In 2000, when Joey Florence and Eric Lokey were young football coaches trying to make their mark on the profession, they accepted head coaching positions at programs that, at the time, were considered bottom of the barrel. Florence had just taken over at Ryan, while Lokey headed to Princeton.
It was a situation where neither coach had any room to brag, but they couldn’t let the other enjoy the opportunity.
“We saw each other at coaching school and Eric says, ‘Ryan is a horrible job,’” said Florence, who played football at Rockwall years earlier and still couldn’t stand the sight of Lokey, a rival who played at McKinney. “I said, ‘Well, Eric, I think Princeton’s a bad job.’ He wouldn’t listen and kept telling me that his job was better.
“He won two games in two years. We went to the state finals the first year and then won it the next year.”
Nearly 20 years later, the back-and-forth jabs haven’t stopped, though it is clear the once-bitter rivals have more than softened on each other. Lokey left Princeton and was instrumental in helping Florence win one more state title in 2002. When Florence left coaching to become the Denton school district’s athletic director in 2014, he couldn’t imagine doing so without Lokey as the assistant AD.
With Florence leading the charge Wednesday, Lokey was honored at a retirement party as he said goodbye to what he called a storybook 31-year career. Amid a few more jabs, Florence made it clear how important Lokey is to him.
“I may not have liked him from seventh grade through college, but Eric has meant everything to me,” Florence said. “He was never afraid to go to work, and he’s made me a better person. I’m going to miss him a lot.”
Lokey had a coaching career that included stops in Plano, Rockwall, Mabank and McKinney and at Stephen F. Austin. He coached at Ryan from 2002 to ’09 and again from 2010 to ’13.
He had earned a full scholarship to SFA and left as an All-American. He has the distinction of sacking Pro Football Hall of Famer Brett Favre twice while Favre was at Southern Mississippi, and in 2010 Lokey was inducted into the SFA Athletics Hall of Fame.
While reminiscing on his career in athletics, he said coaching sons Derek, Tyler and Taylor was the highlight. Derek went on to play with the Kansas City Chiefs and lives in Denton with his family. Tyler is an assistant coach at Ryan, and Taylor is an assistant at Braswell. Eric and his wife, Debi, have been married for 34 years.
“It was a storybook career. The neatest thing was getting to coach all three of my boys, and being a part of the success we’ve had at Denton ISD is so special. I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” Lokey said. “It’s just time to do something different. I’ve been told when you’re retired every day is Saturday. I like the sound of that.”
Cancer doesn’t discriminate
Not only did Eric Lokey help turn Ryan into a playoff powerhouse, but he is seen by many as a symbol of unbridled toughness. Almost eight years ago, Lokey was diagnosed with Stage IV renal cell carcinoma.
He has had multiple surgeries, including after doctors discovered a tumor on his brain a few years ago, but has defied the odds every time. He coached two more seasons after his initial diagnosis, and even after his move to administration he maintained optimism in the face of several touch-and-go battles.
Lokey credits Debi and his children for being with him every step of the way. Although he looks and feels great now, he lives his life four months at a time. Three times a year, he drives to Houston’s MD Anderson Cancer Center for a checkup.
“Cancer is crazy and it doesn’t discriminate. I learned that real fast,” Lokey said. “One day you’re feeling great and then you get these headaches and have to do brain surgery. But you have to [keep fighting]. I feel blessed every day.”
Lokey has the mindset that he will beat the disease once and for all.
“I remember being there in the hospital with him when he was complaining of no other side effects except headaches. The doctors were just befuddled,” Florence said. “I walked out into the hallway with the doctors and said, ‘Let me tell you something about Eric Lokey. He’s not human.’
“He was an All-American linebacker, and I’ve seen him not work out for six months and then get up and go run 4 miles like it was nothing. He’s subhuman when it comes to his toughness. His approach was the same with the way he has attacked cancer. I’m not surprised he’s still swinging at it.”
A few final jabs
While Lokey is retiring, he didn’t shy away from defending himself against Florence’s jabs one more time. Like the claim that his McKinney Lions never lost to Rockwall in football, and the sheer joy he took in seeing Florence cringe when he dusted off old film reels and a projector to prove to the entire coaching staff that he tackled Florence in a game.
He also said he had a “controversial” hole in one while playing against Florence.
“I was an offensive guard and he was a free safety; he got an interception and I managed to tackle him,” Lokey said with a laugh. “That was the big deal. He still says he lost the battle but won the war. We have a good time ragging on each other.
“It’s time for the next chapter. I’ve got other things to try and do. I’m not sure what those are yet, but we’ll see.”