Monday, December 29, 2008

Jesuit Wins State Championship, 12/20/68

On December 20, 1968, the three astronauts of Apollo 8 were in their final day of preparation for a mission that would send them on man's first trip to the moon, more than 220,000 miles from Earth. At the same time in Tampa, 41 football players from Tampa Jesuit were preparing for another historic mission: to become the first football team from Tampa to win a state high school championship.

Standing in the way of the 10-1 Tigers in the Class A title game was another team seeking its first state championship, the Kathleen Red Devils from nearby Polk County. Kathleen entered the game with a 10-1-1 record, their only loss a 26-13 setback to in-town rival, the Class AA Lakeland Dreadnaughts. Leading up to the game, several Kathleen players were stricken with the notorious Hong Kong Flu, an epidemic that affected roughly 50 million Americans from 1968-69.

Unable to practice during the week were running backs Wayne Cockrill and Silas Bryant, as well as starting left tackle Colin Hunt. Kathleen coach Tom Atwell expected the players to be ready for the game, but worried about the flu spreading to other players.

"I just hope that the flu leaves us and all the players will be ready for the game," Atwell said.

While the Red Devils contended with the flu, there was great cause for celebration leading up to the game for the Tigers. On December 17, star running back Leonard George became the first black player to sign a full football scholarship with the University of Florida. Gators head coach Ray Graves called the 5-11, 170-pound Leonard a "talented athlete, a fine young man and a good student."

In nine regular-season games, George gained 1,525 yards on the ground and scored 20 touchdowns. In the first game of the playoffs against Palmetto, George dominated with 244 yards on 18 carries, reeling off runs of 86 and 63 yards, while scoring two touchdowns to lead Jesuit to a 21-7 win. The next week on the road in the semifinals against Walton High in Defuniak Springs, George ran for 170 yards and a touchdown in a 20-0 win. As the key to Jesuit's success on offense, the Tigers would need one more superlative effort from George to bring home the championship.

The game against Kathleen was in many ways the culmination of a dominant three-year run for the Tigers that featured an overall record of 29-5. A year earlier, the Tigers fell one game short of reaching the state finals, losing to Lake City. On a team loaded with seniors playing in the final game of their high school careers, the Tigers did not want to let their best chance at a title slip away.

Virgil Versaggi, an offensive guard and linebacker for the Tigers, remembers not getting caught up in the hype of the big game.

"The year before we made it to the semifinals," Versaggi tells me. "We didn't do anything special to prepare, went through the same routine that week. It felt like just another game."

But it wasn't just another game, at least not to the 8,500 fans at Tampa Stadium, 5,000 of whom supported the Red Devils. On the biggest stage of their young lives, however, the Tigers lived up to their expectation of success.

Jesuit bolted to an early lead in the first quarter, powered by the legs of their star running back. The Tigers won the opening toss and drove the length of the field in 11 plays, getting on the scoreboard via a 9-yard run by George. On their next offensive possession, the Tigers drove 89 yards, the biggest play coming on a 68-yard completion by quarterback Steve Krist. Gilbert that moved the ball to the Kathleen five-yard line. On the next play, George ran the ball in from the five for the touchdown. Jesuit's Steve Harlow missed the extra point, however, and the Tigers had to settle for a 13-0 lead.

Kathleen answered right back on their ensuing drive. Running back Wayne Cockrill, who had spent the week hampered by the flu, broke free for a 57-yard touchdown run with 10:35 remaining in the half. A missed extra point left the score at 13-6. Jesuit's next offensive possession stalled at the Kathleen 45. Following a punt, the Red Devils began another touchdown drive that covered 71 yards.

Quarterback David Bowden found Chambers on a 40-yard pass to the Jesuit 9-yard line. Bowden then found tight end Joe Goldsmith in the end zone for the score. Kathleen blew another extra point, however, so Jesuit maintained a one-point lead, 13-12.

It didn't take long for Jesuit to reverse the Kathleen momentum. On the first play from scrimmage on the ensuing drive, Krist broke loose and scored on a 69-yard rollout to put his squad up by seven. In a game of missed extra points, Harlow added yet another, so Jesuit took a 19-12 lead that would hold through the end of the first half.

With 6:33 left in the third quarter, Kathleen capitalized on a big play by its special teams, returning a punt 38 yards to the Jesuit 11-yard-line. On the next play behind a wall of blockers, Chambers ran the ball in for a touchdown to bring his team within one. Kathleen, struggling with their extra points, decided to run a fake instead. A successful conversion by Bowden tied the game at 19 and set up an exciting finish to the game.

On the second play of the fourth quarter, Arnold Sheidler helped Jesuit retake the lead on a 2-yard touchdown plunge. Yet again, Jesuit missed the extra point, and settled for a six-point lead, 25-19. Not to be outdone, Kathleen relied on the big arm of David Bowden to move them down the field. Completions of 17 and 25 yards to Joe Goldsmith moved the Red Devils to the Jesuit 1-yard line. Chambers dove into the end zone for his second touchdown of the game to tie the game at 25. Kathleen lined up for its fourth extra-point attempt of the game, but Tony Kubena of the Tigers made arguably the play of the game by blocking the attempt by Roger Chambers to keep the game tied at 25-25.

With just under eight minutes to play, Gainesville-bound Leonard George took over the game for Jesuit. George, who sprained his back during practice earlier in the week, proved instrumental as Jesuit marched down the field from its own 34 on a game-clinching drive. His touchdown dash from the three, followed by a successful extra-point kick by Steve Harlow, provided Jesuit with a 32-25 lead.

With time winding down, Kubena made yet another huge play to stymie Kathleen's comeback attempt, this time intercepting Bowden at the Jesuit 49-yard line.

"I was more surprised than anything when I got it," Kubena said. "I was just glad to get hold of the ball."

With the Red Devils unable to stop the two-headed running attack of George and Sheidler, the Tigers marched to the Kathleen 18. On the final run of his high school career, George shed two tacklers en route to an 18-yard touchdown run – his fourth rushing touchdown of the day -- with 51 seconds left to make the final score 39-25.

"I guess that was the best run I made," George said. "I think it was because by scoring it gave us all the points we needed to be sure to win."

In the post-game glow of his team's victory, Jesuit head coach Bill Minahan captured the sentiments of a city starved for a football champion:

"I feel as proud as a person could feel that we brought Tampa its first state football championship."

Monday, December 22, 2008

Suncoast Suns Burn Out, 12/19/73

In 1992, the Tampa Bay Lightning began their inaugural season of play in the National Hockey League. One might naturally assume that the Lightning were the pioneers of ice hockey in the Tampa Bay area. Incredibly, professional hockey was being played in St. Petersburg a full two decades earlier.

Long before the Lightning's founding father, Phil Esposito, ever imagined bringing hockey to Tampa Bay, the minor-league Suncoast Suns patrolled the ice of the Bayfront Center in downtown St. Pete. Founded in 1971, the Suns played in the Eastern Hockey League during the 1971-72 and 1972-73 seasons. The Bayfront Center, with its intimate environment and clubby post-game atmosphere, was the place to be seen, and even actor James Garner got involved in the action by purchasing a small share of the club.

In February 1973, the Suns, along with teams based in North Carolina and Virginia, voted to leave the EHL and form a new league, the Southern Hockey League. Neither the EHL nor the new Southern Hockey League would be considered anyone's idea of world-class hockey -- imagine the Paul Newman film "Slap Shot" to appreciate the "rough and tumble" product on the ice.

The team hoped to benefit from playing in the new league in several ways. Travel expenses, for one, would be reduced considerably without trips to the northeast. The league would also form a relationship with the burgeoning World Hockey Association, which would supply the SHL with some of their minor leaguers.

Ed Rood, a prominent Tampa attorney as well as the Suns secretary and treasurer, felt this arrangement would bolster the league's reputation.

