All-time All-Central Florida football team has a defensive edge to it (2022)

Editor’s note: This is the third story in a five-part series on the all-time high school football teams in the state of Florida.

ORLANDO — First off, high school football in Central Florida is a big deal. Second, the talent level — current and all-time — pales in comparison to that of Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties.


But as The Athletic’s All-Time All-Central Florida football team shows, there have been a lot of big-time players who got their start in Central Florida. (For this exercise, that is Brevard, Lake, Orange, Osceola, Seminole and Volusia counties.) Indeed, maybe the two best defensive linemen produced in the state of Florida (heck, two of the best defensive linemen produced anywhere) are Central Florida natives.

No, the talent isn’t the same as it is on our Miami-Dade and Broward/Palm Beach teams. But it’s still ample.

Check it out.


QB Jeff Blake
High school: Sanford Seminole
The particulars: Blake wasn’t a big recruit, though he did put up good numbers playing for his dad in high school, and went to East Carolina. He started for two years at ECU, throwing for 3,073 yards and 28 TDs as a senior in 1991, when he finished seventh in the Heisman voting. He was a sixth-round pick by the New York Jets in the 1992 draft and ended up playing 13 years in the NFL. He spent eight seasons as a starter — five with Cincinnati, one with New Orleans, one with Baltimore and one with Arizona — and finished his career with 21,711 yards and 134 TDs. He made the Pro Bowl in ’95 with the Bengals, when he threw for a career-high 3,822 yards and 28 TDs.

RB Leon Bright
High school: Merritt Island High
The particulars: Bright was nicknamed “Neon” — as in “Neon Leon” — a full decade before a brash FSU cornerback earned the same moniker. Bright was a mega-recruit in an era without mega-recruits and ended up at Florida State, though his college career was spotty. He played for four years in the CFL and five years in the NFL, where he made his mark as a return man. In 2009, he was named to the Florida High School Athletic Association’s All-Century team, a list of the top 33 players in the then-100-year history of high school football in Florida.


RB Chris Johnson
High school: Orlando Olympia
The particulars: Johnson was not an elite recruit. He was fast — really fast (as he eventually showed by running 40 meters in 4.24 seconds at the 2008 NFL Scouting Combine) — but ended up at East Carolina. He truly made his mark in the NFL; he was a first-round pick in the ’08 draft and had six consecutive 1,000-yard seasons to kick off his pro career. His high-water mark was a 2,006-yard season in 2009, his second year with the Tennessee Titans, when he was an All-Pro. That is one of just seven 2,000-yard seasons in NFL history. He rushed for 9,651 yards in a 10-season pro career and was selected to three Pro Bowls.

All-time All-Central Florida football team has a defensive edge to it (1)

Chris Johnson was lightly recruited out of Orlando Olympia. But he eventually made a big splash with the Tennessee Titans. (Kirby Lee / USA Today)

WR Wes Chandler
High school: New Smyrna Beach High
The particulars: Chandler was a running back in high school, then, ironically, was moved to receiver at Florida, which used the Wishbone at the time. He was a three-year starter who led the Gators in receptions in 1975, ’76 and ’77, and finished his career with a then-school record 22 TD catches (that’s now eighth, and every receiver ahead of him played for Steve Spurrier). He was an All-American in 1976 and ’77. He was the third overall pick in the 1978 draft and played 12 NFL seasons, finishing with 559 receptions for 8,966 yards and 56 TDs. He was a four-time Pro Bowler and was an All-Pro in 1982, when he led the NFL with 1,032 receiving yards.

WR Cris Collinsworth
High school: Titusville Astronaut
The particulars: He was a four-year starter at quarterback in high school — twice earning all-state honors — and also was the state Class 3A 100-yard dash champion as a junior in 1976. In addition, he was a four-year starter in basketball and was an all-state performer in that sport, too. He signed with Florida after an intense recruiting battle in 1977 as a quarterback, moved to receiver as a sophomore and became a three-time All-SEC selection; in addition, he was an All-American as a senior in 1980. He played eight seasons in the NFL and was a three-time Pro Bowler, finishing with 6,698 receiving yards.

