VIDEO: Palm Bay’s James McGriff Once Promising Future, Halted By Unforeseen Tragedy In 1998
By SPACE COAST SPORTS HALL OF FAME // February 8, 2017
space coast sports hall of fame
ABOVE VIDEO: Before James McGriff’s tragic death on April 18, 1998, he was named one of the top 100 high school athletes in the country. As a blue-chip running back and defensive back, McGriff had made the Reebok All-America team that year and was on most recruiters’ A-list.
JAMES McGRIFF – 2014 INDUCTEE
• Reebok All-American
• USA Today All-American
• Brevard County All-Star MVP
TOP 100 PREP ATHLETES IN AMERICA
On April 18, 1998, Palm High School senior and football star James McGriff decided to take part in the school’s unofficial but popular “Senior Skip Day,” grab his swim trunks and head to the beach with friends.
It was a beautiful spring day, as rosy as the way the future looked for the football star, who had a generous grant-in-aid to the University of Florida in his pocket and who hoped to one-day play in the National Football League (NFL).
His dreams could certainly have become reality, for McGriff was named one of the top 100 high school athletes in the country. As a blue-chip running back and defensive back, McGriff had made the Reebok All-America team that year and was on most recruiters’ A-list.
According to one national Top 100 list, McGriff was actually ahead of future NFL draft top pick Carson Palmer, Super Bowl champ Ryan Pickett and All-Pro Roy Williams.
With a 3.0 GPA, he was also a good student, and a polite young man who addressed his elders with “sir” and “ma’am.”
“He loved sports and he was good at all of them. He played football, basketball, track and even a little soccer,” said his mother, Ernestine.
“He was a good person with lots of plans.”
Fate, however, would cruelly cut James’ dreams short. That sunny day, after a game of beach volleyball, McGriff and his girlfriend went into the ocean to cool off. Rip currents quickly swept them away from land. Though a respectable swimmer, McGriff was unfamiliar with rip currents and drowned.
His death hit his school and his county hard. Nicknamed “the Protector,” McGriff had a kind soul housed inside a powerful body, a young man who cared for the younger and the weaker, at school and in his neighborhood.
When Palm Bay High head coach Dan Burke returned to coach in Brevard, McGriff was one of the first athletes to catch his attention.
“I saw this eighth grader on the PE field,” said Burke.
“His name was James McGriff. The football and track coach at the time, Danny Miller, filled me in on the young man who was bright and talented. I would become the head coach of Southwest Junior High in 1994 and James would help lead us to an undefeated season and the county championship.”
CHARACTER, HEART LASTING MEMORY
One of Burke’s offensive coordinators, Alonzo Jefferson, who had played for Notre Dame, became a father figure to McGriff, says Burke.
“Alonzo and I followed James to Palm Bay High in 1996 and James was once again a feature player on the teams that turned around a program and started this string of 18 consecutive playoff appearances,” said Burke.
“Providing one of the quickest turnarounds in history, Palm Bay High made it to the Final 4 in 1997.James received the MVP award for the Brevard County All-Star Game and he was all Space Coast player of the year as well and a USA Today All-American. Steve Spurrier and defensive coordinator Bob Stoops signed McGriff to become a Florida Gator.”
It was very fitting that James’ wake and funeral were held at his high school’s gymnasium, for he had given his all to Palm Bay athletics. Palm Bay paid homage to him at one of his favorite spots in the school.
“James was a friend to all,” said Burke.
“He was a leader in the hallways, not just on the field. His talent speaks for itself on film, but his character and heart are what is lasting in his memory. James always made sure you knew you were on his team.”
THE 2017 SPACE COAST SPORTS HALL OF FAME Banquet and Induction Ceremony will take place at the Cocoa Beach Country Club on Friday, May 12 with a cocktail reception at 6 p.m. – and dinner and ceremony at 7 p.m.
FOR MORE INFORMATION, or to make a nomination for the Class of 2017 Space Coast Sports Hall of Fame, call 321-615-8111 or e-mail MaverickMultimedia@gmail.com