"We're pleased about being able to join a league such as this," Rood said. "It will only help to make hockey more popular in the South, and here in the Bay area."

The Suns, with a sluggish 9-22 mark on the ice, were just two months into the 1973-74 campaign when things started to unravel for the franchise off the ice. Rood and other Tampa-based investors in the team, who hoped to lure the New Jersey Knights of the WHA to Tampa, began pulling their financial backing for the team. Hemorrhaging money, the team's remaining owners, led by Steve Kirby and Chuck Mackey, were forced to find someone willing to buy the franchise.

As the Suns prepared to host Roanoke for a two-game series, the deal that would have transferred ownership of the team fell through. On December 18, Suns general manager Paul Caron announced in a news conference that the Suns needed an economic bailout -- $30,000 by 9 p.m. the next night -- or would face having to cease operations.

"Raising $30,000 will allow us to sustain our operation an additional 30 days," Caron said. "This 30 days will allow us the necessary time to locate long-range investors."

The team called on the public to save the team, providing phone numbers for fans in Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco counties willing to lend a hand.

"We're calling our fund 'S.O.S.,' Caron said. "That's 'Save Our Suns.' "

Apparently, a 7-year-old girl even called to donate $2.50. It wasn't enough. The Suns were able to raise a little over $18,000, well short of the amount needed to sustain the franchise.

On December 19, 1973, the SHL announced the dissolution of the Suncoast Suns. T. David Lamm, executive secretary of the SHL, called the announcement "a tragic thing for hockey and for the West Coast of Florida." The SHL had its own financial mess and were in no position to take control of the franchise. The league, therefore, had no choice but to fold the team.

League president Norman Curtis blasted Suns fans, saying in a statement that the team's failure could be attributed "due to the lack of interest by fans in the St. Petersburg area in hockey, at least in a non-contending (hockey) team."

Curtis wasn't entirely wrong in his assessment. Support for the Suns waned considerably during the season. The team struggled to win games, and often looked bad trying. Fans were bitter that crowd favorites from prior seasons, such as Cliff Pennington, Andre Lajeunesse and Marty Desmarais, were not brought back. Attendance at the Bayfront Center dipped below 1,000 for the last eight home games leading up to the team's death knell.

Lamm believed, however, there was plenty of local support given that the team managed to solicit more than $18,000 in a day's time.

"It shows that there is interest in the area," Lamm said. "I'm sorry the Suns couldn't have been a contender. It might have been different."

Tampa Tribune columnist Tom McEwen accurately predicted in his postmortem on the Suns that hockey would someday return to the Bay area - bigger and better than ever.

"The hockey playing Suns were a little before their time in our place," McEwen wrote. "In time, they'll be regarded and recorded as the pioneer hockey team in an area, that when that chronicle is written, will again have its own, prosperous, major league hockey team."

It took almost 20 years for hockey to return, but return the sport did. Now 35 years since the demise of the Suns, the area can claim its own prosperous - though presently victory-challenged - NHL team in the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Super Soccer Weekend, 12/10/78

In recent years, the Tampa Bay area has become accustomed to hosting major sporting events. This community has hosted the Super Bowl, the Stanley Cup Finals, the World Series, the Outback Bowl, the NCAA Final Four, and many other contests of significance. In the late 1970s, however, the Tampa Bay area had yet to prove itself as a player on the national scene.

The popularity of the Tampa Bay Rowdies – the area’s first professional franchise -- helped put Tampa Bay on the fast-track towards hosting major events. The Rowdies’ success led some to believe that Tampa could soon become the soccer capital of the United States.

In 1978, Sports Tampa Inc., a group led by local attorneys Tom Singletary and Robert Tropp, sought to capitalize on the popularity of the Rowdies by organizing a “Super Soccer Weekend,” a two-day tournament in early December which would feature four regional winners from around the country to determine the NCAA Division I soccer champion.

The impetus to host this event began when Singletary ran into a newspaper friend while walking on Franklin Street in downtown Tampa. A casual remark about how Tampa was becoming a “sports capital” led to a phone call several days later.

“He called and told me the NCAA was looking for a site for its soccer championship,” Singletary said. “I thought it was a natural for Tampa.”

Ralph McFillen, Assistant Director of Events for the NCAA, had several requirements that needed to be met in order for Sports Tampa to host this event. The tournament had to be in a warm weather site, the stadium needed to be large enough to potentially grow with the event, the playing surface needed to be grass, and the area had to be a hotbed of soccer interest.

The Tampa Bay area fit all the requirements. With the rabid following the Rowdies enjoyed, as well as the growth of youth soccer and adult recreational leagues throughout the region, there was no reason to believe such an event could fail to attract soccer fans.

McFillen attended a Rowdies game in person during August of 1978 and became convinced. In September, the NCAA awarded Sports Tampa the tournament for at least one year, with options for an additional two years. Singletary could not have been more pleased.

“We felt people wanted to see good soccer,” Singletary said, “not just professional soccer. It’s going to catch on in the schools and its going to be here permanently.”

Still, the group had a serious disadvantage in promoting the event with less than two months to rally local sponsorships and drum up support. Nobody knew which teams would be playing in the tournament either, so that made raising money and interest extremely difficult. The organizers did not find out which teams would be coming to town until nine days before the actual event.

Then things started breaking Sports Tampa’s way. Anheuser-Busch, Maas Brothers, University Toyota, and General Telephone all stepped forward as major sponsors for the tournament. The group couldn’t have selected any better teams for the tournament either, as for the first time ever, the four top-ranked teams in the nation – the University of San Francisco, Clemson University, Indiana University, and Philadelphia Textile (now Philadelphia University) – all advanced to the semifinals.

An extremely impressive foursome, the teams came to Tampa with combined records of 82-2-1. The San Francisco Dons, winners of three NCAA titles overall and back-to-back winners in 1975 and 1976, entered as the favorites even though their only loss came early in the season to top-ranked Indiana.

San Francisco would get a chance at revenge in the championship game. In the semifinals, the Dons defeated Clemson, while Indiana topped Philadelphia to set up a rematch. In Tampa Stadium on December 10, 1978, roughly 4,500 fans braved the cold and windy weather to see the Dons defeat the Hoosiers 2-0 to capture their school’s fourth national title.

Despite the high-caliber of teams in the tournament, it seemed as though the lack of time to prepare for the event hurt Tampa Sports, particularly in the area of advanced ticket sales. Overall, fewer than 10,000 fans showed up for the two-day event.

Today, those in attendance cannot even claim that they were able to see a national champion crowned. The University of San Francisco later had its title vacated because they used an ineligible player in the game, a cruel final twist to a weekend that ultimately failed to live up to its potential.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Catching Up With Larry Smith

William Lawrence Smith -- better known as Larry Smith and a member of The Tampa Tribune’s All-Century Team -- helped lead the Robinson High School Knights to the state championship game in 1963. The powerful running back earned All-County, All-State and All-American recognition during his renowned prep career. He parlayed that success into stardom at the University of Florida, where he earned fame while recording 24 career rushing touchdowns and garnered All-SEC honors from 1966-68. A first-round selection in the 1969 draft by the Los Angeles Rams, Smith spent six seasons in the NFL playing for the Rams and Washington Redskins before calling it a career. Smith recently sat down to talk about the 45th anniversary of Robinson’s memorable run to the state championship game, and set the record straight about the most memorable play of his collegiate career.

Q. What was it like playing high school football in Tampa during the early 1960s?

A. It was a lot of fun. It was pretty much what everybody did around here on a Friday night. At that time, we didn’t yet have professional football. The University of Tampa was still a small college program. Friday night was a pretty exciting time for high school games during that period. As I recall for one of our home games that year, we had some 10,000 people in the stands. The stadium was completely sold out.

