By Cynthia Zordich, Player Engagement Insider
It is the fall of 1993 in Cleveland, Ohio, and Steve Everitt of the Cleveland Browns has been invited to join the house band. Only a day earlier, he lined up at center, under the brilliant lights of Municipal Stadium. (The Browns would beat the Steelers 28-23). Here, in the heavy metal bar, with his long hair in strings covering his faded yellow t-shirt, a single swinging spotlight casts a haunting shadow over his brow. Everitt keeps his eyes closed and his head in motion, with an emotional rendition of “No Forgiveness” by Paradise Lost.
Everitt is a quintessential NFL pro, mixed with the eclectic beat of an artist. He is an artist. His brushstrokes are honest, raw and real. He does not gloss over anything.
Perhaps his song selection was an eminent foreshadow to the coming fate of his beloved Browns.
Art Modell's decision to move the team to Baltimore in 1995 (and renaming the team the Ravens) did not escape the wrath of Everitt. He would famously tattoo a sword down the middle of his back to symbolize "the stabbing in the back felt by every Browns fan."
While the game went on in Baltimore, all was quiet in Cleveland - experiencing its own rendition of paradise lost. That is until halftime, when Everitt removed his Ravens’ helmet to reveal a Cleveland Browns skullcap - his personal homage to his lost city.
"I wanted them to know that they were not forgotten." To Everitt, showing that loyalty was worth every penny of his $5000 fine and premature departure. In Cleveland Everitt is revered.
A heavily recruited offensive lineman out of Southridge High School in Miami, Everitt committed to the University of Michigan "because of their offensive line tradition, their family atmosphere and (then-head coach) Bo Schembechler."
A four-year starter at center at Michigan, Everitt was selected to the Big 10 All-Conference Football Team his senior year after beating the Washington Huskies in the 1993 Rose Bowl. He was the 14th overall pick by the Browns in the 1993 NFL Draft. He played three seasons for the Browns until their move to Baltimore where he played one season. In 1995, he signed a five-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles. After three seasons, he would sign a two-year contract with the St. Louis Rams. After 98 starts at center, Everitt could feel the effects of the game and after "staying a year longer than I should have," he and his wife, Amy, packed up their apartment in St. Louis and headed south to their off-season version of paradise: Key West.
"My high school football coach, Jerry Hughes, is a Conch," explains Everitt on the Key West connection. "When I was young, in Miami, I used to attend his football camps in Key West. In high school, we worked the camps and when I got to the league, I would return with some of my teammates to help run the camps. Each off-season, Amy and I would come down. Every year our stays got longer. When it came time to retire, Amy was like, 'What d’ya think?' I have to hand it to her because Key West is not the kind of place to be if you like malls - or the hustle of people. It's low key."
Everitt's Viking nature mixed well with the historic Category 3, 4 and 5 storms that he and Amy would face together. They fought through three feet of floodwaters with Hurricane Wilma in 2005, choosing not to evacuate in order to save their home.
"I lost pictures that I will never get back. Pictures with Bo, me shaking hands with President Gerald Ford, a fellow Michigan center. Still, we were safe; We made it through and stuff is stuff."
Oh - how a little girl can change things.
"We always stay prepared for hurricane season, having about 90% of everything we need. We're not complacent, but we don't panic. We've been in the crosshairs. Before we had our daughter, Jamie, we were used to riding it out, we weren't evacuators. But you get a kid in the mix and that equation changes,” he said with a laugh.
Mixing Michigan football and fishing, Everitt and fellow UM offensive lineman, Joe Cocozzo, often fish together at Hawk's Cay Marina along with lifelong Michigan fan, Dave Shilinger.
"Dave and I kept in touch the week heading into the storm," Everitt recalled. "He threw out the option of taking off to Ft. Myers in his boat, TAILWALKER, early on. We had options. The first thing I thought is that we could go to Michigan and I would see three home games. But, the further you go, the harder it is to get back. We also had Amy's dad in Homestead, but heading in to my senior season at Michigan our house got annihilated by [Hurricane] Andrew, and that was right in Cutler Ridge - one town over. I remember I was on the practice field. My buddy, Scotty Passink's mom worked at Schembechler and came down to the field to get me. My mom had somehow found a landline and got in touch with Mary. I was dripping sweat and blood all over, pacing back and forth in the coaches’ offices barely able to hear my mom. What was she doing? Trying to keep ME calm -- and after she lost everything. With that fresh in my head, Amy and I talked about it, and decided that since the hurricane was heading up the state, we would go by Dave's boat and stay with our neighbor's daughter in Ft. Myers. I trust Dave with my life and my family's. He was our safest bet and we're grateful."
The Everitt family packed up all that they could, including Marshmallow, the family dog, but not including Peanut, their 15-year-old, three-foot tortoise.
