The debate on who is the finest football player from Hernando County revolves around a short list.
Many fans and coaches believe Hernando High’s Jerome Brown, Ricky Feacher, George Floyd, Dwayne Mobley and John Capel should be included in that discussion.
Same goes for Central’s DuJuan Harris and Tyrone Goodson.
At Springstead, Huey Whittaker’s efforts at the University of South Florida and the Arena Football League have earned some consideration.
But for many locals, the Eagles’ finest defender and a member of the University of Florida’s 1997 national championship team – Edward Johnathan Chester – not only belongs in the conversation, but may top the list.
Chester was born in Tampa as one of three children under career educator parents Ed and Ethel Chester. His father served the Hernando County School District for 33 years while his mother served for 28.
Chester was raised in Hernando County until graduating from Springstead in 1994.
After spending approximately 10 years in Alachua County, he’s since relocated to Pinellas County.
These days, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Chester resides in St. Petersburg with his wife of 10 years, Lisa, and their two children: Natalie, 4, and Kaleb, 2.
Like Chester, Lisa has ties to Gainesville as a former University of Florida gymnast.
Interestingly, Chester did not play any organized sports until middle school.
“I was a fat little kid for a long time,” explained the 37-year-old Chester. “I wasn’t too broken up about not playing. I spent a lot of time with my dad, going fishing and stuff. I wanted to play football, but my dad had my back. He wanted to make sure I could handle it.”
Besides a camp here and there, Chester’s initial plunge into athletics was as an eighth-grader at West Hernando Middle School.
According to Chester, due to lack of numbers, he filled in at all three offensive line positions – center, guard and tackle – and saw some time along the Golden Eagle defensive line.
On that experience, “I hated playing offense. I really wasn’t good at it,” he said. “I certainly didn’t enjoy it.”
He eventually found his niche on the defensive side.
“I’m definitely a defensive guy,” Chester said. “I love the contact. Sometimes it was cool to play on the offense in goal-line stuff. But playing offense really wasn’t my thing.”
Upon graduation from WHMS – where his mother was a teacher – Chester followed his father to Springstead. His dad was SHS’ first coach from 1976-78.
After matriculating to the Mariner Boulevard campus, Chester demonstrated his athletic versatility lettering in four sports.
He did weightlifting and basketball for a year, threw the shot put and the discus for Fred Hudson’s track and field teams for three seasons, and earned three varsity letters in football under Bill Browning.
He played along the offensive and defensive lines as a freshman and sophomore.
Prior to his junior campaign, after a tete-a-tete with Coach Browning, Chester switched exclusively to defensive tackle.
A 6-4 sophomore year gave way to a 5-5 junior season. As a junior, Chester finished third on the team in tackles (98) – the team leader was a fellow named Mike Garofano, the current Springstead head coach, with 107 – featuring a then-school record eight sacks and three fumble recoveries.
As a senior in 1993, Chester and the Eagles soared. In the Spring Hill gridders’ 9-2 campaign, the SHS defense permitted seven points or less in eight teams – led by hard-charging Chester.
That team not only captured Springstead’s first-ever district championship, but was the first Hernando County team to defeat Hernando High, 31-7.
“I enjoyed playing at Springstead, I loved the atmosphere,” detailed Chester, who was named as an All-Sunshine Athletic Conference selection along his last three seasons. “It was great because a lot of my friends played, too; guys that I had grown up with since elementary school.”
On the disadvantages of playing, “Don’t let anyone tell you it’s fun when it’s hot as hell and you’re dealing with sandspurs every minute you’re out there – that’s not fun!”
Chester recalls with delight flipping the blocking sled during a drill to buy a few moments to recoup to the utter horror of line coach Pat McCoy.
Another SHS mentor, Pete Catan, made “practice a lot of fun,” declared Chester. “A lot of the stuff he said back then I didn’t get until later. He was really smart.”
On life under Coach Browning, “I liked him. Sure, he gets mad and yells like other guys,” said Chester. “But I never had to wonder what he was thinking. To me, he was a player’s coach.
“I think I knew him better because of my dad’s situation,” added Chester. “He didn’t distance himself from us. He demanded that you performed well.”