Q. Robinson was still a fairly new school in 1963, but that season it certainly eclipsed nearby Plant High School on the football field. How did it feel to emerge from Plant’s shadow?

A. Plant was a big rival, but we were far enough from the split that formed Robinson that we had started to develop our own identity. The rivalry was big a thing, but our focus was bigger. We wanted to try and win the state championship.

Q. In November 1963, the assassination of President Kennedy cast a terrible shadow over the season. What do you remember about that day and did you agree with the decision to play football games that weekend?

A. I just remember everyone had a sick feeling in their stomachs. We were playing Chamberlain High School that night. Clearly everyone on both teams felt impacted by the event.

Q. Can you describe what it was like to play for a legendary coach such as Holland Aplin at Robinson, and what it meant to your career?

A. I was very fortunate to play for a bunch of outstanding coaches. Holland Aplin was a terrific coach, and he also had a great staff. As players, we were lucky to have such good coaches. They were very innovative for the time. We threw the ball a lot and ran some unusual formations. We were a bit different than typical high school offenses of the day.

Q. Is there a teammate you had at Robinson who you look back on now and say, “I couldn’t have done it without him?”

A. Oh sure, that’s all of them. I think if you looked at us across the board as individuals, we really didn’t match up that well with other schools. As a unit, however, we really gelled and played well together. Everyone was very important to our success.

Q. What do you remember about the state championship game against Coral Gables?

A. It’s kind of a blur. As I mentioned, we never had more than 30 or 35 people dress out for a game. For the state championship, there was a rule that you could only dress out a certain number of players. Well, Coral Gables typically dressed out 100, so the fellas who couldn’t dress out for the game they let stand on the sidelines wearing their jerseys. They lined all the way down the field! It was quite an impressive sight. Their quarterback, Larry Rentz, had a big night, scored a couple of touchdowns. We came out on the short end of the stick losing on a late field goal, but oddly enough Larry ended up being my freshman roommate at the University of Florida. He was a good athlete and a good guy, so it worked out fine.

Q. After the game, was there some satisfaction at what you accomplished as a team, or was there a greater sense of disappointment?

A. I think we thought we should have won the game. They were much bigger than we were, and probably deeper talent-wise, but we fought hard and played hard. There was a controversial call at the end of the game that could have changed things, but that’s football.

Q. You were a junior that season, so you still had another year to play at Robinson. How did the team fare the following season?

A. We had great expectations and I think we lost two or three games. We didn’t click quite as well. Everyone on the 1963 team participated, played a big role, and we had a close team atmosphere. We lost a number of key players, like quarterback Randy Smith, and some team leaders, like Jimmy Smith, Mike Godwin, and Mike Wall. So I think it was a typical turnover on a high school team.

Q. From Robinson to Gainesville to the NFL, your career has been filled with memorable moments. What is the most common play or game people mention to you about your career?

A. Everyone comes up to me and says they remember when my pants fell down at the Orange Bowl in 1967. It didn’t happen, and if everyone was there who said they were there, it would have been an overflowing stadium. We were playing Georgia Tech at the Orange Bowl. It was Steve Spurrier’s senior year and he’d just won the Heisman Trophy. We were actually just trying to move the ball out from our goal line a little bit, but I got some good blocking and broke free for a 94-yard touchdown run. We used to wear those old fashioned plastic hips pads that were separate from the pants. My hip pads started slipping up as I was running down the field. This created the illusion that my pants were falling down. I got a lot of press over this and I still hear it today, but it never happened.

Q. Do you still follow Robinson football?

A. I do, and I only live a few blocks from where I grew up, though I’m in the Plant district now (laughs). I follow the local football scene petty carefully. Even though I don’t go to many games, I’m very interested in the outcomes.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Repus Bowl I, 11/27/83

In mid-November of 1983, Hall of Fame running back Jim Brown contemplated coming out of retirement. Brown wanted to deny Franco Harris, who he deemed an unworthy heir, his all-time NFL rushing record of 12,312 yards.

"I think it's better to die with your boots on like an old soldier," Brown said.

It spoke volumes about the sad state of affairs in Tampa that, even at the age of 47, Brown quickly dismissed the idea of dying like an old soldier in a Buccaneers uniform.

Things were so bad in here during the 1983 season that by Week 13, the Buccaneers had a 1-11 record in the first year of the post-Doug Williams era. Only the Houston Oilers
, also at 1-11, were arguably worse than Tampa Bay.

In a match-up of irresistible force versus immovable object, the Buccaneers and Oilers met at Tampa Stadium on Nov. 27, 1983, to crown the league's worst team. Tampa Tribune columnist Tom McEwen even nicknamed the contest "The Repus Bowl" – super spelled backwards -- in a nod to the game being the exact opposite of the upcoming Super Bowl in Tampa on Jan. 22, 1984.

Tampa Bay head coach John McKay seemingly took little offense at the moniker, saying, "I'm almost beyond the stage of ridicule."

The match-up, however, was not completely without significance. At stake, a claim to the top pick in the 1984 draft. Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, the team traded its first-round draft choice in 1984 to the Cincinnati Bengals the previous spring to acquire the third-string quarterback Jack Thompson. Although AFC Central division rivals, the Bengals suddenly had a huge interest in seeing the Oilers defeat the Buccaneers. McKay wasn't so sure when asked if he thought his own team felt the same desire to beat Houston.

"I'd be lying if I said yes," McKay said, "but I haven't seen the opposite either."

McKay could not have anticipated a more opposite result from his team than the one he got that afternoon. In front of a season-low crowd of 38,625 (with 20,474 no-shows), the Buccaneers tied the second-highest scoring output in team history by putting 33 points on the board against the league's 27th-ranked defense. This from a team ranked dead last among all 28 teams in points per game and coming off nine-consecutive scoreless quarters, which actually extended to 10 with a scoreless first quarter.

Nothing could have been quite so unpredictable as quarterback Jack Thompson, nicknamed "The Throwin' Samoan," tossing four touchdown passes, joining Doug Williams as the only the Tampa Bay quarterbacks to accomplish the feat. The Tampa Bay running game, decimated by a season-ending injury to starter James Wilder, got an 80-yard effort from a sore-kneed James Owens, who also ran for a touchdown.

The defense even rebounded with a strong effort, recording three interceptions and two sacks of Houston quarterback Oliver Luck, despite various injuries to starters Lee Roy Selmon, John Cannon, and Scot Brantley.

The Bucs being the Bucs, however, nothing came easily against the Oilers.

Kicker Bill Capece, just two weeks away from being famously declared "kaput" by McKay, missed a 41-yard field goal that would have given the Buccaneers an early 3-0 lead. Following a 6-yard touchdown pass from Thompson to Adger Armstrong on the first play of the second quarter, Capece missed the extra point attempt.

Barely 5 minutes later, Thompson connected on a 25-yard strike over the middle to Kevin House for his second touchdown pass of the game. The Buccaneers again struggled to complete the PAT, this time not even getting a chance to kick due to a poor snap by Jim Leonard. Still, Tampa Bay took a 12-3 lead into the locker room at the half.

The Oilers opened the second half with an 81-yard kickoff return that set up a 1-yard touchdown run by the great Earl Campbell to cut Tampa Bay's lead to 12-10. The rest of the third quarter, however, belonged to Tampa Bay. Thompson made his second touchdown connection of the day with Kevin House, this time on a 41-yard post pattern, and James Owens ran the ball in from 4 yards out to give the Buccaneers a 26-10 lead at the end of the third.

Campbell's second touchdown run of the game early in the fourth quarter added some late drama, but Thompson put the game away with his fourth touchdown pass of the day, a roll-out pass from the 2-yard line to Jim Obradovich. Houston added a late touchdown that amounted to window dressing as the game concluded with Tampa Bay on top, 33-24.

