside. But in the big picture, I told myself everything happens for a good reason and I’m here to help these kids get better every day and hopefully get to college and play ball there.”
Edison DB Torrin Walker is a college prospect who is benefiting from Whitfield’s coaching.
“He’s brought all the information from the collegiate level and taught me a lot of technique I’ve never been taught before,” Walker said. “He’s helped my game a lot and taken it to another level.”
Whitfield, 22, a Spiro native who was TU’s tackles leader in 2017, is among several former prominent local college and high school players who have recently started coaching careers in Tulsa Public Schools and are making an impact with their teams.
Coach Tony Daniels’ Edison staff also includes former Oklahoma State and Union running back Jeremy Smith and former University of Oklahoma offensive lineman Branndon Braxton.
East Central head coach Kevin Gordon’s group of assistants includes Stanvon Taylor, the 2012 Gatorade state and Tulsa World metro player of the year for EC who went on to play for OU. Taylor, in his first year as a coach, works with receivers and DBs.
“I’m trying to find my happy place,” Taylor said. “Outside of sports, my passion was animals. I ride in rodeos. I was happy with the horses, but I felt like it wasn’t enough. I missed being around football and sports. I love sports. I had been talking to ‘G’ (Gordon) the past year about coming back, and now it was time.
“This year I’ve been so much happier being around the game and coaching these kids. It’s awesome. It’s like being back home.”
‘It’s a blessing’Smith spent a year helping coach freshmen at his high school alma mater, Union, before moving to Edison this year. Smith helped Union win the Class 6A state title in 2008 as he rushed for 1,664 yards and 30 touchdowns, and his OSU career included 2,073 yards and 34 TDs.
“I love to motivate,” said Smith, who also was a Bartlesville assistant and had a tryout with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. “The best thing is to come out here and be a part of something bigger than me. It’s a blessing. I wouldn’t see myself doing anything else but help out the next generation.”
And he’s helping Edison standout RB Sevion Morrison, a Nebraska commit, who has rewritten the Eagles rushing records.
“I ended with 2,728 yards last year. If he had been my coach, I would have had about 3,200,” Morrison said. “He taught me a lot within the first couple days after he got here and after that we’ve just been rolling. And he still could go out there and play football, too.”
In 2014, Jeremy Smith went to camp with the Buccaneers (whose then-head coach Lovie Smith was a Cascia Hall assistant very early in his career).
“I had a great camp, but they drafted Charles Sims from West Virginia and that was it for me,” Smith said. “I’m just focused on being coach.”
That was something he had started preparing for while at Oklahoma State when current Cincinnati Bengals assistant Jemal Singleton was Smith’s position coach.
“I knew in my junior and senior year that’s what I wanted to do,” Smith said. “So he would have me in the meeting room putting together stuff, showing younger guys, have me coach them up.”
Braxton is another Edison assistant who hoped to play in the NFL.
Twice Braxton was the last cut by the Cleveland Browns just before season openers and spent time on their practice squad.
After his playing career, Braxton began running his own business doing offensive-line specific training and also worked at a gym owned by two former OU teammates, best friend Trent Williams and Adrian Peterson — both now with the Washington Redskins. In Houston, Braxton worked with some top high school linemen. His coaching mentor is George Hegamin, an offensive lineman on the Dallas Cowboys’ Super Bowl championship team in the 1995 season.
Braxton interviewed for an assistant’s job with national high school power IMG Academy (whose head coach is former Union coach Kevin Wright), but was told he needed some more team experience.
Braxton and his wife, Tiffany Tisdale-Braxton (daughter of Wayman Tisdale and a chef at Gathering Place), moved back to Tulsa and he spent a year coaching at Jenks Middle School before joining Edison’s staff last year.
“You’ve got to love it to put in all the time you do as a coach,” Braxton said. “I want these kids to get what I didn’t have, to have them listen to my experience so they don’t have to stumble on the same road blocks I stumbled on.”
Edison offensive guard Whit “Chop” Azlin appreciates Braxton’s work.
“He’s really changed the environment,” Azlin said. “When he came here last year we butted heads a little bit, he wanted me to play just O-line. He’s helped me grow as a human and a football player. I’m usually a two-point (stance) guy but he’s put me in a three-point, because he shows us little things matter, every little thing.”