WR Brandon Marshall
High school: Casselberry Lake Howell
The particulars: An unheralded recruit, Marshall ended up at hometown UCF. He didn’t really emerge until his senior season, when he had 74 receptions for 1,195 yards for the Knights in 2005. He was a fourth-round pick by Denver in 2006 and then truly blossomed as a pro, with six 100-reception seasons and eight with 1,000 yards. He also had four seasons with double-digit TD receptions, including a league-leading 14 in 2015. He played for six NFL teams in a 13-season career — making six Pro Bowls and one All-Pro team — and retired with 970 catches for 12,351 yards and 83 TDs. Those figures rank 16th, 22nd and 22nd, respectively, in NFL history.

T Wayne Gandy
High school: Haines City High
The particulars: Gandy was highly recruited despite Haines City High winning just one game in his senior season; he signed with Auburn and became an All-American with the Tigers. He was a first-round pick of the Rams in 1994 and enjoyed a 15-year NFL career, also playing for Pittsburgh, New Orleans and Atlanta. He was a starter for 12 of those seasons.


T Tra Thomas
High school: DeLand High
The particulars: Thomas played defensive end in high school, but despite great size (he was 6 feet 8 and 280 pounds as a senior), he wasn’t a touted recruit. He redshirted as a true freshman end at FSU in 1993, then switched to offensive tackle during the spring of 1994. He served as a backup for two seasons, was a part-time starter as a junior, then a full-time starter as a senior in 1997, when he became a second-team All-American. He was taken 11th overall by Philadelphia in the 1998 draft and became an 11-year starter for the Eagles. He was selected to three Pro Bowls.

G Larry Gagner
High school: Daytona Beach Seabreeze
The particulars: He was a stud athlete in high school, being named all-state in football (as a fullback), baseball and basketball. He was a two-year starter at guard at Florida, earning All-SEC honors in 1964 and ’65. In addition, he was a first-team All-American as a senior in ’65. He played in the NFL for five seasons and was a starter for the Steelers in four of them. Later, he was a successful artist in Tampa. He was a member of the FHSAA’s All-Century team in 2009.

G Nate Newton
High school: Orlando Jones
The particulars: Younger brother Tim was the better high school and college player (Tim went to Florida and played for eight seasons in the NFL as a defensive tackle), but Nate became an NFL star. Nate was nicknamed “The Kitchen” because of his size; his listed weight usually was 340 pounds, but that’s a biscuit — or maybe even a small cow — off. He played at Florida A&M and then in the USFL before making his way to the NFL. He played 14 years in the NFL and became famous for his road-grading ways as he blocked for Emmitt Smith with the Cowboys. He was a two-time All-Pro and a six-time Pro Bowler.

C Jeff Faine
High school: Sanford Seminole
The particulars: Faine was one of the best interior line prospects in the nation in the 1999 recruiting cycle and signed with Notre Dame. He started for three seasons with the Irish, earning All-America mention, and was a first-round pick by Cleveland in the 2003 draft. He was a starter — for the Browns, New Orleans, Tampa Bay and Cincinnati — throughout his 10-season NFL career.


E Deacon Jones
High school: Eatonville Hungerford
The particulars: The best defensive end in NFL history? You can make a case for Jones, who played high school ball in the pre-integration days; he made the FHSAA All-Century team in 2009 despite his high school not being a part of the FHSAA when he played. Jones played one season at South Carolina State and one season at Mississippi Vocational College — now called Mississippi Valley State (yep, the same alma mater as Jerry Rice) — before being selected in the 14th round of the 1961 draft by the Los Angeles Rams. He became a star on what was one of the most talented defensive lines in NFL history, the “Fearsome Foursome.” Jones played 14 years in the NFL and was a five-time All-Pro; he also was an eight-time Pro Bowler. Sacks were not an official stat when he played, but Pro Football Weekly credits him with 173.5 of them, which would be third all-time. He had a lethal helmet slap, a move that eventually was banned. He was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility in 1980, and was named to the NFL’s 75th Anniversary All-Time Team in 1994.