The excitement surrounding Thompson's outstanding performance (17 of 29 passing for 224 yards with 4 TD and no interceptions) could be somewhat tempered by virtue of Houston's terrible defense, but the career backup quarterback acquired for a first-round pick still breathed a sigh of relief.

"I think I'm worth (a No.1 pick)," Thompson said after the game. "I tell you again, it is a long-range judgement, not one to be made quickly."

In John McKay's judgement, for once that season, the Bucs weren't the worst team on the field, let alone the entire league. After the game, McKay boasted "the better team won, so you can knock off that manure you've been putting in the paper about whatever kind of bowl it was supposed to be. If Houston wins another game, they (still) are the worst team."

Houston did win another game to finish 2-14, but the Buccaneers did not and also finished with a 2-14 mark. Jack Thompson's judgement time came during the offseason, when Tampa Bay acquired quarterback Steve DeBerg from Denver to replace him as after just one season as the starter.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Spartans vs Appalachian St. Mountaineers, 11/22/58

On November 22, 1958, things must have felt just a little bit unusual here in the Tampa Bay area. For starters, the Tampa Snow Show spectacle continued to unfold in downtown Tampa. The winter carnival, which featured a five-story ski jump, toboggan run, and an 8½ ton, 8-foot high ice cube, turned Franklin Street into a semi-winter wonderland because of unseasonably warm weather.

On the sporting front, the University of Tampa Spartans geared up for a home contest against Appalachian State, only the game would not be played in their backyard of Phillips Field. Instead, the Spartans and Mountaineers would play the game some 35 miles to the east in Lakeland.

A packed house of 4,500 filled Bryant Stadium for a contest that was a homecoming of sorts for several Spartans who played high school football in Polk County, most notably quarterback Billy Turner. The pride of Auburndale High School, Turner would not disappoint those who came to see him play. Those who did were treated to an exciting game with a wild finish.

Appalachian State took the opening kickoff and marched 72 yards on a 14-play drive. The Mountaineers struck on a 25-yard pass from quarterback Tommy Wilson to running back John Walker to grab an early 7-0 lead. The Spartans answered later in the first quarter as Lakeland-native Dick Leis recovered a fumble at the Appalachian State 15-yard line. Turner then found wide receiver Ken Belliveau in the end zone for a touchdown to even the game at 7-7.

A blocked punt by Appalachian State resulted in a safety, and the Mountaineers quickly added to their 9-7 advantage. A short 44-yard drive culminated in an eight-yard touchdown scamper by Tommy Wilson to give Appalachian State a 16-7 lead early in the second quarter.

Turner helped electrify the home crowd on the ensuing kickoff. After fielding the ball at the 11, Turner ran 7 yards up field and pitched the ball back to teammate Buddy Williams. From the 15, Williams then followed a convoy of blockers all the way to the Mountaineer 12-yard line. Halfback Charlie McCullers ran the ball in from the 10 two plays later to pull Tampa within three points of the Mountaineers, 16-13.

The Spartans capped the first half scoring with a 72-yard touchdown drive. Turner reconnected with Belliveau from 9 yards out for his second touchdown pass of the game to make the score 20-16 at the intermission. Turner picked up right where he left off in the third quarter, once again hooking up with his favorite targets. From his own 30, Turner found Williams for a 28-yard gain to the Appalachian State 42.

Then on a broken play that could have ended in a loss of yards, the elusive Turner found Belliveau at the 25, from where he broke two tackles en route to a touchdown. A failed two-point conversion left the Spartans with a seemingly comfortable 26-16 lead with just over five minutes to play in the third quarter.

Appalachian State began its comeback on the next possession with a successful 66-yard drive that ended in a nine-yard touchdown run by Jim Edwards. The third quarter came to a close with the Mountaineers trailing by just four points, 26-22. In a fourth quarter dominated by both teams' defenses, the Spartans had a chance to close out the game as the Mountaineers took possession at their own 3-yard line. Instead, Tampa couldn’t get off the field as Appalachian State marched the ball 97 yards on 17 plays. The drive culminated with an 11-yard pass from Wilson to Bob Morrison that gave Appalachian State a 28-26 lead before a stunned Bryant Stadium crowd.

Still, the Spartans had just under three minutes left to work with for staging a comeback of their own. The drive never took off, however, and Turner was stopped for a loss on fourth down at his own 24. Things then got interesting as the Mountaineers wrapped up the game.

While Appalachian State tried to take time off the clock, two penalties, including a personal foul by Spartan Dick Walter, moved the ball to the 1-yard line. With just 45 seconds left to play, Winters snuck the ball in for the touchdown to make the score 34-26. Walter, who had been tossed out of the game following his personal foul, rushed onto the field after the score and struck field judge Doug Belden in the back. Then for good measure, he ran into the chest of another referee, Fletcher Groves. Seeing enough, the referees halted the game before the Mountaineers could attempt an extra point. To prevent further violence, game umpire Bobby Grutzmacher called the game.

“We felt it was necessary to end the game right then,” said Grutzmacher.

The loss dropped the Spartans to 6-3 on the season, and disappointed head coach Marcelino Huerta lamented afterwards that his team didn’t seem prepared for Appalachian State.

“Our boys weren’t ready,” he said, wondering how his Spartans fell to a team that had lost 42-0 the previous week.

On a positive note for the Spartans, Billy Turner excelled in his return to Polk County with three touchdown passes and 206 yards through the air. Today, of course, Turner is known as the winningest football coach in the history of Hillsborough County. In 38 years, he has racked up over 250 career wins, including over 200 in his 30 years with Chamberlain High School.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Catching Up With Chris Gratton

In June 1993, the Tampa Bay Lightning selected Chris Gratton, an 18-year-old Canadian from Brantford, Ontario, with the third overall in the first round of the NHL Entry Draft. Gratton played in all 84 of Tampa Bay’s games as a rookie, during which time he was the league’s youngest player. On a team full of veterans, the rookie registered 13 goals and 29 assists while learning the ropes on and off the ice. The former Lightning captain is currently in his third stint with Tampa Bay, where he has played 480 of his 1,084 career games. The veteran center recently sat down to reflect on his career journey and to talk about another young player with high expectations, Lightning rookie Steven Stamkos.

Q. How fast have the last 15 years gone by for you?

A. They’ve flown by. Each year you’re fortunate to play in the NHL, and they just go by faster and faster. As you get a little older you try to slow it down, really take it all in, and enjoy it as much as you can. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been in the league a while now, and I’m very thankful to have the opportunity to still be here.

Q. What do you remember about your first career NHL game?

A. I think how nervous I was. It’s very emotional. You spend 18 years of your life working towards a goal. Once you get past the nerves and into the game, it’s an exciting experience. It’s something you’ll always remember, like the speed of the game and the size of the players, how strong they are. It was a big change from junior hockey.

Q. Another huge change from juniors must have been that first home game at the ThunderDome in front of a crowd of over 27,000. What was that like for you?

A. It was unbelievable. The dome was a special place to play. We had great fans and the building was always energetic. I think the biggest memory I’ll have, though, is our first playoff game in there against the Flyers. I can’t forget just how loud it was and the energy of the fans. It’s a great baseball stadium now, but at the time it was an unbelievable place to play hockey and we had a lot of fun there.

Q. Who were some of your mentors that showed you the ropes as a rookie?

A. A couple of guys who I’m still friends with today, Rob Zamuner and Pat Jablonski. I lived with Rob my first year, and he really helped me out since he’d been in the game a while. So to come into the league at the age of 18, it’s just a different world. Having someone to help you along and teach you the ins and outs of the NHL is huge. I feel fortunate to have had those two guys around and I learned a lot from both of them.

