Since 1987, The First Academy in Orlando has been providing Christian-based education to students from kindergarten through high school, excelling in a wide range of academics. An important part of the school's role in the community is its athletic programs, and like most high schools in Florida, football is one of the highest-profile sports in the TFA community. This summer, TFA welcomed a new head football coach, Jeff Conaway, who has been successful and won state championships in Arkansas. Recently, Coach Conaway took some time to visit with Winter Garden City Lifestyle.
First, welcome to Central Florida! Coming in as a new head varsity football coach, what is your approach to making the transition successful?
My approach is mostly about relationship building. When you truly care about people and you truly want to help people improve and just become better, I think building relationships is easy. It's fun and it's genuine. I love being with people. I love helping young people succeed. I love coming around parents and partnering with them.
What makes it so rewarding for you?
When you've got a system that is proven and you know that it works and you can implement it and the players can see that it's working. That invigorates me and makes me excited to come to work every day. Today in the weight room, our guys were just over-the-top energetic, and the first day I was in there, we couldn't even get them to talk. But today they're lifting, they're sweating, they're clapping their hands, they're encouraging their teammates, they're getting loud, they're getting excited. And that's what I'm trying to do.
With all the success you had in Arkansas, what motivated you to take the job at The First Academy?
Five years ago, we started coming to Orlando, and in 2019 I brought the team here to play a game. I believe in a higher power and I have a relationship with Jesus. Now, looking back, it feels like God was preparing our hearts for a new home. I still don't have it all figured out, but we certainly believe that God brought us here.
In your mind, what makes The First Academy unique and special?
I think if anyone were to ask a parent, what do you want for your kids, well, we want them first to be in a safe environment. TFA has that. This is an incredible campus and the safety here is phenomenal. I'm going to feel really good about my kids being here. The second thing is, what do we want our kids to learn? I want to know what my kids are being taught. I'm a man of faith and I believe in the Bible. I want my kids to learn what the Bible says. I want them to have that biblical worldview. And when they leave high school, I don't want them to be thrust into a world where they don't know the right or the wrong way to live. TFA provides that.
Of course, it's still early, but what kind of response are you getting from the TFA community?
Change is hard for everybody and we certainly have changed some things, but I do believe the overwhelming experience I've seen is excitement. We're creating some structure that maybe we didn't have. The kids are spending more time working. They're wearing the correct dress code They're putting their toes on the correct line. And I think the overwhelming feeling that I get is that they're excited.
Clearly, this is a major move in your career and there were probably some difficult times. Is there a moment you can recall that showed you that you made the right decision?
I had some days where I cried like a baby in my car, in the hotel parking lot just by myself because my family was still in Arkansas and I was lonely. I thought, what have I done? I just left the best part of my life in Springdale, Arkansas. On perhaps the worst day I was having, one of my former players from Shiloh Christian was in Orlando and texted me and says, “Coach, can I come see you?” And in about 10 minutes he was standing in the lobby of my hotel.
This is a young man that I discipled. He was a knucklehead as a ninth grader, but as a senior, he might have been the most spiritually sound and mature kid that I've ever coached. Well, he shows up at my hotel and it was almost like an Old Testament prophet. He came in and put his arms around me and he prayed over me and he encouraged me. And he said, “Coach, you're doing the right thing. You changed our lives in Arkansas and God's brought you here to change the lives of these kids. Don't you ever look back.”
That had to make you feel great.
I was just blown away. And there were a lot of those moments, when I was confused, frustrated, maybe even a little disappointed, and God either spoke through someone else or through circumstance to tell me, “Just hang on because what I have for you is really, really good.”
"We brought Coach Conaway here to push towards competitive excellence AND develop strong leaders and disciple-makers. I believe he'll raise the standard of our student-athletes by focusing on the process and preparing them for whatever God calls them to be."
- Will Cohen, Athletics Director.