E Kenard Lang
High school: Orlando Evans
The particulars: Lang played football, basketball and baseball in high school, and became a pass-rush force in college at Miami (1994-96); he is sixth in UM history with 23 sacks, including 12 in ’96. He was a first-round pick by Washington in the 1997 draft and spent 10 seasons in the NFL, including seven as a starter (with the Redskins, Browns and Broncos). He finished his career with 50 sacks and 13 forced fumbles.

T Trevor Pryce
High school: Casselberry Lake Howell
The particulars: Pryce, who also ran the hurdles(!) in high school as a 250-pounder, was an elite recruit who signed with Michigan. But after two seasons and 13 starts with the Wolverines, he transferred to Clemson. He played one season at Clemson, then turned pro, going in the first round of the 1997 draft to Denver. He played 14 seasons in the NFL, seeing time at (mostly) tackle and end; he was an All-Pro in 1999 and was named to four Pro Bowls. Pryce, who was a nine-season starter, finished with 91 career sacks, three times reaching double digits.

T Warren Sapp
High school: Apopka High
The particulars: Sapp was a two-way standout at Apopka, starring at tight end and linebacker. He was converted to defensive tackle at Miami and became a superstar. Sapp played three seasons at UM and was a two-time All-American; he won the Lombardi and Nagurski awards as a junior in 1994, then turned pro. He was a first-round pick by the Bucs in the 1995 draft and played 13 NFL seasons. He was a four-time All-Pro selection for Tampa Bay and a seven-time Pro Bowler who finished his career with 96.5 sacks; he had four seasons with at least 10 sacks. Sapp was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2013. He was named to the FHSAA’s All-Century team in 2009.

All-time All-Central Florida football team has a defensive edge to it (2)

Wilber Marshall was a force off the edge at Florida, and later was a stout defender for 12 seasons in the NFL. (Courtesy of Florida Athletics)

LB Wilber Marshall
High school: Titusville Astronaut
The particulars: Marshall was a stud tight end in high school but became the best defensive player in Florida Gators history. He played tight end as a freshman at UF in 1980, then moved to outside linebacker in 1981 and promptly set the then-school record with 11 sacks. He is ninth in Gators history with 343 tackles, fifth with 23 sacks and first with 58 tackles for loss. Marshall was a two-time All-American and was selected in the first round of the 1984 draft by Chicago. He played 12 seasons in the NFL, with four teams, and was a two-time All-Pro and three-time Pro Bowler. Marshall finished his career with 45 sacks, 24 forced fumbles, 23 interceptions and 16 fumble recoveries. He was a member of the FHSAA’s All-Century team in 2009.

LB Kawika Mitchell
High school: Casselberry Lake Howell
The particulars: Mitchell was the area’s defensive player of the year as a prep senior in 1997 and signed with Georgia. But he transferred to USF after his freshman season and became one of the best defensive players in USF history; he is the leading tackler in Bulls history with 367. He was a second-round pick by Kansas City in the 2003 draft and played eight seasons — five as a starter — in the NFL. He had two seasons with more than 100 tackles.

LB Danny Trevathan
High school: Leesburg High
The particulars: He was a two-star recruit who turned into a three-year starter at Kentucky; he finished his Wildcats career with 374 tackles. He was a sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft and became a two-year starter for Denver before moving on to Chicago. He has had three seasons with 100 tackles and has been a starter for six of his eight pro seasons. Trevathan signed a three-year extension with Chicago in March.