Q. What was the biggest challenge you faced as an 18-year-old living the NHL lifestyle?

A. Paying your own bills is definitely a reality check. When you’re a teenager playing junior hockey, you have to worry about two things: school and hockey. When you come into the NHL, you’re on your own. In junior, you’re living with a family. In the NHL, you’re on your own or living with a teammate. You learn so much, from small things to paying bills to getting a car. The importance of being on time is something I learned early on in my career. Those little things are big things in the overall picture.

Q. Do you see yourself in Steven Stamkos, who is beginning his career this season like you did as an 18-year-old, and is there any advice you can impart on him from on your own experience?

A. I think he’s more mature (laughs). He’s 18, but he’s got a great head on his shoulders. Obviously he’s got a great family behind him. They’re very supportive and helpful. Right off the bat that’s a huge first step. We’ve got some older veteran leaders in here, guys who will help him at any chance. He’s living around a lot of the guys and everyone’s going to be looking out for him. I don’t think he’ll have any problems adjusting. If he has any problems or any questions, he has 22 guys in here that are going to help him and that makes the transition a lot easier.

Q. What stands out from the 1993-94 season now 15 years later?

A. There are two things. Your first NHL game is something you’re always going to remember, but then for me it has to be my first face-off against Wayne Gretzky. Wayne is from my hometown in Canada and I’d followed him through his whole career. I really looked up to him. That draw against him is something I’m always going to remember, particularly how nervous it made me. The knees were shaking just a bit (laughs). He’s a world-class player and a world-class person, so it was nice to get a chance to play against him.

Q. This is your third stint here with the Lightning. Through all of your travels, has this always felt like home because it is where you got your start?

A. Absolutely. You’re always fond of the team that drafted you and given you a chance to play in the NHL. Tampa has always been a special place. I’ve always loved it here and the people have been great fans. I’m very thankful that I had the chance to come back here for the third time. This will be my last stop, so I’m going to try and make the most of it, and really enjoy the area because it’s a great place to play hockey.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Robinson High's Run to State, 11/8/63

On Nov. 8, 1963, local politicians and business leaders prepared for a visit by President John F. Kennedy less than two weeks later. Meanwhile, the Robinson High School Knights, the top-ranked football team in Florida, prepared to host the Winter Haven Blue Devils in a battle of gridiron unbeatens. At 6-0, each school came into the game with championship hopes on the line.

Local interest in the contest bordered on a hysteria not seen since 1961, when 12,500 gathered for a game between Chamberlain and Lakeland high schools.

Robinson sold more reserved seats for this game in advance -- 2,510 -- than for any other game in school history, topping the previous high by nearly 1,900 tickets. A great deal of fans, in fact, were unable to purchase tickets, so many wondered why the game was not moved to the larger Phillips Field near downtown Tampa - but a previously scheduled game between Middleton and Blake high schools made this an impossibility. An additional 1,000 standing-room-only tickets, however, were made available to accommodate the masses.

Some enterprising Robinson students tried to take advantage of the situation as well by selling counterfeit tickets. The day before the game, however, school officials uncovered the scheme.

"The boys were caught and given proper disciplinary action," Principal Jack Marley said. "Not many tickets got out, and ironically, they sold them to their friends."

If the student scalpers understood the magnitude of the game, certainly Robinson head coach Holland Aplin did as well.

"Never have I had a game which means so much," Aplin said. "This game could mean everything. We feel like the game could come right down to the wire."

Winter Haven's head coach, Calvin Triplett, knew his squad would have their hands full in stopping Robinson's potent offense.

"It's going to be a rough one," Triplett said. "Frankly, Robinson has the best offense I've seen since I've been in Florida. There's no guesswork, they're a real fine ball club."

All told, more than 10,000 fans -- including Tampa Mayor Nick Nuccio -- packed into Robinson's Peters Stadium on Homecoming Night for what turned out to be a low-scoring, defensive contest. Robinson eschewed its aerial assault in favor of a running attack, attempting only four passes the entire game. Luckily, the Knights had a hammer of a halfback named Larry Smith to pick up plenty of yards on the ground.

"We felt we would have to run it down their throats," Aplin said after the game, "because we knew they would give our passers a rough time. That's the way we felt we could beat them."

The battles in this game took place at the line of scrimmage, and Smith struck the first blow for Robinson when he scored untouched on a 52-yard run with 9:37 left in second quarter. The score capped an 80-yard drive for Robinson and put the Knights ahead 7-0.

Robinson's defense truly helped carry the day by containing Winter Haven's running quarterback Bobby Downs. Downs, who would go on to play college ball for the University of Florida, entered the contest as his team's leading rusher with more than 500 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground. The Knights held Winter Haven to just one scoring opportunity in the game while shutting down their star quarterback - his longest run of the day was 10 yards.

Winter Haven's defense came to play as well, holding in check a Robinson team averaging close to 35 points per game. As Aplin promised, his team concentrated on the running game to the exclusion of the pass. The strategy paid off throughout the game, but came to fruition in the third quarter when Larry Smith broke a 35-yard run down to the Winter Haven 6-yard line. Just two plays later, Smith scored on a 2-yard run to give Robinson a 14-0 lead that would hold to the final gun.

After the game, Aplin praised his team for giving a "110 percent effort. That's what it took to beat Winter Haven. They're the toughest team we've played this year and it took a great team effort on the part of our boys to win."

Robinson breezed through the remainder of its season, going undefeated en route to the regional championship. In the Class AA state title game on Dec. 13, Robinson squared off against Coral Gables High School at Phillips Field. In front of 15,000 fans -- the largest crowd to watch a football game in Tampa since 1949 -- Robinson appeared poised to win the state title as it held a 14-13 lead late in the fourth quarter.

With 20 seconds remaining in the game, however, a 35-yard field goal by Coral Gables kicker Larry Davidson cleared the uprights, leaving the capacity crowd stunned. The Cavaliers captured the game, and the state title, 16-14, ending Robinson's magical season in heartbreaking fashion.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Spartans vs Northern Michigan Wildcats, 10/27/73

In the early morning hours of Oct. 27, 1973, a mild tremor rattled the state of Florida that could be felt from Daytona Beach all the way to the Tampa Bay area. That night in a contest lacking earth-shaking importance -- but of significance nonetheless – the University of Tampa football team geared up to play the Northern Michigan Wildcats. With a victory, the Spartans would guarantee a sixth consecutive winning season.

The Spartans, winners in 12 of their previous 14 home games, entered the Family Weekend game with the best record of any college football team in Florida at 5-1. Northern Michigan, on the other hand, arrived in Tampa sporting a 1-5 record and a five-game losing streak against the University of Tampa.

As a sidelight to the game, that evening the university announced its athletic director, Gus Dielens, would resign effective July 31, 1974. In nearly three years at the school, Dielens "elevated the credibility of athletics at Tampa," according to Dr. Bob Owens, university president. The former athletic director at West Point, Dielens helped improve UT's status as a major collegiate team by scheduling games against programs such as Miami, Rutgers and Vanderbilt. Dielens fell out of favor with groups close to the program in 1973, however, when he failed to renew the annual game against Florida A&M, consistently one of the team's biggest draws at the gate.

The hapless Northern Michigan Wildcats proved to be no one's idea of a big draw, as only 14,255 gathered in Tampa Stadium for the evening contest.

Leading up to game, star UT quarterback Freddie Solomon received some less-than-flattering comments from Northern Michigan head coach Rae Drake, who said he did not regard Solomon as a "complete quarterback" or a "sophisticated passer." Drake geared his game plan to make Solomon beat the Wildcats with his arm rather than his legs. Solomon, as it turns out, would have a difficult time doing either.

While the Wildcats didn't do much well, they certainly succeeded in shutting down Solomon. The defense held Solomon to a total of 12 yards rushing on 12 carries. He did not fare much better throwing, completing just 9 of 20 passes for 107 yards, to round out the worst statistical game of his college career. Fortunately for UT, Solomon did not need to play his best for the team to win thanks to their angry defense.

