Danny Fernandez arrived at Steinbrenner High as a sophomore in 2009 without knowing what to expect from the brand new school.
The field had never been played on. The weights had never been lifted. To him, it was a clean slate, the chance to prove his value to a budding program.
Fast forward five years later and Fernandez is at it again — building a program from scratch.
This time, however, more than 100 other players are helping do the same at a much higher level. They are laying the foundation to mold first-year Florida Institute of Technology, a Division II program, into a future college football powerhouse.
Former Steinbrenner coach Floyd Graham can remember the first time he saw Fernandez during summer workouts prior to the school’s inaugural year.
His overall size wasn’t all that impressive, but one thing about Fernandez stuck out to Graham above all 71 other players on the roster — his passion for the game.
“With Danny, what we had is a kid who came in what I call the Napoleon syndrome,” Graham said with a laugh. “He was undersized, but he had a huge heart, and he won over the players the first year.”
Fernandez soon began to take a leadership role among his teammates, and when Graham and his assistants allowed the players to pick the squad’s first team captains, there was no hesitation at who should get a nod.
“He was a great leader, never missed workouts, was always in the weight room, and he always fought to get bigger, faster and stronger,” Graham said of Fernandez. He was a utility player for us, and at one time, we actually had him as a backup quarterback. He played that, running back and corner, and he did everything we asked.”
Fernandez, who came to Steinbrenner after playing at Sickles his freshman year, said he always felt from Day 1 that he needed to prove his worth and show how badly he wanted to make Steinbrenner into a successful program.
“Coach Graham didn’t really know who we were, he didn’t know a lot of guys’ skill levels either, so once we suited up and got on the field, we just had this open opportunity to truly show how we can play,” Fernandez said. “When I got to Steinbrenner, I was one of only a few guys who had played varsity football, so I knew from the start that I had to step up. I had to try and be a vocal leader.”
Fernandez’s leadership paid off for the Warriors as they steadily improved from 0-6 in 2009 to 5-5 in 2010 and 7-3 in 2011, one win away from a playoff berth. But one thing hadn’t improved by his senior year — a chance to play at the college level for a major university.
However, a late season recruiting fair changed everything for Fernandez when he was offered to play for Florida Tech, which had just made the decision to expand its athletic department to include football beginning in 2013.
There was no hesitation from Fernandez. He was going to play at Florida Tech.
“I think it’s definitely just awesome this kind of scenario to be put into, because nothing was established,” Fernandez said. “A lot of guys go to college for the first time and they’re kind of nervous, and they start looking at sitting the bench for three years or having a few All-Americans ahead of them or a solidified starter or team captain. But getting to Florida Tech, nobody knew anybody.
“The coaches, when it came down to it, didn’t really know who could play and who couldn’t, because they were kind of just basing us off of film and some players were watched live. So, it was just so up in the air, which everyone was able to just make a statement, and that’s how Steinbrenner was as well.”
Graham, who left Steinbrenner in 2012 following the team’s best season in program history, said he felt like the decision was a perfect match for Fernandez.
“I think they go hand in hand, except (Florida Tech) is probably a much larger scale than high school,” Graham said. “He’ll know the obstacles that we had to get through like, for example, equipment not being there, to taking care of new facilities, to being a part of just the team that plays the very first game at this school.
“This is one of the things he used to talk about to his teammates. I remember he used to say we’re not following anybody, everybody is going to follow us, so we’ve got to set the standard right now. He took a lot of pride in that.”
With Florida Tech’s program not starting for another year when he enrolled for classes last fall, Fernandez had to essentially take a year off from football.
During that time, Fernandez worked with Florida Tech coach Steve Englehart to develop his game to a higher level and began developing chemistry with his teammates through practices and scrimmages.
Away from the field, Fernandez took a part-time job at the school and made sure to focus on his academics as he pursues a degree in biomedical engineering.
“It was really easy for me to sink in and focus on what I need to do, because I don’t have to take on any burdens,” Fernandez said. “At Steinbrenner, I knew I was one of those guys that had to come in right away and say something, but it was much easier at Florida Tech, because I’ve had a whole year to build up to it.”
Fernandez has had Sept. 7 circled on his calendar for more than a year.
That’s when Florida Tech will host, under the lights, Stetson University, which will restart its football program this season after a 57-year hiatus.
While he can’t describe how he will feel walking out onto the field for the first time in a college uniform, Fernandez said he knows it will be a memory to last a lifetime.
“The fact that we’re going to be in the history books and just have that excitement and build up this program is making us work that much harder,” Fernandez said. “We want to accomplish that goal of winning that game and being able to say to a team that’s only an hour north that we beat them is incredible.”
Graham echoed his former player and added that he believes this entire experience stretches far beyond the gridiron and into life itself.
“I think that is a tremendous asset for Danny,” Graham said. “Imagine what that’s going to be like for him in life. You think about it, you’re only a father for the first time, you’re married for the first time, and you buy your first house. He took so much pride in doing something for the first time (at Steinbrenner), that he wanted to see that moment and make the best of that moment.
“I think (starting the program at Florida Tech) is just going to be a tremendous, tremendous asset for him in life, because he’s a great young man.”