"It was tough, but we also left the cat, Pixie. If I could do it over again, I would definitely have taken Pixie with us, Jamie is worried about her."
Peanut was eventually picked up by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and is safe. Pixie is safely waiting Jamie's return at their friend Joe Moyer's house.
Today, Everitt was in Home Depot buying a generator, tarps, towels, food, beer, and water. He has been in constant touch with his neighbors who are already helping him with the house. Food is scarce, and with the power out, he had his next-door neighbor, Moyer, run in and grab over 100 lobster tails and stone crabs out of their freezer box to give away to neighbors, volunteers and workers.
"Usually, I bring them to the Michigan tailgates," he said.
There is fish, sludge and unrecognizable debris in all of the yards waiting for Everitt. Moyer, has already warned him that he could never be prepared for the sights and smells of the wreckage. Moyer, 62 is the longest tenured employee (35 years) at Historic Tours of America (HTA). HTA runs the Old Town Trolley Tours in Key. To prepare Everitt for the first tour of his home since Irma, Moyer had a chainsaw crew cutting a path thru the debris to his front door.
"The hardest part is not being there for my neighbors. Now that I have the family situated, I will head back to help." Everitt's clean-up contribution will come physically and financially. This week, he and Amy started the “Michigan Football Fans for Florida” GoFundMe page.
"Within hours of launching the page, we had so many donations. Amy and I were thanking everyone one by one. I know I have great family and great friends, but it's times like these that make you realize the impact of being a Wolverine. I was texting Desmond [Howard] and Charles Woodson, Warde Manuel (Athletic Director), [Jim] Brandstattler, [Dan] Dierdorf. That's why I went to Michigan. That's why I didn't go to Miami or Florida State. It's times like these that I know I made the right decision."
Everitt's slice of paradise combines blue waters, tropical views, fishing, art and music. Jamie, now eight years old, has been singing since she was three. Her debut was at the infamous Babalous, where she sang “Seminole Winds.” Jamie's piano teacher, Smilin' Bob (Boyd) helped write and perform music for James Bond's "License to Kill." Added Everitt, "Smilin' Bob also owns a badass fish dip company - Smilin' Bob's Smoked Fish Dip." Key West is an island full of talented, eclectic, free-spirited folks who have become family to Steve and Amy Everitt.
"There was a 100-year-old woman named Wilhelmina Harvey, one of the first descendants of Key West and the first female mayor here. Before she passed away in 2005, Wilhelmina made me an Honorary Conch and Citizen of the Fabulous Florida Keys," Everitt said. "While I was in Home Depot today, I got a call from Buddy Owens who owns BO's Fish Wagon. Buddy was a badass baseball player in his time. (John Wesley) Boog Powell is a Hall-of-Famer who played for the (Baltimore) Orioles and he is BO's best friend. When I was young and going down to Key West for the football camps, I got to meet BO and he took me under his wing right away. Any time I went back, I had a place to stay. Another time, I met the author, Shel Silverstein (The Giving Tree) at BO's Fish Wagon. This is Key West. Then today, I have BO calling to check in on me? BO who is 78 and who just had over 30 trees land on his house and his business?”
“As soon as I get there I'm going to go by boat to mile marker 61 and drive to my house at mile marker 17. I'll have plenty to do. Then I'm going to check on my neighbors, check on my high school coach and check on BO. I'll end that first day with a cold beer at the Salty Angler on Duvall Street, only one of three Key West bars open."
For Everitt, rolling up his sleeves and rebuilding the island is personal.
"These hurricanes bring out the worst in some people with the price gougers and looters, but they bring out the good stuff, too," Everitt said. "People looking out for each other. Some people don't have the means and aren't as lucky as I've been in my life. Fifteen percent of Keys residents live below the poverty line. You know the people that serve your food, catch your fish, clean the hotel. They are living from paycheck to paycheck and a lot of them won't have a source of income for who knows how long. That is why Amy and I will be there handing out Publix gift cards, Home Depot gift cards. That's where the awesome donations are going. A lot of people forget. The further it gets from the day it hit the less attention it gets. But there are good people here in Key West that need our help. We have to show them that we care. We want to come back better than before. It's going to take a long time. But give the Keys a few months and tourists will start coming back. The fishing isn't going away. It's a popular place for a reason. There's no other place like it in the world."
To donate to Amy and Steve Everitt's Go Fund Me Page: Michigan Football Fans for Florida please visit: https://www.gofundme.com/michigan-football-fans-for-florida.
Cynthia Zordich is the co-author of When The Clock Runs Out and founder of nflthread.net. She is the wife of Former NFL Safety/current UM DB Coach, Michael Zordich, and the mother of Former Fullback Michael Zordich (Carolina Panthers), Former D-1 QB Alex Zordich and Daughter Aidan Zordich (Assistant, Funny or Die).