TAMPA — The Plant High School football team was lined two-by-two in a dark hallway.
The Tampa-based high school team had not lost a game the entire 2016 season, but was seconds away from its biggest test yet. Awaiting the Plant Panthers was Saint Thomas Aquinas, a team with eight defensive linemen who would go on to play Power Five college football.
Former Plant head coach Robert Weiner, now the quarterbacks coach at the University of Toledo, had been in this situation before. His four state championship titles and efficacy of preparing young men for college football made him the perfect leader for another FHSAA Class 7A state championship game.
But for a brief moment, Whop Philyor took over these duties. Weiner described Philyor as a happy-go-lucky guy, but a more heartfelt side of Philyor shone through while standing in this hallway with his teammates at Camping World Stadium in Orlando, Florida.
“Whop is screaming from the depths of his soul how much he loves his teammates and he’ll do anything for anybody who is on his team,” Weiner said. “That’s a moment that I really can’t even describe fully in words, but it’s a moment I’ll never ever forget.”
But Philyor’s undying energy was not enough to overcome the X’s and O’s. In the end, Saint Thomas Aquinas and its loaded roster of Power Five talent was too much for Plant to handle, defeating the Panthers 45-6.
“Despite the fact that they don’t have rings to prove the fact that they had a state championship season, I don’t think…any of those people think there is anything they have to avenge or get back,” Weiner said.
Weiner said there’s an often misconception around Plant football that it’s state championship-or-nothing, but he and his team worked to keep things in perspective. Now returning to Tampa to play Ole Miss in the Outback Bowl, there is a chance to relive that memorable season.
“All of them coming back to Tampa will recall special memories of a football season they had and the camaraderie together that can never be replaced,” Weiner said.
But in a way, Indiana and its four players from Plant High School — Philyor, Micah McFadden, Thomas Allen and Juwan Burgess — have a chance to come full circle and finish what they couldn’t in 2016.
“I think there will be a moment of sweet anticipation at the end if they were able to win the game over Ole Miss that allows them to say that maybe that does put a little completion to the season in a way that they didn’t complete in 2016,” Weiner said.
Weiner said in his time coaching at Plant, he never sent four players — and three in the same class — to the same Division I school. He said there was no master plan to send them all to Indiana, but clearly it has worked out for all parties involved.
“Our guys rely upon each other quite a bit,” Weiner said. “I think that just kind of had a natural evolution of its own that came about.”
McFadden is a year younger than Philyor, Allen and Burgess, but still played a major role in Plant’s success. And to fully understand what it means for these players to play in the Outback Bowl, it starts with a closer look at who they are and where they come from.
When Weiner found out Micah McFadden was named to the AP All-American third team on Dec. 28, the first thought that came to his mind was that McFadden defines a true All-American. Not just because of his play on the field, which is what the award is voted on, but who he is as a person.
For Weiner, the term “All-American” entails more than just leading the Indiana defense in sacks or being named to the first-team All-Big Ten in McFadden’s case.
“He is the young man that you want to be around,” Weiner said. “He is the man that if you have young people in your family, you want your young people to be around. He is a guy that maximizes what it is that he has.”
Weiner has had the chance to know every member of the McFadden family, which has certainly made a name for itself at Plant High School. Weiner first met Micah when he was in third grade, and coached his older brother Luke on the Plant football team.
Micah’s sister even attended Plant’s camp for children with muscular dystrophy. Micah’s father has served as the team doctor for the Panthers, and Weiner described Micah’s mother as a key part of the program.
Weiner said amongst such an impressive family, he could sense that Micah was searching for himself at times. During Micah’s junior year, he played outside linebacker, which allowed him to total 14 sacks, as Thomas Allen assumed the Mike linebacker position in the middle.
“When Micah was able to say, ‘I’m just going to go be the best that I can,’ there was no stopping him,” Weiner said.
— The Hoosier Network (@TheHoosierNet) November 20, 2020
And that is exactly who Micah was his senior year. He set the school record for tackles in a season with over 200 tackles in 15 games. As Weiner described, it was a season of legendary play on the field, but Micah also epitomized everything you could possibly want in a human.
“You get into this business thinking you’re going to motivate and inspire people,” Weiner said. “I personally am inspired by Micah probably way more than the other way around.”
For the first time this season, Indiana fans will have the chance to watch the Hoosiers play in person. The Outback Bowl is allowing 13,000 fans into Raymond James Stadium, which gives McFadden a chance to play in front of nearly 45 family members and friends.
“I’m going to be really excited and I can’t wait to play in front of a big crowd for once this season,” McFadden said.
