Monday, January 28, 2008

Pro Bowl at Tampa Stadium, 1/23/78

Long before the National Football League’s Pro Bowl became synonymous with leis and Hawaiian shirts, during the 1970s it was somewhat of a traveling showcase for the league. Between 1973 and 1978, six cities – Dallas, Kansas City, Miami, New Orleans, Seattle and Tampa – hosted the Pro Bowl.

The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum played host to the game from 1951 to 1972, and again in 1979, before yielding to Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, starting with the 1980 game. On Jan. 23, 1978, however, the game belonged to Tampa Stadium.

Pro Bowl could not have come to Tampa at a better time, from the perspective of local football fans. Just a month earlier, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had finally snapped their 26-game losing streak with two consecutive victories to end the 1977 season. Although no Buccaneers – not even standout defensive end Lee Roy Selmon – were selected to play in the Pro Bowl, at least Selmon was presented his Buccaneers team MVP award on the field prior to kickoff.

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle came away impressed by the support local fans showed Selmon that day. “I was especially moved by the standing ovation given
Lee Roy Selmon in the pre-game ceremony,” Rozelle said. “I got the feeling of your fans’ feelings for the Bucs down here and how it must have been after those two (straight) wins.”

As if having the best players from the AFC and NFC playing at
Tampa Stadium wasn’t a big enough event, the game was broadcast nationwide on ABC and called by the renowned “Monday Night Football” crew of Frank Gifford, “Dandy” Don Meredith and Howard Cosell.

Gifford opened the telecast by commenting on the mild, 60-degree weather, calling it a “beautiful night, even for late January.” True to form, when the camera cut to a trenchcoat-clad Cosell, he proclaimed, “It is not a fine night, despite Frank’s protestations.”

The 50,000-plus fans in attendance likely disagreed with Cosell. The game featured the best of the best from each conference. The American Conference team included 11 future Hall of Famers –
Dave Casper, Joe DeLamielleure, Bob Griese, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Mike Haynes, Jack Lambert, Jim Langer, Art Shell, Lynn Swann and Gene Upshaw. The National Conference team, no slouch in its own right, had eight players who went on to enshrinement in CantonDan Dierdorf, Ken Houston, Tom Mack, Walter Payton, Roger Wehrli, Randy White, Ron Yary and Jack Youngblood.

The AFC, hoping to avenge its conference’s defeat a week earlier in
Super Bowl XII, controlled the tempo for the majority of the first half. Baltimore Colts kicker Toni Linhart opened the scoring for the AFC with a 21-yard field goal to cap an 11-play, 75-yard drive led by Griese, the Dolphins’ quarterback. Ham, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, ended the NFC’s best first-half chance for a touchdown early in the second quarter, intercepting a pass by Rams’ quarterback Pat Haden at the AFC’s 3-yard line.

Oakland Raiders southpaw signal-caller Ken Stabler relieved Griese and promptly led the AFC on a 14-play, 97-yard scoring drive. Stabler relied on tight end Dave Casper, running back Mark van Eeghen and wideout Cliff Branch to march nearly the full length of the field. Stabler ultimately found Branch on a 9-yard touchdown strike, and the extra point made the score 10-0.

Linhart capped the AFC’s scoring with a 38-yard field goal with just 3 seconds left before halftime, giving his team a 13-0 advantage.

Then Haden atoned for his second-quarter interception on the NFC’s first drive of the new half. Haden passed for 28 yards and went 4-for-4 on a 46-yard drive that culminated in a scoring pass to Terry Metcalf of the
St. Louis Cardinals on third and goal from the 4-yard line. The touchdown and extra point trimmed the AFC lead to 13-7. But Cardinals quarterback Jim Hart and Bears running back Payton ended up being the biggest keys to the NFC’s comeback.

Hart, who replaced injured Dallas Cowboys quarterback
Roger Staubach on the NFC roster, hoped to make up for his five-interception performance in the 1977 Pro Bowl, a 24-14 loss for the NFC. Payton, the reigning Pro Football Writer’s Association Player of the Year, simply did what he did best. Like so many times on the Tampa Stadium turf during his career, Payton put
on a show.

On the strength of a 5-for-6 passing effort and 39 yards through the air, Hart engineered a 12-play, 76-yard scoring drive over the fading AFC stars midway through the fourth quarter. The drive included two critical third-down completions from Hart to Cowboys tight end Billy Joe DuPree to keep the chains moving.

With the ball at the AFC 7-yard line, Payton rushed for 6 to set up a second-and-short situation. He took the next handoff from Hart and capped the drive with a 1-yard scoring plunge. The extra-point kick gave the NFC a 14-13 lead, but the AFC had one more opportunity to win the game.

