OKEECHOBEE — In addition to being a coach and a teacher, Tyrone Smith is a Man of Distinction. Smith came to Okeechobee at the behest of a friend, Chris Branham, who was head football coach at the high school. They played football together at college, and Branham came here first. Smith knew he wanted to teach, and Phoebe Raulerson offered him a job teaching elementary school, so he came down in 2002. He spent the first half of that year at Central Elementary School and has been at North Elementary ever since.
In addition to teaching elementary school, he coaches for the high school. At this time, he coaches football, but over the years, he has coached many sports, girls’ weightlifting, softball, track and football.
Smith said he made the decision to become a teacher when he was in sixth grade back in Virginia. He had an inspiring teacher of his own, “I had an African American teacher. He was my sixth grade teacher, my homeroom teacher named Mr.Smith. He poured so much into me! I looked. I watched. I looked at how he dressed.” Smith noticed in high school the teachers all wore ties. When he got to college, his coach had a talk with him and said, “Get your professional closet ready.” When Smith asked him what he meant by that, his coach told him he should look professional in whatever he was going to do. He said it did not mean he had to wear a tie all the time, but he should at least wear a collared shirt. This coach wore a collared shirt with nice shorts in the middle of every practice. His student teacher talked to him about the same thing, telling him she knew he saw a lot of males with ties on at the high schools, but if he could not get on the floor and the ground in a tie, then he would be fine in a collared shirt. Smith took this advice to heart and has always tried to maintain a professional dress code.
He has discovered that many of his students at North Elementary School enjoy dressing up and wearing a tie. This may have started with former high school principal Dylan Tedders who wore a tie on Tuesdays. When Smith noticed one of his students coming in every Tuesday all dressed up, Smith decided to join him, and started really dressing up on Tuesdays as well. “I got to thinking, I was trying to get my high school guys to dress nicer and buy ties which is quite difficult because they want to stick with the fashion. I should do it too.” It took off not just in Smith’s classroom but throughout the building. Children ask to take their pictures with him every week. First the boys started dressing up, and then the girls began coming to school in their best dresses.
Although he was not the founder of Men of Distinction, it is near and dear to the heart of Tyrone Smith.
Chaka Smith, who started Chaka’s Stars, and Tyrone Smith felt there needed to be more ways to help their players become community leaders, to get them onto college campuses and get their faces out there. When Chaka Smith stepped back, Tyrone Smith began to lead the Men of Distinction with help from fellow coach Jeff Whitlock. When it first began, it was through football and is done as a summer camp. They go to college campuses, culinary colleges and places like that. Last year, they were not able to do those types of field trips because of COVID, but normally they are able to get onto all the nearby college campuses.
Being a football player is not a requirement to be a Man of Distinction. Doing workouts is a facet of the program, but it is only one portion of what they do.
One of the biggest hurdles Smith had to overcome with the guys he said was getting them to wear a shirt with a collar, not necessarily even a tie. Just a shirt with a collar. Smith said his reason for wanting the guys to wear shirts with collars goes all the way back to his own childhood in Virginia and his teacher who taught him to always look professional. The original goal of Men of Distinction was to get the young men on the college campuses, to get them to see that they could go to college and be productive members of the community in Okeechobee. When Chaka and Tyrone were in high school, they were not able to just go on college campuses as athletes or even as regular students. You had to pay to go there. Now, colleges invite students to come see the campus, and Okeechobee is in a unique area. It is close to many campuses. “We wanted them to see what college is like.”
They also teach the guys about apprenticeships and about trade schools. They have taken them to the courthouse and other places to view different professions in action. They’ve even gone to the beach, because many of these young people have never had the opportunity to experience the beach. “We want them to see what goes on around them, that it’s not just Okeechobee. I wanted the guys to know they are more than just athletes. You can be a productive citizen whether you stay here or whether you leave, you can always give back to your community in a positive way. I wanted to give back, and I wanted them to learn to give back,” said Smith.
“On the outside, people might think we are just doing football, but it’s not just open to football players. It’s open to any male in the county who is 12 years or older.” They operate through Children’s Services, and breakfast and lunch are provided. They do workouts, but then they go inside and have a classroom session because it is not technically affiliated with the school, they have a Bible session, maybe a testimony or Word of the day. Sometimes they have students who are strong in one subject to tutor guys who need help in that subject.
Reading is something Smith feels very strongly about. He does not care if it’s a sports magazine. He just wants to see the young men reading, he said. “As an elementary school teacher, I believe that is one of the most important skills I could ever teach someone, and the only way you get better at reading is by reading.” Every year, they have a summer read, whether it is a book Smith shares or Whitlock or someone from the community.
Typically, the program runs Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. until 2 p.m. But then afterward, they follow with community service that the guys can apply toward graduation. Some of them go over to Chaka’s Stars, and some go to OCRA to get out into the community so their faces can be seen and they can earn community service hours. The community service portion lasts until about 3:30. The program generally lasts from six to eight weeks in the summer.
Smith’s son Anthony, who is 13, has been attending Men of Distinction since he was about 8.
Men of Distinction uses a Bible verse to explain what they are trying to accomplish. Proverbs 27:17, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.”
“I truly believe that,” said Smith. “I know things as a man that I can walk you through your mothers may not be able to walk you through. Some of our guys are in single parent homes. Some are with grandparents. A very small percentage of our guys have both parents. There’s always a step-parent somewhere. We wanted them to know regardless of the circumstances of their lives, they could give back to their community in a positive way. They can give back to the United States of America in a positive way. It doesn’t have to be just through football. We are just using football as a catalyst to help serve the community.”
Smith had an amazing experience last year when he was asked to perform the marriage ceremony for one of his former first grade students who also happened to have been one of the first Men of Distinction.
Because of COVID, they did some things over Zoom last summer and then did some things outdoors. Many of the field trips were canceled.
Things will be a little different this year with Men of Distinction, but they still plan to have their college trips. They will just take smaller groups at a time.