In the previous week against Southern Illinois, the defense squandered a 19-point lead to fall behind 23-22 late in the game. Only a field goal by freshman kicker Kinney
Jordan, to give UT a 25-23 victory, spared the Spartans from a humiliating defeat. The squad spent the week preparing for the Wildcats with a specific goal in mind: posting a shutout.

"All week long linebacker Tom Witmer went around working the team up for a shutout," said head coach Dennis Fryzel. "We got it and he played great."

The Spartans held the Wildcats to 116 total yards and kept them from reaching UT territory until the final play of the first half. By contrast, the Spartans spent the entire first half in Northern Michigan territory with the exception of four plays. Amazingly, however, UT could muster only a 25-yard field goal in the first quarter against the Wildcats for a 3-0 lead at the half.

After an uninspiring half of football, the Tampa offense turned it on in the second half. Alan Pittman, a junior running back from Largo, led the way for UT with 145 all-purpose yards for the game. His 15-yard touchdown dash in the third quarter capped a nine-play, 60-yard drive to give the Spartans a 10-point lead.

UT capitalized on a missed field goal attempt by Northern Michigan to produce its next touchdown. Fullback Ken Moorhead found a hole in the Wildcats line and rumbled 25 yards for a touchdown to give his team a three-score lead. The Spartans would tack on another field by Jordan in the fourth quarter for a 20-0 advantage that would hold until the final whistle.

After the game, Fryzel lamented his team's struggles on offense despite the stellar play of the defense. Too many stalled drives in Northern Michigan territory and a couple of costly turnovers were enough to put a damper on the coach's evening.

"I wasn't satisfied with the night," Fryzel said. "The defense, the shutout, yes. But we should have had more touchdowns."

With a 6-1 record and some momentum on their side, the Spartans had a chance to put together a truly special season. Losses in two of the following four games, including back-to-back defeats against Chattanooga and Vanderbilt by a combined three points, ended UT's hopes of a bowl appearance. The team won its final game against Rutgers to improve to 8-3, but few could have predicted that this would be the last Spartan team to achieve such heights.

Little did anyone know that the upcoming '74 campaign would be the final season of football ever to be played at the University of Tampa.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Ricky Bell Breaks Loose, 10/22/78

On October 22, 1978, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers squared off against the Chicago Bears in one of the most meaningful games in team history. The Buccaneers, coming off a 2-12 season in 1977, found themselves with a 3-4 record and in an improbable three-way tie for second place with the Bears and Vikings.

Much like today, concerns with the economy clouded the week leading up to the game as the Dow Jones Industrial average suffered a 59 point loss, the worst week in its 93-year history. Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay hoped to reach the .500 mark for the first time in their three-year history.

No one Buccaneer entered the game featuring more scrutiny than running back Ricky Bell. The team's number one selection in the 1977 draft, Bell faced criticism early in his career from Buccaneer fans, who mostly lamented the fact that his name wasn't Tony Dorsett. The Buccaneers selected Bell ahead of the highly touted Dorsett, and fans resented the success Dorsett enjoyed with the Dallas Cowboys while Bell struggled as a rookie in Tampa.

Bell had his chance to shine against the Bears, however, due to a season-ending injury to starting fullback Jimmy DuBose. The hometown fans gave him a less than warm welcome during the player introductions and saved their loudest boos for the second-year back.

"Nobody has to boo me," Bell said following the game. "I boo myself more than anyone else."

Thanks in large part to Bell, the largest crowd ever to see a game at Tampa Stadium -- over 68,000 strong – quickly turned their boos into cheers.

Tampa Bay jumped on top of the Bears early, as Cedric Brown intercepted Bob Avellini's first pass attempt and returned the ball 29 yards to the Chicago 19 yard line. A 17-yard completion by rookie quarterback Doug Williams to Morris Owens on third down set up Tampa Bay at the two. Bell capitalized two plays later with a one-yard plunge to give the Buccaneers a 6-0 lead.

In the second quarter, Avellini put Chicago back on top with a 34-yard touchdown pass to James Scott to give the Bears a 7-6 lead. The Buccaneers, behind the strong arm of Williams, quickly staged a comeback. A five-play, 38-yard drive culminated when Jim Obradovich made a leaping catch of a Williams pass in the corner of the end zone to put Tampa Bay ahead, 13-7.

The Bears added a field goal as the quarter wound down and the Buccaneers took a 13-10 lead into the locker room at the half.

Chicago regained the lead on the opening drive of the second half. The Bears marched 71 yards on eight plays, sparked by a 30-yard Avellini pass to Walter Payton. Roland Harper capped the drive with a two-yard run to give the Bears a 16-13 lead. The rest of the afternoon would belong to Tampa Bay.

The Buccaneers answered back with a time-consuming drive that covered 72 yards on 11 plays. Wide receiver Morris Owens got into the act with key receptions of 12 and 13 yards, while Bell – who finally had room to run – contributed with 20 yards on the ground. Williams called his own number to cap the drive with a one-yard run, putting Tampa Bay in the lead, 19-16.

Williams struck again in the fourth quarter as his team nursed a three-point lead. On third-and-four from the Chicago 40, Williams targeted a streaking Owens, who out-raced safety Gary Fencik. Without breaking stride, Owens made a terrific over the shoulder catch in the end zone for the score. Trailing Tampa Bay 26-16, the Bears added a 27-yard field goal by Bob Thomas to make the score just a one touchdown deficit.

With just a seven point lead late in the game, the Tampa Bay defense stepped up at a crucial time. For a stadium full of anxious fans, linebacker Dave Lewis made a huge play at just the right time. With the Bears poised to embark on a game-tying drive, Lewis intercepted Bears quarterback Bob Avellini at the 20 and returned the ball to the seven yard line. A personal foul moved the ball to the three, and it took just one offensive play for Tampa Bay to ice the game, as Johnny Davis ran the ball in to give the Buccaneers a 33-19 victory.

Overall, the Buccaneers produced -- to that point -- one of their finest offensive days in team history. Doug Williams provided a glimpse into his talented future by completing 73 percent of his passes and throwing two touchdowns. Additionally, the 33 points matched the most scored in team history, and the most ever put up by the home team at Tampa Stadium. And then there was the performance by Ricky Bell.

Bell dazzled with 95 yards on the ground and one rushing touchdown, while hauling in three receptions for 45 yards to cap his day. Head Coach John McKay remarked after the game that the pre-game jeers by the crowd served to motivate Bell. After the game, Bell said that he would remember this game as a career turning point.

"No one likes to be teased like that," Bell said. "But, hey, fans are easy to win back. Sometimes you can't listen to what everybody else has to say. You just have to believe in yourself."

Bell was awarded the game ball for his effort against the Bears. Classy to the end, Bell then awarded the ball to the fallen teammate he replaced in the lineup, Jimmy DuBose. Acts of kindness like those off the field, in addition to his heroics on the field, would soon endear him to Buccaneer fans for the remainder of his all-to-brief career.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Martina Wins at Innisbrook, 10/16/83

In 1983, Martina Navratilova had one of the greatest single seasons in any sport. That year, she dominated women's tennis with an astonishing record of 86-1, winning 16 of 17 tournaments.

Near the end of that record season, Navratilova played at the Florida Federal Tennis Open, seeking her second tournament championship there in three years. The tournament was from Oct. 10-16, 1983, and held for the first time at the Innisbrook Resort in Tarpon Springs after seven years at East Lake Woodlands in Oldsmar.

While singer Bonnie Tyler owned the October airwaves with her hit "Total Eclipse of the Heart," Navratilova totally eclipsed all others in her sport. To say she arrived in the Tampa Bay area on a roll is an understatement.