DB Ha Ha Clinton-Dix
High school: Orlando Dr. Phillips
The particulars: Clinton-Dix (his real first name is Ha’Sean, but he much prefers Ha Ha) was a five-star recruit and a national top-10 prospect in the 2011 recruiting class. He chose Alabama and was a backup as a true freshman before starting as a sophomore and junior; he was an All-American as a junior in 2013, then turned pro. He was a first-round pick of Green Bay in the 2014 draft and has been a starter throughout his six-year NFL career; he also has played for Washington and Chicago, and made the Pro Bowl as a member of the Packers in 2016.

DB Bruce McNorton
High school: Port Orange Spruce Creek
The particulars: He played at Spruce Creek right after the school opened in 1975 but was lightly recruited and went to Georgetown (Ky.), an NAIA program. He was a fourth-round pick in the 1982 draft by Detroit and played nine seasons — six as a starter — for the Lions; he had 20 picks and six fumble recoveries in his career. There’s this, too: His son-in-law is Calvin “Megatron” Johnson.

DB Brandon Meriweather
High school: Apopka High
The particulars: He was a two-time all-state performer at perennial power Apopka, then played his college ball at Miami. He became a three-year starter at safety for the Hurricanes, earning some All-American honors in his junior and senior seasons. He is the leading tackler among defensive backs in UM history with 293 and holds the school record with 52 games played. Meriweather was a first-round pick of New England in the 2007 draft. He played nine seasons in the NFL and was a starter at safety for six of them, with the Pats, Redskins and Giants. He made two Pro Bowls, both with New England.

DB Reggie Nelson
High school: Melbourne Palm Bay
The particulars: Nelson was a national top-50 recruit out of high school as a safety but had academic issues that forced him to go to junior college for a year. He then played two seasons as Florida, earning consensus All-American honors in ’06, when he had 51 tackles, six interceptions, five pass breakups and two blocked kicks. He was a first-round pick in the 2007 draft by Jacksonville. Nelson played 12 seasons in the NFL as a safety and made two Pro Bowls; he led the league with eight picks for Cincinnati in 2015. He was a member of the FHSAA’s All-Century team in 2009.


K Sebastian Janikowski
High school: Daytona Beach Seabreeze
The particulars: He moved from Poland to Orlando to play soccer in high school, then spent his senior season at Seabreeze playing soccer and football. He earned a football scholarship to FSU and made 66 field goals in three years for the Seminoles; he bypassed his senior season and was a first-round pick by Oakland in the 2000 draft. He played 19 seasons in the NFL, made 436 field goals (ninth in league history) and scored 1,913 points (10th). He also booted 58 field goals of at least 50 yards, the most in NFL history.

P Johnny Townsend
High school: Orlando Boone
The particulars: He was Florida’s regular punter for three seasons and earned some All-America notice. He left UF as the school’s career leader in punts and punt yards. He averaged 43.2 yards as Oakland’s punter in 2018 and is trying to get back into the NFL.

The toughest to leave off

RB Sammie Smith/Apopka High; TE Derek Brown/Merritt Island High; OT Leon Searcy/Orlando Evans; OT Max Starks/Orlando Lake Highland Prep; OT Dick Yelvington/Daytona Beach Mainland; G Jeff Zimmerman/Orlando Evans; C Jamie Dukes/Orlando Evans; DT Tony McCoy/Orlando Evans; DT Leonard Williams/Daytona Beach Mainland; LB Christian Jones/Casselberry Lake Howell; LB Keith Rivers/Lake Mary High; LB Vince Williams/Davenport Ridge Community; S Derwin James/Haines City High; S Karl Joseph/Orlando Edgewater; S Marlon McCree/Port Orange Atlantic; S Bubba McDowell/Merritt Island High; S Lee Nelson/Melbourne High.

Coming Thursday: Tampa Bay area
Friday: The All-Time All-Florida High School Football Team

(Top photo of Warren Sapp: Craig Jones / Getty Images)

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