“Did you see that?” Dane Frantzen, Plant’s junior varsity quarterback at the time, said.
“Did you see that?” Whop Philyor’s father yelled from the first row of the stands.
And finally, “Hey coach,” Whop said to Weiner. “Did you see that?”
Weiner saw it. Frantzen pitched back to Philyor and became the lead blocker. It wasn’t the most intimidating running duo, Frantzen standing at 5-feet-10, Philyor not any taller. But the two packed a punch.
Weiner said Philyor played off Frantzen’s block, but still had four defenders to get past as he sprinted further down the field. Philyor miraculously stayed on his feet after a hit from the first tackler, made a spin move past the next and cut back to the middle of the field after running nearly 50 yards.
“Whop went for four years on our varsity and junior varsity and I don’t think I ever saw him get tackled backwards,” Weiner said. “…I think that has as much to do about his ability as it does with his drive to just always be excellent.”
There’s something wrong with this story, though, because it starts with Philyor’s play on the field.
“I think if you start any conversation with Whop about his incredible talent… I think you are starting in the wrong spot,” Weiner said. “He has a personality bigger than any room or any place or any stadium that he can walk into.”
— David Furones (@DavidFurones_) December 10, 2016
Philyor may be considered an undersized wide receiver at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds as a senior, but his bigger-than-life personality shines through. At one of his press conferences early this season, Philyor started by talking about the new haircut he gave himself.
“I had to do something,” Philyor said. “You know what I’m saying? You like it? Girls like it.”
Philyor’s full name is Mister Elias De’Angelo Philyor, but got the nickname Whop at an early age because of his love for Burger King Whoppers. Perhaps what he’s known best for now, though, is his love for his teammates.
Weiner said Philyor brings his undying spirit and love for the guys around him to the table every day. While Philyor’s numbers for the Hoosiers might have been higher a year ago, that hasn’t affected the way he supports his team.
“He has probably celebrated his teammates’ success as much as anybody else has,” Weiner said. “…He is a guy that sometimes he doesn’t even have to say a word, although he will, but he lights up the room just by walking in.”
When Thomas Allen transferred to Plant before his junior year, the first call Weiner made was to Allen’s former high school coach in Mississippi. Weiner said that during this phone call he had never heard any coach speak so glowingly of not only a football player, but a young man.
“He told me, ‘Coach, you’re getting perhaps one of the finest young men that I have coached in 40 years,’” Weiner said. “… I discovered over the two years that followed was that he was all of that and more.”
Allen was Plant’s Mike linebacker on the 2016 state finals team, and stands out as one of the best leaders Weiner has ever coached. Allen transferred to Plant as an upperclassman and made an immediate impact on the field, but also in the relationships with his teammates.
“There have been very few people that I have come across who can galvanize an entire group of people from a leadership standpoint like Thomas can,” Weiner said.
Weiner said this personality comes from not only Thomas’s father Tom Allen, but also his mother and his life of faith. And the entire Allen family’s faith was tested when Thomas was forced to have season ending hip-surgery due to an injury he sustained in Indiana’s 24-0 win over Michigan State on Nov. 14.
Gotta love this team.
Look at how everyone consoled Thomas Allen (@TheTrain44).
— Indiana On BTN (@IndianaOnBTN) November 14, 2020
It was clear how much Thomas’ teammates respected him and were hurt to see him go down. Nearly every player on the Indiana football team patted him on the back, gave him a high five or wished him well as he was carted off the field.
Weiner said he called Thomas the night of the injury, as well as the day after. Their conversation went on through tears and heartache, but Weiner knew the Allen family always tries to find a purpose for even the most negative outcomes in life.
“The one thing I know about Tom and Thomas and the whole family,” Weiner said. “Is that things are going to happen in this world, but things are not devastating when you are a true believer like they are.”
Thomas was able to look past the potential devastation of this injury to be on the sidelines with his teammates the very next week. From Weiner’s perspective, it was just Thomas being Thomas, leading and inspiring others around him.
“[Thomas has] the ability to take anything that is thrown at him, any kind of adversity and turn it into something great,” Weiner said.
The whole mood of the game was changed in one play. Plant was playing against archival Armwood High School, another school loaded with college talent year in and year out.
Juwan Burgess now plays safety for Indiana, but in high school he was utilized as a wide receiver due to his rangy play, long arms and ability to play light on his feet. Against Armwood, Plant quarterback Dane Frantzen scrambled to his left and threw a ball that Weiner thought was going to be intercepted when it was released.
Instead, Burgess cut across the end zone, adjusted to the ball and boxed out the defender to score the first touchdown of the game. Weiner said wins against Armwood are few and far between, and he remembers that this play sparked the team’s strong performance the rest of the game that led to a Plant victory.