Whitfield, Smith and Braxton have helped Edison’s program, which has not had a playoff win since 1992, reach No. 3 in the World’s Class 5A rankings going into their game Friday night at Coweta.
“It benefits our program for the kids who want to take the next step to be around coaches who have been around D1 programs who they can talk to and get advice from,” Daniels said. “These coaches know what it takes and they are instilling this into our kids.”
Coaching at alma mater
At East Central, Taylor is among five former Cardinals who have returned to their alma mater to help get the program back headed to where it was when they played there.
Taylor, Kimmie Carson, Damian Gibson and Gary Deason played in 5A state title games for East Central, which has not had a winning season since Taylor and Carson led them to a silver ball as seniors in ’12. Deason was a lineman on East Central’s state champion in 2005. Mike Tyson, a standout EC running back in 1999, also is on the staff.
Carson was a starting linebacker on coach Bob Davie’s New Mexico teams that went to bowl games in 2015 and ’16. Last fall, Carson was a windshield repair technician in Houston before returning to Tulsa.
“New Mexico was rebuilding and I learned a lot from Coach Davie,” Carson said. “I saw some of the methods he used as far as building confidence in his players and have brought that here. I have a lot of passion for East Central and want to be a part of turning this around.”
Deason is the only one of the five East Central graduates on the coaching staff to also be a certified teacher at the school. Taylor and Carson are at East Central all day as paraprofessionals. Tyson is a TPS employee at McKinley Elementary, and Gibson works at Enterprise Rent-a-Car before going to practice.
“For me, it’s not just about football but getting the kids prepared for the real world,” said Gibson, who played two years at TU. “This is like home.”
Essential lay coaches
It’s not unusual anymore for a TPS assistant not to be a certified teacher at that specific school. TPS athletic director Gil Cloud said 125 of the system’s 340 high school coaches fit that description.
At Edison, Whitfield is a paraprofessional there, Braxton is a teacher at Tulsa Legacy Charter School and Smith is a City of Tulsa Park and Recreation Department employee.
“With enrollment dropping and you lose teaching jobs, they are quintessential for us,” Cloud said about attracting quality lay coaches.
Deason had no plans to become a teacher or coach when he graduated as a business major from McPherson College.
“I had goals to become a suit and tie, a ‘Mad Man,’ work downtown, cubicle life,” Deason said. “I worked at AT&T for two years, marketing and sales. I enjoyed it, had good pay, the compensation was great. But then I got tired of the suit and the cubicle, paying for a parking spot downtown.”
That led to Deason becoming a volunteer coach at Memorial and then he was hired as a computer repairs and fundamentals of technology teacher at East Central.
“I can see myself doing this for a while,” he said. “I like kids, I like coaching. I’m an eastside kid, and I love East Central.”
The East Central roots of Deason and the other former players on the coaching staff are important to the current Cardinals.
“It shows they care,” senior lineman Ezekiel Hearn said.
And that’s important for Gordon, who coached all of the former EC players except Tyson.
“I tell our current group these are all my babies,” Gordon said. “I coached them, sent them off to college, and now they’re back. That speaks volumes on them and East Central. We want to bring East Central back to its glory days, back on top and starts with the foundation.
“They go in the weight room, locker room area and they see the trophies, pictures, plaques, trophies and gold balls and see all that stuff. To see it on a wall and in a picture is one thing, but to see them out here coaching is another. When people care about the program they want to see it grow and get back to the glory days, that’s why I had to make sure I brought the family back together.”
There’s a part of most of the young assistants at East Central and Edison that still wishes they were still playing.
“I get out here with these guys and some days my blood gets going, the hair on the back of my neck starts standing up and there’s not a day that I see this and I don’t miss playing the game.” Braxton said. But coaching is the next best thing.
“That Friday smell, the calm before the storm, it’s so lovely,” Gibson said. “I’m back in my zone. Even as a coach, I still feel that player in me. I jump around with the kids, I still feel that adrenaline rushing in me and that makes me feel so good on Fridays. I would rather be here every Friday night than anywhere. It’s the best feeling.”