Key Largo Tornadoes running back Charles Royal runs upfield against Ransom Everglades.

A bit of history was made in the Upper Keys early August when a group of middle school athletes strapped their new helmets and took to the practice field in Key Largo.

An inaugural Tornado football program had no problems recruiting players in sixth through eighth grades from various Upper Keys schools like Key Largo School to Plantation Key School. They even received a bit of help securing helmets thanks to former NFL defensive star J.J. Watt’s foundation, which supports middle school athletic programs. 

There was a learning curve, however, as players donned pads, practiced form tackling, learned plays and experienced game action against some formidable opponents for the first time. The Tornado squad even played a game that saw seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady watching from the sideline. His son, Benny, played for the Spartans out of Miami. 

“There were a lot of growing pains, but the kids really stuck together,” said head coach Will Jones. “It’s hard to take kids playing backyard football with each other and playing a game that’s not about yourself but rather the team.”

Behind the scenes, work to jumpstart the Tornado football program took a group effort. Jones is a second-year teacher at Key Largo School. Upon arriving, he was surprised to learn there was no middle school football team in the Upper Keys. Jones spoke to Darren Pais, Key Largo School principal, and expressed interest in being part of a program. Pais took the idea to district officials who expressed support. 

Joining Jones’ Tornado staff were Mark Leffler, Jose Zepeda, Kevin Williams, Danny MacShane and Augie Wampler. After three weeks of hitting the sleds and learning plays, the team had its first game against Marathon. Despite the lack of real-game experience, the Tornadoes had no problem reaching the end zone and playing stingy defense in a 34-0 win over Marathon. They faced tougher opponents on the mainland, but the Tornadoes’ inaugural season saw them finishing 2-2. 

Overall, Jones said he was impressed with the improvement from day one of training camp to the season’s end. The only girl on the team, Melanie Estevez, finished as the team’s starting quarterback. 

“We took a group of kids who were excited but didn’t know what to expect and hit someone for the first time,” he said. “By the end of the season they had no fear. Everyone bought into the program.”

Jones was particularly impressed with the play of Charles Royal and Evan Campanioni. Royal is considered one of the better all-around players on the Tornado squad, serving as running back and lineman. Jones said Campanioni’s talent and athleticism had him playing everywhere from cornerback and receiver to running back. And Jones is excited to bring back Sean Connolly and Rene Castillo, both sixth graders who were exceptional as linemen. 

Ed Holly, Coral Shores Hurricanes football coach, lent his help to the team with a playbook and some gear. Holly said the new program’s success is a testament to Jones and his staff. He said Tornadoes football will improve the level of play in the Upper Keys.

“Our goal is to give the players the opportunity after spending time in the KLS program the chance to run the same system at Coral Shores,” he said. “It gives them the opportunity to continue their careers at the collegiate level.”

The Tornado football program will look for momentum in year two. Practice begins in August 2024. 

Jim McCarthy is one of the many Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 4-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, hockey, mixed martial arts and golf. He also enjoys time with family and his new baby boy, Lucas, who arrived Oct. 4, 2022.