Weiner said he always knew Burgess would project as a defensive back, but his desire to capture the football in any scenario made him a nice fit at receiver, too.
Unlike McFadden, Philyor and Allen — who were more under-the-radar recruits — Burgess attracted college coaches from an early age. Burgess was rated as the No. 22 athlete in the class of 2017 and Indiana’s highest rated signee of this class.
Burgess was originally committed to USC, but flipped his commitment to Indiana in January of 2017. At the time of Burgess’ commitment to Indiana, Weiner said it is important to not only find the best place to apply your talent, but also recognize a place that is going to take care of you as a young man.
“I think being with Tom Allen, and it’s not only Tom, but his whole staff, which exemplifies all of those traits, the development of the young man, and to be able to do that in the Big Ten, big-time football, it’s just a tremendous opportunity,” Weiner said in 2017.
When Burgess transferred to Plant, Weiner said he already had a level of legitimacy to what he could do, as well as offers from top schools. Because of his athleticism, Burgess not only played safety and wide receiver, but cornerback, too.
Weiner said he urged the defensive coaches to move Burgess back to safety by the end of his senior year to allow him to do what he does best. Weiner also preferred to play Burgess at safety due his ability to come down and force fumbles as well.
— Dave Revsine (@BTNDaveRevsine) August 5, 2019
When describing Burgess’s play in high school, Weiner put it simply: a ballhawk.
“When you recognize that the most precious thing in the game is the ball,” Weiner said, “I think Juwan is always someone who has been a ballhawk and going after the football and he was that guy for us.”
Aside from Burgess’ desire to force turnovers, Weiner saw a different side of Burgess when he was plagued with injuries early in his junior season. At the team’s postseason banquet, Weiner gave Burgess an award for being a good teammate and lifting up everybody else on the team.
Weiner said he usually saves this type of award for someone who doesn’t play as much, so it was a bit unusual to give this award to Burgess, who was so talented on the field.
“Juwan was so supportive of everyone else on the team that it really became something that was a guiding light for what it was we were doing,” Weiner said.
A return home
Tom Allen’s first head coaching job was at Temple Heights Christian School in Tampa when he took over as interim head coach in 1993. Allen has always loved using phrases like “LEO” and emphasizing words such as “Relentless” to inspire his program, and the same was true at Temple Heights.
“Dare to believe” was Allen’s mantra in Tampa in the 90’s. Allen said certain players from those teams have reached out to him in anticipation of Indiana’s appearance in the Outback Bowl.
For Allen, his journey from coaching high school football, to the University of South Florida, to Ole Miss and now to Indiana may be hard to believe. Indiana has accomplished a list of program firsts this season en route to Allen being named Big Ten Coach of the Year.
“All of these kids are like, ‘Man, from Temple Heights to the Big Ten. How in the world did that happen?’” Allen said.
Indiana currently has 22 players on the roster from the state of Florida, which is a reason Allen has circled the Outback Bowl as a desired destination for him and his players.
“They get a chance to go back to Tampa and play for a championship and a trophy game,” Allen said. “We’re going to do everything we can do to win the Outback Bowl in their home city.”
While the Hoosiers might have felt disrespected to not be considered for the Fiesta Bowl or Citrus Bowl, this game still holds a lot of meaning. And if you thought Indiana might not get up for a game like this, you don’t know Tom Allen and the Hoosiers.
“I think this fanbase knows me well enough and I think this program knows me well enough that this football team will be ready when we take the field on January second at 12:30 in Tampa, Florida. Period,” Allen said.
Indiana will be playing in a January bowl game for the second year in a row, which is another program first. Allen already has deep roots in Florida, which has helped him recruit the state so well, but this is another opportunity to strengthen those ties.
— Dave Revsine (@BTNDaveRevsine) August 5, 2019
Like McFadden, Allen is excited for his team to play in front of friends, family and fans for the first time this season.
“Many, many of our loyal fans have not had the chance to see our 2020 Indiana Hoosiers play and, man, I hope they come in groves and support this team like they never have before. This team deserves it,” Allen said.
It has been nearly 20 years since Allen coached high school football in Tampa, but he thinks he is still the same guy. Weiner said a lot of times in college football people can be insincere, but the more time you spend with Allen, you realize it is anything but that.
“I’m the same person I was back then,” Allen said. “Just as fiery, just trying to get those kids to believe in something just like we’ve done at Indiana. The whole ‘Dare to believe’ mantra, even though we don’t use it the same way here with LEO, it all started back in Tampa, Florida.”