Navratilova entered the tournament having won 67 of 68 matches and capturing every tournament she entered except the French Open, where she lost in the fourth round to Kathy Horvath. The Florida Federal was her first tournament since early September, when she won the U.S. Open for the first time, finally completing her Grand Slam resume.

Navratilova had such an air of invincibility that many opponents admitted nobody on the tour could even challenge her. She didn't seem to disagree, saying, "If I don't beat myself, I don't think anyone else can beat me."

Prior to the U.S. Open final against Chris Evert, Pam Shriver said, "Chris is the only one who hasn't conceded to Martina's invincibility. If she gets blown out (in the final), all hope is gone." Navratilova routed Evert, 6-1, 6-3.

Winning the U.S. Open was a career turning-point for Navratilova, who finally shed the stigma of never winning in New York. "There was no monkey on my back," she said. "It was an orangutan."

Navratilova's week in Florida got off to a slow start, however, as her first round match against Peanut Louie was delayed by rain. The postponement was the tournament's first since a quarterfinal match in 1980 featuring Tracy Austin. In this case, the delay must have only served to make Louie feel like a prisoner on death row awaiting a stay of execution that would never come.

Navratilova toyed with Louie in a 6-1, 6-1 blowout that took only 43 minutes. Most cruelly of all, Navratilova decided to unleash her newest weapon – a kick serve -- against the severely overmatched Louie. "It's like a pitcher with new pitch," Navratilova said.

Her next opponent was Wendy White, who had made her mark as a collegiate champion at Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla. White played admirably and fared significantly better than Louie, keeping Navratilova on the court for 85 minutes. Along the way, she managed to register three service breaks in a 6-3, 6-2 loss. After the match, Navratilova praised her opponents' performance. "

That's one of the best matches anyone's played against me in a long time," she said.

Another rain delay postponed Navratilova's quarterfinal match against Bonnie Gadusek by a day. The seventh-seeded Gadusek -- a resident of nearby Largo -- put up a strong fight early, battling to even up the score at 5-5 in the first set by applying pressure on Navratilova.

She had a plan and she knew what she wanted to do," Navratilova said. "She came in (to the net) when I didn't expect her to."

As expected, however, Navratilova regained control, winning the first set 7-5, and put away the match, 6-3, in the second set.

Yet another rain delay forced Navratilova into double-duty Saturday with a semifinal showdown against Zina Garrison. Showing no signs of fatigue, she easily handled Garrison, 6-3, 6-2. Waiting for her in the finals was friend and doubles partner Pam Shriver, who had lost 16 of 19 career matches against Navratilova.

Despite their close relationship, Shriver struggled to find an edge against her opponent. Her strategy featured a serve-and-volley attack, which seemed to play into Navratilova's hands. Taking advantage of the slow clay surface, Navratilova had ample time to send top-spin backhand winners past the charging Shriver. Her service game didn't fare much better in the second set, as she dropped all but one point over the course of four service games.

Shriver's best move of the day came after the 6-3, 6-2 defeat, when she jokingly dumped ice cubes down the back of Navratilova's shirt during the trophy presentation. Fittingly, the friends teamed up later in the day to win the doubles title with a 6-0, 6-1 pasting of Gadusek and White to wrap up the tournament.

These titles would be Navratilova's last at the Florida Federal Open, as 1983 marked the final appearance of her Hall of Fame career at the tournament.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Catching Up With Phil Esposito

With the Tampa Bay Rays in the playoffs for the first time ever, the Tampa Bay area has finally been able to enjoy meaningful baseball games at The Trop in October. It’s hard to believe, but 15 years ago this month The Trop was the newly rechristened ThunderDome, ready to serve as the home of the Tampa Bay Lightning. After playing their first season at Expo Hall in Tampa, the Lightning embarked across the Bay to make a new home in a stadium built for baseball. I recently sat down with Lightning founder Phil Esposito to discuss how hockey first came to be played at the Dome.

Q. How did the first pre-Lightning exhibition game come about?

A. Well, before we could get a team, my partners (Henry Paul, Mel Lowell) and I decided we would have to put on an exhibition game for the NHL. I'll never forget going over to (what was called at the time) the Florida Suncoast Dome for the first time. I remember looking around and thinking, "How in the hell are we going to get ice in here, and where are we going to put the rink?" So the guy who was running the place at the time – I can’t remember his name, but he was a real nice guy -- asked us if a tennis configuration would work. Absolutely it would, I told him. I remember we put the yellow police tape all the way around the floor, and then we marked it off and went to the top corners of the dome to make sure people could see the rink from all angles.

Q. You chose two high-profile teams -- the Los Angeles Kings and Pittsburgh Penguins -- to play in the exhibition game on Sept. 19, 1990. How did you pull that off?

A. I called Los Angeles, which was run by their former goaltender, Rogie Vachon. I asked if they'd come play an exhibition game in Florida. They wanted to know where, so I said in a baseball facility in St.
Petersburg. Rogie said fine, but with if we wanted Wayne Gretzky to come it would cost us $150,000. I said, "Come on Rogie, $150,000 is too much. I can't afford to give you that." He told me that's what we get when Wayne plays, but that they could come without him.

Well, the point was to have Wayne because we knew the place would be packed for people coming to see him. Eventually he said that they'd do it for $100,000. Then I decided that I wanted to get Mario Lemiuex with Pittsburgh, so I called their general manager, Craig Patrick. I intended to pay them the same amount. I asked Craig if they'd come, but that Mario's gotta play. We wanted to charge the first row $99 and the second row $66 to honor Wayne and Mario. Craig asked me why I was doing that. He said it would look like Wayne was worth more money and Mario wouldn't like it. I remember saying to him, "Yeah, so what's your point?" Little did I know, he had no intention of bringing Mario.

So I told my partners that if Mario doesn't come, I'm not giving Pittsburgh $100,000. Mario ended up not coming, so after the game we only gave them a check for $70,000. Craig asked me what happened to the other $30,000, and I said to him, “That was for Mario to come.” He said that's not right, but I told him I don't care. What was he going to do to me? But, that's why when we got the Lightning, we could never get the Penguins to play us in an exhibition game. They wouldn't do it.

The bottom line is it cost me -- and I put all the money up, every penny I had in my life -- $500,000. People wondered why I wanted to do this, but we had to show the NHL that we could draw a crowd. And it turned out to be a huge success. We drew over 25,000 that night. The game was fabulous. Afterwards, Wayne showered up and went over to our corporate tents that we had set up in the outfield. He signed autographs, talked to people, and told me, "Phil, anytime you need help here, anything you need, you call me. I'll be glad to do what ever I can to help you get a franchise." I'll never forget that. He was so good to us it was ridiculous.

Q. The team announced it would be moving to St. Petersburg in July of 1993, which only allowed for a few months to get the stadium hockey ready. What were some of the challenges?

A. It happened real fast. We had to do something about the upper deck to get people up there. Then we wanted to put some corporate tents in centerfield, a place where kids could kick field goals, play floor hockey, maybe do some miniature golf, make it fun. You know a lot of kids came to the games, but never even watched the game. That was great for the parents because all they'd pay is $5 to get them in the door. It worked out fine.

Q. Was it hard leaving the Fairgrounds behind?

A. I liked the Fairgrounds, and the fans loved it. I thought it was so much fun. The atmosphere was unbelievable. There were only 10,000 seats, so everyone was on top of the action. The reality was we couldn't afford to play there. Who knows what would have happened if we had stayed? If we didn't go to the Dome, we may have never gotten a new building in Tampa. The move to St. Pete made the city of Tampa stand up and say, "We want you to play here in Tampa." We were negotiating with St. Pete to put a new building south of the Dome, at the other end of the main parking lot. I really thought we should have built in the Gateway area, so it wouldn't be such a long commute for everybody.

