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Hernando High

Deen still a presence in county

Published:   |   Updated: December 6, 2013 at 03:41 PM

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Editor's note: This is the sixth story in a series highlighting Hernando High's 2013 Sports Hall of Fame inductees.

These days Thomas "Earl" Deen Jr. stays plenty busy, serving as principal at Pine Grove Elementary.

For over 30 years, he has built a teaching career in Hernando County, rising to the administrative levels.

But before all that, prior to his graduation from Hernando High in 1970, he compiled one of the more impressive athletic resumes in local history.

As a senior, Deen captured the Class A state championship in the 100-yard dash, the crowning achievement of his four years competing for the Leopards across three sports.

He was recently honored for his accomplishments, getting inducted into the Hernando High Sports Hall of Fame.

"I'm very humbled and honored to be in such an elite class of athletes, many of which I looked up to as role models, and people I wanted to be like," Deen said.

Now 62, Deen still lives in Brooksville with his wife Debbie, who he married in 1971. They raised two children, a daughter Alicia and son Leif.

He has been principal at Pine Grove since 2008 after holding that same position at Powell Middle on an interim basis in 2004-05 and full-time from 2005-08.

Though his roots are firmly planted in this area, he originally hailed from Mississippi, arriving with his family as a fourth-grader.

Due to the structure of the school system in those days, he actually started attending Hernando High in seventh grade.

Sports came to Deen naturally. His father was a coach, and, well, he admitted there wasn't much else to do.

At 6-foot-2 he had the size to be an elite athlete, and he certainly possessed the speed.

In junior high he played football, spending time at wide receiver, split end and quarterback.

When he joined the varsity Leopards - he was a four-year letterman from 1967-70 - Deen shifted to split end, played safety and returned kickoffs and punts.

He was a three-year starter, and even handled kicking duties, punting his final two seasons while adding kickoffs and PATs as a senior.

In 1969 he was an All-Conference selection. However, it was the previous season in which he recorded his greatest highlight: a 99-yard punt return against Gulf.

"The (punter) hit a really good one," Deen said. "He wasn't that good of a punter really and he hit one really nice. I thought it would go over my head, but I reached out for it and it barely touched my fingertips.

"It took three or four bounces. I knew I had to get it and I didn't know if the ref had seen I touched it. I scooped it up and turned around and saw they'd (his blockers) formed a wall on the right-hand side. I headed for that wall and they did a great job blocking. I had a straight shot up the sideline."

Over three seasons he started at forward in basketball. He wasn't much for scoring, though. He said he'd rather fight for rebounds.

In his senior year, he opted to forgo basketball to focus on track and field. The Leopards had built a rivalry with Tampa Catholic, so he spent the time lifting weights and getting healthy in anticipation of helping his team come out on top.

He was also the reigning Class A state runner-up in the 220-yard dash.

"I worked hard and wanted to be the best," Deen said. "I wanted to be the number one guy. I wanted to be the person everybody else was looking to beat."

His commitment to track paid off in the 1970 state meet. He made states in the 220, but a pulled hamstring prevented him from duplicating his previous second-place showing.

It was also a 98-degree day at the University of Florida, and to make matters worse, Deen said there were five false starts in the 100.

When the race finally did go off, Deen had a bad start out of the blocks. Somehow he overcame it all to cross the finish line ahead of the pack, in a time of 10.1.

"It's a dream come true," Deen said. "It's something you work for, strive for; thought about, talked about; yearned for. It's something I lived for. You kind of dedicated yourself to it and when it happens, it's unbelievable.

"I was on top of the world. I was very happy, elated, proud not just for myself but for Hernando High. I was representing a little county like ours. That's something I felt really good about. Nobody takes you seriously when come from a little county."

Deen earned All-Conference, All-Area and All-State honors in track as a junior and senior. In 1968 he set a school record of 9.7 in the 100 and in 1969 a 21.8 school mark in the 220.

The FHSAA switched to 100 meters in 1986, and the 220 yard was replaced by the 200 meter in 1990.

He signed to compete in track and football at Memphis State, "but things didn't work out," Deen said. "I stayed here and went to a community college in Ocala and I didn't play sports anymore.

"That phase of my life was really good, but I just wanted to do something different."

His father, Tom Deen, was a teacher and the first assistant principal at Hernando High - it was that job that originally led the family to Florida.

Tom Deen also served as principal at an alternative school in the county, a precursor to what is now called Endeavor Academy (formerly STAR Education Center).

"It's something I was good at and something where I wanted to follow in his footsteps," Deen said of choosing a path into education.

He began his teaching career in Texas, then moved back to Brooksville when his father-in-law fell ill.

From 1983-84 and again from 1985-86, Deen was a teacher at Parrott Middle School. He was a teacher, assistant varsity football coach and head track coach at Lecanto High from 1986-87.

Eventually he landed at Powell, from 1991-98, teaching, assisting with football and filling the role of athletic director.

Deen returned to Parrott to work as a counselor from 1998-2000 prior to becoming assistant principal at Powell.

He was Hernando County Assistant Principal of the Year from 2001-03, a member of the Florida Assistant Principals Network Board from 2000-05, and published an article for the Florida Association of School Administrators in 2003.

"I think (teaching) has been something I'm very happy I did," Deen said. "It has been very rewarding to get to know a lot of great kids, parents and community members. I've had a great time. I've loved it."

When he arrived at Pine Grove, he created Mr. Deen's Outdoor Reading Adventures Video Booktalks, as a means to get students reading.

It's a continuation of an effort he started at Powell, where the students successfully met his challenge to read a million pages in a year.

"When I was a kid I loved to read," Deen said. "Then I had a teacher that wouldn't let you read what you wanted to read. She wanted you to read what she wanted you to read. I got stubborn and hardheaded and quit reading. I always wish I hadn't.

"If you can read, you can do a lot with your life. If you can't read, it can severely hamper your ability to be everything you can be in life. I wanted to get kids to see that reading was a good thing and you can learn a lot of from reading."

He'll have three more school years after this one before he reaches retirement. When that time comes, he figures he'll do some volunteering, and he'd like to work at a national park as a tour guide.

"I want to go out and just enjoy life," Deen said, "and see different parts of America."

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