Steve Brandt, chief of the Flagler County Sheriff's Office's Investigative Services Department, and his friend Gary Johnston had an idea: Veterans, especially those with PTSD, can benefit by aiding their community, while young people can benefit by having veterans as role models — so why not bring them together through sports?
So Brandt started the Flagler Warriors — a football, cheerleading and wrestling program for children — with Johnston about four years ago through the Police Athletic League.
"He was able to marry the two needs together, and has probably saved countless lives — both adults and children," Sheriff Rick Stay said.
About 230 children are now involved, plus about 50 volunteers.
"[He's a] strong A personality. I mean, the man is 120 miles an hour; doesn’t stop. I’m always leaning on him to tell him slow down, delegate. He has a plan that’s in his mind, and he’s going to see it through, and if he has to, he’d do it by himself."
— BRYAN SCOTT JACKSON
"Sports has always been a way for me to cope with problems in my life as a kid," Brandt said. "That's probably why I'm still involved in this stuff, because I look at other kids and, you know, they need it too."
Johnston, himself a disabled veteran, had long thought that veterans could be valuable mentors to kids, while benefitting through the experience.
The Warriors teams are named after the values they hope the program can instill: Honor, Discipline, Service Respect Service and Courage.
Anjanette Stevens, the Flagler Warriors' board of directors treasurer and a team mom, said Brandt's service to the kids had inspired her to volunteer.
"He likes that personal touch," she said. "He goes up and talks to people and he just cares about everybody he comes into contact with."
Brandt has six kids. Before becoming an FCSO deputy in 1995, he was an Army military police officer and chemical weapons specialist, and deployed in Desert Storm.
He was coaching his own kids in football when he decided he wanted to start a new program with an emphasis on mentoring.
The Warriors write essays. They attend leadership classes. Brandt takes extra time with kids who are having a tough time at home.
"Let's just say I feed a lot more kids than my own," Brandt said with a laugh. "My house is like a revolving door of kids, in and out all day."
Brandt designs the curriculum and schedules guest speakers. Ed Schmaler, the Warriors' 14 and under head coach, said Brandt has sometimes come out and helped run drills. The first year, Brandt and his wife spent about $5,000 of their own money buying helmets.
"Our first year, his biggest thing was to help kids in Bunnell out," said Bryan Scott Jackson, a deputy, veteran and member of the executive PAL board. "Kids who, say, the father has left the family and now the kids only have a mom ... having to work two or three jobs, and they might not have vehicles."
So, Brandt organized vans. "We would drive into the projects, pick these kids up, so that they could be in football," Jackson said. "That was his vision."
When the teams are preparing for the season during the summer, Brandt is at practice from 5:45 p.m. to 8:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. During the season, he's there two or three days a week, then on Saturdays from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. for games.
He's disciplined, orderly. "But he’s not a slave driver; he’s fun to be around," said Rachel Johnston, secretary for the Flagler Warriors' board, and Gary Johnston's wife. "We had a Christmas parade not too long ago, and he was up there in elf ears, dancing and singing."
There are the constant reminders of how Brandt's work with kids helps.
Not long ago, he bumped into a man in his 30s who recalled when Brandt had coached him at youth baseball.
"It’s times like that that really put everything into perspective," Brandt said. "I have a lot of self satisfaction seeing some smiling faces and some excited kids. ... And, you know, it breaks my heart when they lose and they’re sad, and I really get excited about when they win and they're happy. ... Watching them turn into what they turn into — for the most part, it's something good. Can’t get to them all, but at the end of the day — yeah. I just enjoy watching these kids grow up."