Bobby Stevens, a larger than life personality as an athlete and coach in Putnam County for more than 50 years, died Saturday morning following a brief illness. He was 70.
In 1967, the 6-foot-7 Stevens was the center of the only St. Johns River Junior College basketball team to play in the national tournament, and it is in the gym in which he starred for the Vikings that his memorial service will be held Wednesday. He led Palatka Senior High to the Final Four as a senior in 1964 and was a slugging first baseman on the Braves’ 1963 state championship baseball team. He completed his college basketball career at the University of Tampa, where a knee injury in his final game kept him from a pro career, having been drafted by the ABA Miami Floridians.
Stevens was head boys basketball and assistant football coach at Palatka Central before embarking on a long career at Interlachen High, where he was head coach of the baseball, boys and girls basketball and boys and girls track teams at various times. The track teams combined for almost 20 district championships and the 1991 girls team won one of only two state titles achieved by the Rams in any sport. Stevens was a football defensive coordinator and served as interim head coach in 1993 after his good friend, Dwayne Cox, went into cardiac arrest during a preseason game in Palatka. He also led Peniel Baptist Academy baseball teams to back-to-back Florida Christian Athletic League titles and spent 11 years as an assistant basketball coach at St. Johns.
The resume, however impressive, only scratches the surface of a man warmly remembered by friends and colleagues for loving life and people.
“There’s a ton of Bobby Stevens stories. The best thing I can say about him is he got his kids to play their (butts) off for him,” said retired IHS athletic director and football coach Doug Feltner, who became emotional while recalling Stevens Sunday evening. “You can be the best X-and-O guy out there, and if you can’t get the kids to play hard, it doesn’t matter.
“He just had this way with kids. He spent a lot of time at Interlachen High after instructional hours ended.”
John Raymond Theobold worked with Stevens in various capacities for 13 years at IHS and the last six at SJR State, where Theobold is assistant athletic director and Stevens drove the bus when the baseball, softball and volleyball teams were on the road.
“As big as he is, his heart was bigger. He was devoted to his wife, Cheryl, and his children, Renee and R.P., and his three grandchildren,” said Theobold, who thought of Stevens as a big brother. “He could take a student that had some issues and take him under his wing and get them to play hard and want to be part of his team.
“He had a lot of kids call while he was sick who wanted to know how he was and tell him how much he had done for him. There’s hundreds of kids he has touched.”
That included students at St. Johns, where Theobold said Stevens accepted a nominal fee to drive the team bus to stay around athletics.
“What impressed me so much about Bobby was his friendship, compassion and kindness,” Theobold said. “And to me that far exceeds his athleticism.”
Stevens’ athleticism was considerable.
He averaged 19.5 points per game over two seasons as St. Johns, graduating with NJCAA records for career rebounds (670), single-season rebounds (23.1 per game) and single-game rebounds (38). He was an All-American in 1968 at the University of Tampa, where he set school rebounding records.
“He was a rare athletic talent in any arena,” said Neal Chancey, who was a sophomore when Stevens was a freshman at St. Johns. “He was a raucously funny individual who kept his teammates relaxed and loose. He was a great teammate and a fearless competitor. He said we never really lost a game. The clock ran out.
“When the good Lord made him, they threw away the mold.”
Stevens’ high school baseball background was a springboard to a long career in men’s slowpitch softball, playing on eight world championship teams between the Green Machine of Starke and Ray’s Sheet Metal of Gainesville. He made All-World five times.
“He was a terrific athlete. He just had so much ability,” said Billy Bennett, his baseball coach at Palatka Senior. “He was good to coach. He worked and did what you asked him to do.
“Bobby was just Bobby. He enjoyed life and had a lot of fun.”
Stevens liked to have fun as a coach and had a flair for the unconventional. His Interlachen baseball teams frequently executed hidden-ball tricks and a boys basketball team that didn’t have a starter taller than 6-foot-1 went after 3-point shooting records. Both at Central and at IHS, Stevens delighted in beating county rivals, especially Palatka South and Palatka High.
“I always considered him a very good friend, a very good coach and a very good athlete,” said Jim McCool, who was a few years ahead of Stevens in high school and a rival basketball coach when South and Central met in the 1970s. “You never saw him get too emotional as a coach or athlete. He didn’t let things get to him.
“He enjoyed playing, he enjoyed coaching and he enjoyed working with youngsters. I know they enjoyed playing for him.”
Read more: The Palatka Daily News. Local news and information for Palatka and Putnam County Florida. – One of a Kind Bobby Stevens passes