On the celebration following the first-ever win over Hernando, “That was absolutely amazing,” he said. “It was so nice to do it at their house. It was so hard to describe what it meant after all the years they whopped us – it was awesome.”
After earning the program’s first-ever district championship banner, SHS was rolled in the playoffs at Booster Stadium by Shaun King-led St. Petersburg-Gibbs, 36-6.
“The season’s icing on the cake was beating Hernando,” recalled Chester. “It was exciting to win districts, but I don’t think we truly appreciated it. Personally, I think we took Gibbs too lightly.”
On the ensuing recruiting process, “I wasn’t as highly recruited as Mobley was,” recalled Chester. “Once I narrowed down my choices, the phone stopped ringing off the hook.”
In all, Chester visited Kansas State, the University of Georgia, the University of Houston and UF – before settling on the Gators.
“I was fortunate to be in a good situation at Springstead and a great situation at Florida,” explained Chester. “Dwayne (Mobley) was my host. He was straight with me and told me the truth about the situation, which to this day I appreciate so much.”
On life under the “Ol’ Ball Coach” – Steve Spurrier, “Coach Spurrier was demanding. He demands a lot from his players,” stressed Chester. “But it all paid off. I’m fortunate that after I redshirted, we brought in a new defensive coordinator (Mike Stoops). He coached an aggressive style. I was surrounded by good players, too, including Kevin Carter.
“Coach Stoops used a two-gap system, which fit my style. It played to my strengths: my first step and my flexibility,” noted Chester. “In the weight room, my leg strength was pretty good, but I was nowhere near the top in lifting.”
In his collegiate career at UF, Chester blew out his right knee twice. Despite the serious injury, he was named an All-America.
“One of our receiver coaches bumped into me one day and said, ‘Hey, did you know you were named All-American today?'” recalled Chester. “That’s a nice honor, but I really didn’t care. Football has done a lot for me, but I didn’t want to be strictly known as a football player.
“Because of my upbringing,” described Chester, “I wanted to be known as a good person, a good citizen, a good father. My dad used to say that there are some great athletes out there that are turds; I didn’t want to be one of those.”
Former Springstead head coach Bill Vonada, an FSU alumnus, watched Chester play at “The Swamp.”
“At UF, Ed was an elite-level athlete,” said Vonada. “He was a dominant force with a school filled with elite-level athletes.”
After he graduated in 1999 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Natural Resources and Management, his father asked him if he wanted to watch the NFL Draft. Instead, Chester opted to go fishing.
In his mind, he had already decided against chasing an NFL dream.
“Graduating from UF without a degree wasn’t an option coming from a family of educators,” stressed Chester. “I was a horrible student, but football paved my future. The NFL wasn’t a goal for me; getting my degree was.
“I’ll cherish my (national championship) ring forever,” said Chester. “But my main goal was to get my degree.”
On whether Chester had any regrets, “You never know what would have happened,” said Chester if he would have chased the NFL. “I might be in a full-body cast. I’d be lying if a tiny percentage of me didn’t want to follow it (NFL). But I’m so happy I didn’t. I probably wouldn’t have met my wife nor had our two beautiful children.”
Since UF, Chester began working with the Boys and Girls Clubs in Alachua County. He also dipped his hands briefly into pharmaceutical sales.
He eventually followed his wife back to St. Petersburg. These days, he serves as a personal trainer for Bull Fitness and Spinergy Fitness.
“Life right now is hectic with two small children,” said Chester on his quality of life. “I can’t complain, I have a great, supportive wife. Life is good.”
When he’s not working, Chester can still be seen fishing with his daughter or his father.
“When you’re on the water, life slows down,” pointed out Chester. “I remember my dad taking me fishing since I was 5. It’s something we’ve always done together. I enjoy getting the big hit every now and again.
“When I’m on the water, the biggest thing is a bad day fishing is still better than a good day at work.”
On advising any aspiring young athlete in Hernando County, “As a young athlete you have to understand what the real prize is,” he said. “Take sports serious, but enjoy life, too. God blessed me with a lot of things and it worked out for me.
“These days, athletes have to take their craft serious, but don’t take life seriously – in the long run football is still a game.”