Paul Pratt in his heyday was one of the most dynamic athletes that Taft football ever produced. He played at a time when being the opposition on Friday nights in Woodland Hills meant almost certain defeat. When being a starter for the Toreadors almost guaranteed a Division I offer and dozens of scouts would line the stands.
But since 2011, the program has been in a slow and steady decline. Following a 2-9 record this past season under first year head coach Matt Holly, Pratt had finally seen enough. He returned to his alma mater as the team’s new defensive coordinator. It was Holly who made the call to Pratt and is attempting to usher in a new era of gridiron excellence.
“Paul really has his pulse on the Valley,” Holly said. “He knows a lot of the kids in the area and he knows what he is doing. He is already a great coach and his and validity already speaks for itself. When he saw the program in the shape that it was, he was itching to come back and the right time was now.”
Despite the poor record in Holly’s first season, his greater goal was accomplished. Holly wanted the program to have a goal beyond the amount of wins and losses. He took a team with poor academic performance and turned them into winners inside the classroom within a year. The number of varsity players with GPA’s of 3.0 or higher doubled from 10 to 20.
After establishing a stricter code of rules inside the locker room, Holly had 44 of Taft’s 45 players declared academically eligible for the 2017 season.
“I saw what Coach Holly did for all the kids from an educational standpoint and to get the kids ready on the field and in practice and I thought that was big,” Pratt said. “Seeing a lot of kids not graduating and seeing a lot of kids not being able to play football and he helped change the culture. A lot of coaches prior to Matt wanted to do things their way. He wanted to bring back respect to the legends that came before him and I want to be part of the rebirth.”
Pratt knows what it is like to compete against the best especially when the best came in the form of his lifelong friend Steve Smith. While Pratt ended up playing one season with the Detroit Lions in the 2009-2010 season, Smith’s career was much more momentous.
Smith was a main fixture during the Pete Carroll era at USC and caught three touchdowns during the Trojans last National Championship before being drafted by the New York Giants. He would play six seasons and won a Super Bowl with the Giants in 2008.
Although both players took different paths to get to the NFL, Smith never lost sight on how he became better. Both men have fed off each other’s competitive nature since their days as freshmen trying to earn their spot on Troy Starr’s team. Their trash talk, their workouts and raw work ethic allowed Smith and Pratt to elevate each other’s game to the next level.
“There were so many workouts that we would do and he went out and worked out with Hall of Fame cornerback Darrell Green and learned so much stuff,” Smith said. “He brought it back and that whole summer we worked our butts off and that was my best year of my career.”
Smith and Pratt’s careers eventually came to an end and had to find life after football and reality hit for both men. Smith who led the NFL in receptions in 2009 was derailed by a knee injury.
Both men eventually started their own businesses and Pratt has become one of the most recognized performance trainers in Los Angeles. His reputation for taking athletes and making them faster has earned him the nickname “Dr. Speed.”
Beyond having an excellent football mind, Smith feels that Pratt will bring the knowledge and wisdom needed for his players to have success on the field and off of it. Pratt brings plenty of energy and charisma to the job along with a strict code of discipline. Smith’s advice for Taft’s players? Come prepared, ready to work.
“If you don’t come ready, then you ain’t playing,” Smith said. “He is about getting you ready for the next level and getting you ready for life. Life is crazy. How do you deal with adversity? These guys are going to have to be ready for the hard workouts, the lifts, getting up early and practicing when everyone else isn’t. When you have someone who has done it at the highest level like Paul, kids respect that.”
Written by Ethan Hanson