There were tears, yes, but they were blotted with laughter, admiration and respect last Saturday as the community said goodbye to the late Coach Vernon Eppinette.
Eppinette died last week at the age of 65 after a lengthy battle with cancer.
He understood the gravity of his health situation in mid-January, said his brother-in-law Rev. Mike Keppler, who Eppinette approached to preside over his memorial.
Over the ensuing months Eppinette enlisted friends and family to participate in what ultimately was called a “Celebration of the Life and Journey of Vernon Eppinette”, which began with the sounding of the familiar gym horn signaling a game is about to begin.
Last week in front of several hundred attendees that roster of enlistees provided what could be considered a masters class in Vernon Eppinette, “this prince of a man, prince of a coach.”
His family and friend since boyhood, living in disparate parts of the globe, learned the impact Eppinette had on a school, community and young men – many of whom lined consecutive rows on the floor of the R. Marion Craig Coliseum – as hard-earned success defined Eppinette and the Port St. Joe High School Tiger Sharks.
The family heard from former players and friends, and a fellow coach, and heard how Eppinette not only won five state titles, earned trips to seven consecutive state championship games, but also forged men, taught life lessons focused on hard work and dedication, discipline and mental toughness.
And instilling a bedrock principle: life and sports is about team over self.
“He was shaping us as young men to be men tomorrow,” said former player Clay Smallwood. “The rules were clear-cut. He had discipline. We all had personal accountability for how far we went as a team.”
Damien Byrd, another former player, added, “He was molding young men into men. Coach made us believe we could do anything.”
Eppinette’s family also heard healthy dollops of humor.
The time Jeremy Dixon told Coach in the high school parking lot that he would not be coming out for his junior year, to which Eppinette paused before unlocking his car, saying, “It will come to you” before driving off, leaving a dumbfounded Dixon to wonder what that meant.
Byrd provided the history behind the famed purple-and-gold horizontally striped “Dr. Seuss socks” that became the Tiger Sharks’ trademark.
Those socks weren’t a fashion statement; they were to allow Coach to ensure he could see the players’ feet moving on grainy game films.
Traci Gaddis, a basketball mom by virtue of Eppinette deciding – to no further discussion – that her daughter would be videographer, talked about being left behind by the Eppinette-driven bus in violation of the coach’s rules for transport and timeliness.
When the coach returned not a word was spoken between the two until disembarking and Eppinette, with a wide smile, telling Gaddis that she would just love the concessions at the arena in which they were playing.
And while the family learned, so too did those impacted by the man before he arrived in Port St. Joe in 1990.
They learned about the future brother-in-law scared by the amount of protection Eppinette was directing toward his sister, Keppler’s future wife.
They learned about a boy who early on displayed some of the traits he would refine during his journey to Port St. Joe.
“He was somebody we looked up to, a hero,” Keppler said of the man he met when Eppinette was around 10. “He was a clinician, mentor, strategist and brilliant in a lot of ways.”
By the time Keppler had daughters, Eppinette became de-facto coach to a niece who ran track.
Eppinette’s closest and longtime friend Les Easter provided insight by reading snippets of letters between Eppinette, his parents and his company commander as a Marine in Vietnam.
Eppinette would be forced from the service by a shoulder injury suffered during a convoy.
The company commander’s letter was an attempt to explain to Eppinette’s parents why there had been a lapse in letters – writings that highlighted the young Marine’s discipline, knack for hard work and higher thinking, using adjectives such as “dynamic”, “aggressive”, “efficient”, “a deep thinker” constantly devising strategy.
His departure, the commander said, was “a loss to the Marine Corps and his country” and predicted that Eppinette would make a “great mark on men” and “go on to great things.”
And those who knew Eppinette since his arrival in Port St. Joe heard from his earliest coaching friend, Mike Herring, who highlighted a budding friendship as young coaches in Lake County and recounted his mentioning the Port St. Joe job to Eppinette.
Again, those characteristics that would define Eppinette in Port St. Joe were already on full display.
“You could not outwork him and you could not out-prepare him,” Herring said. “It was the team, always the team.
“You had the perfect storm here, the perfect players for him, the perfect coach, the perfect school and the perfect community.”
Hundreds inside “The Dome” last Saturday left with far more understanding about the journey Coach Vernon Eppinette took to navigate that perfect storm.