I’ll tell you though, the atmosphere at the ThunderDome was unbelievable. I don't know if it's the acoustics because of the roof, but in 1996 when we won that playoff game in overtime, I've never heard anything so loud in my life. Not even when we won the Stanley Cup. If they'd never gotten a baseball team or we never got a new building, it wouldn't have bothered me one iota to have stayed in that building. We'd have reconfigured it as a circle and put in new seats ourselves. I was pretty content there, but I knew we had to get a new building because the league insisted on it. That was the only way we the Lightning, and the sport of hockey, could survive in this area.

Q. Do you have fond memories at the Dome?

A. The crowds were terrific. Opening night against the Florida Panthers we set the indoor attendance record for the NHL with over 27,000 fans. We finally made some money that season. I have to give David LeFevre (former Lightning governor) this. He wanted to charge a $99 season ticket for upper deck seats. I loved the idea. We found out later those people were spending $24-30 per game in concessions. And to this day, people tell me they had more fun at the Dome than they knew what to do with. I think being over there those few years really helped grow hockey in this area.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams, 10/7/68

On October 7, 1968, the city of Tampa nearly went into sensory overload. Reigning Miss America Judith Anne Ford of Illinois arrived to participate in the annual Fire Prevention Parade. For those more interested in politics than parades, Hubert Humphrey’s running mate, Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine, made a campaign appearance at the Sheraton Tampa Motor Inn. And for those more interested in punches than politics, professional boxing made its long-awaited return to Tampa after a three-year absence.

Headlining the card at the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory was one of the best boxers to never hold a major title, Cleveland “Big Cat” Williams. The 35-year-old fighter arrived in Tampa with a career mark of 69-6-1, including 54 knockouts. One of his most notable bouts was two years earlier, when he faced Muhammad Ali at Houston's Astrodome for the world heavyweight boxing championship.

Williams, a 5-1 underdog in the bout, was knocked out by Ali – who was nine years younger and in his prime -- in the third round. Williams' former manager, Lou Viscusi of Lutz, arranged for Williams to fight Mose Harrell of St. Petersburg, a relative novice with a 16-3 career mark. The bout essentially amounted to another tune-up in Williams’ comeback attempt to re-climb the heavyweight ladder and earn another chance at the title.

After his defeat to Ali, Williams had won four straight bouts against fighters with losing records. A victory over Harrell could have meant eventual shots at heavyweights Joe Frazier or Jimmy Ellis. The 21-year-old Harrell, who recorded a 27-2 mark as an amateur, had a lot to gain with a victory as well. Defeating Williams would launch Harrell right into the mix of heavyweight contenders. Despite their size difference – Williams outweighed Harrell by 21 pounds -- his own manager, Walt Profitt, felt confident going into the fight, saying, “I think he’ll knock Williams out.”

That night at the Armory, Harrell found out how difficult that would be to do. In front of a less-than-capacity crowd of 800 spectators, Harrell struggled to withstand blows from the larger and stronger “Big Cat,” who was once described by Sonny Liston as the hardest puncher he ever fought. Despite suffering an injury to his left arm while training in Houston earlier in the week, Williams battered Harrell with steady body shots throughout the fight. Harrell’s quickness on the mat kept Williams from getting a knockout blow through the early rounds, but the dancing came at a cost.

In the fourth round, Harrell suffered leg cramps that limited his movement for the rest of the bout. His time would run out against Williams at 2:26 in the seventh round when a series of combination rights, climaxing with a wicked uppercut, dropped him to the mat for good. With the victory, Williams passed Joe Louis for all-time knockouts with his 55th such decision.

Unfortunately for the “Big Cat,” he would never return to prominence in the heavyweight division. Defeats in four of his next five fights effectively ended his title ambitions, although he continued to fight against mostly journeymen boxers before retiring in 1972. He ended his career with a 78-13-1 mark, and tragically died in 1999 at the age of 66, the victim of a hit-and-run driver.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Traveling Through Time, 9/26/83

This week, we travel back in time 25 years to September 26, 1983, to try and warn the people of Pinellas County about the folly of building a stadium in St. Petersburg …

I am from the year 2008 and you should heed what I say. Where I come from, Vice President Bush’s oldest son has been president for the last seven years, gasoline hovers near $4 a gallon, and football no longer comes to mind when someone mentions O.J. Simpson. Ignore my warnings at your own peril!

I would like to take this unique time-traveling opportunity to ask -- or if that is not a strong enough sentiment -- beg you not to build a baseball stadium in St. Petersburg. There’s a misguided belief in your time that by one-upping Tampa, you’ll somehow gain an edge in the quest to land a Major League Baseball franchise. Please think again.

In years to come, teams such as the Rangers, Twins, Mariners, White Sox and Giants will all tease you with the allure of relocating to St. Petersburg as leverage to get new stadiums or favorable leases back in their own cities. You will be told outright by the commissioner and various owners not to build a stadium, but you will ignore their warnings. Fools! The financial consequences will be felt for decades to come by the citizens of your county.

Expansion won’t even come around until 1991, and at that point, Miami and Denver will be the cities to land teams. Denver’s team will play in Mile High Stadium until their state-of-the-art stadium is built. Miami’s team will be forced to play in an unpopular, multi-purpose stadium more suitable for football. Around here, our version will be in St. Pete and it will be called Tropicana Field.

The coming years will see the end of multi-purpose stadiums and a renaissance of “retro stadiums” that incorporate elements of classic ballparks with modern amenities. Your barbaric, traditional domed stadiums are a thing of the past as well. Twenty-five years in the future, stadiums will be built with retractable roofs that can open and close in a matter of minutes. The dome you hope to build will be like Chevy Chase and the VCR: obsolete by the end of the century.

What’s that, you say? This area's hunger for baseball will triumph over any odds? I’m sorry to disappoint you, but it seems the hunger you speak of was highly overrated. It turns out that what this area loves is Spring Training, and that most of the transplants from the Northeast and Midwest will be unwilling to support the local team.

The group trying to attract an expansion franchise to the Tampa Bay area will tout a season-ticket waiting list of over 27,000 people. The majority of games, however, attract only half that number.

Reasons for refusing to attend games are numerous. The drive is too far. The economy stinks. This thing we call global warming. If excuses were wins, this area would be the equivalent of the 1927 Yankees.

The bottom line is that you should never build the stadium where you do. Don’t get me wrong, downtown St. Petersburg will be on the upswing for years and put downtown Tampa to shame. The problem, however, is that the location of the stadium will not be easily accessible to the majority of people in the greater Tampa Bay area.

Sprawl will cause this community to grow in leaps and bounds that should have been predicted in your day. The lack of mass transit in this area, coupled with congested roads, will make the prospect of driving to St. Pete in rush-hour traffic less appealing than a striking air traffic controller to Ronald Reagan. Sorry, too soon?

In the year 2008, all of the excuses will be stripped. We finally will have a winner – a playoff team -- that makes us all proud. This season will be the greatest in team history. Just one year after finishing with the worst record in baseball, our team will be on pace to finish with at least 30 more wins. Still, attendance has lagged during the playoff run and we will be mocked by the rest of America. It has never been more obvious that baseball will never succeed in St. Petersburg, no matter how well the team plays on the field.

It is very possible that the Tampa Bay area can support baseball, given a stadium in a central location accessible to all the people of Polk, Pasco, Manatee, Sarasota, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties. Because of your decisions, however, the chance of that happening, or of baseball having long-term viability in this market, will dwindle faster than Gary Hart’s presidential prospects. Trust me on that one, you’ll see.

As I bid you farewell, I ask that you do what’s right. Forget about baseball and worry about the more pressing issues of the day. Leave the quest for a Major League franchise to the people of Tampa. They’ll figure it out and probably get it right, too. Oh, and one more thing. In a few months, a boy with a golden arm named Scott Kazmir will be born in Houston, Texas. On behalf of the Tampa Bay area, please send his mother and father our most sincere thanks.