Stabler once again connected with Branch and
Casper on receptions of 20 and 17 yards to move the ball into NFC territory. However, Cleveland Elam of the San Francisco 49ers made one of the biggest defensive plays of the game, sacking Stabler at the NFC 35-yard line. The 9-yard loss set up a 52-yard field-goal attempt by Linhart, who had been perfect on two first-half tries. But his potential game-winner fell short with 2:58 remaining and the NFC successfully ran out the clock to seal the victory.

For his 77-yard rushing effort and clinching touchdown, Payton was named the game’s most valuable player. Ever humble in victory, Payton credited his fellow NFC running backs – Chuck Foreman, Terry Metcalf and Lawrence McCutcheon – for his success. “What more could you ask than to play with guys like that,” he said. “They’re super players and they made it possible for me to win the MVP.”

While the contest 30 years ago remains the only
Pro Bowl played in Tampa, the NFL once again is looking at rotating the game on an annual basis. It’s possible the Pro Bowl would be played in the Super Bowl host city one week prior to the big game.

Discussions are under way for making the change as early as 2009, when the
Super Bowl will be played in – you guessed it – Raymond James Stadium. More Pro Bowl memories could very well be right around the corner here in Tampa.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Forgotten Bay Area Stadiums, 1/26/83

The Tampa Bay Rays’ plans to build a new, $450 million stadium in downtown St. Petersburg should come as no surprise to longtime residents of the area.

Designing baseball stadiums
and then debating suitable locations for them is as much a local pastime as the game itself. Only twenty-five years ago this month, rival groups representing Pinellas and Hillsborough counties pitched their designs for stadiums that would serve as home for a to-be-determined team.

On January 26, 1983, the city of St. Petersburg and the Pinellas Sports Authority held a symbolic groundbreaking ceremony at the corner of 16th Street and Third Avenue South. The 66-acre site, known as the Gas Plant, eventually would be developed into Tropicana Field. But on that day, the PSA announced the facility would be called Pinellas Suncoast Stadium. An artist’s design of that stadium evokes the current model being trumpeted by Rays management.

Bill Bunker, executive director of the PSA, touted the stadium’s tent-like covering as being more economical than a traditional dome. And much like the current plan that features a lightweight synthetic polymer sail, it would protect fans from the rain but not the heat.

Earlier that week in 1983, the Tampa Bay Baseball Group unveiled their design for a 46,000-seat stadium on the site of Al Lopez Field next to Tampa Stadium. Like the stadium design on the other side of the Bay, the Baseball Group also envisioned a fabric-covered – but not domed – stadium.

Within six months, however, both groups would alter their plans and opt for covered stadiums. The Baseball Group’s design called for a Teflon roof that would reflect solar heat while relying on open sides for ventilation. The Pinellas group opted for a fully-covered, air-conditioned facility. The debate currently going on in St. Petersburg over open-air versus domed stadiums is clearly nothing new.

So while concepts that were quickly discarded two decades ago are being recycled today, we should fully expect to see the Rays’ current plans in another 25 years – much like the stadium plans of January 1983 – located on the scrap heap of history.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Can-Am Bowl I, 1/8/78

On Jan. 8, 1978, Tampa Stadium played host to an event unprecedented in the history of football. The Can-Am Bowl, an All-Star game pitting collegians from the United States and Canada against each other, was especially unique since the game was played by Canadian football rules. For one afternoon, top seniors from major American universities would play football against the top seniors and underclassmen from Canada. The city of Tampa, of all places, served as the battleground to finally settle the age-old debate of football superiority between these two border nations.

Actually, the disparity in football talent between Canada and the United States could not have been greater at the time. Team Canada just hoped to field a competitive team, while the American athletes hoped to avoid the humiliation of an upset loss to the Canadians. Jack Zilly, coach of Team USA, cautioned against underestimating the team from Canada, but added, “It would be embarrassing to go back to Tennessee, Alabama, Stanford, or where the players are from, if you have been beaten."

Increasing the angst of the Americans were the quirky Canadian rules. For example, teams would have only three downs to gain 10 yards, meaning "every offensive play in Canada is designed to go 10," according to Sam Bailey, the Can-Am Bowl’s executive director and former University of Tampa head coach.

Additionally, the field would be lengthened from 100 to 110 yards and widened from 53 to 60 feet. Larger fields meant larger teams as well, with the addition of one offensive and defensive player to each side of the line of scrimmage. It wasn't uncommon for a Canadian offense to feature four -- yes, four -- running backs on a given play. Throw in unlimited motion in the backfield, and one can imagine the headaches experienced by American coaches readying a game plan for their team of collegians, -- who had played football their entire lives by completely different rules.

"With the rules as we have them set up," Bailey said, "it should make for a good, competitive game, the kind fans like to see. After all, football is football."

In a surprise to no one, the United States prevailed over the Canadians by a score of 22-7. Rather than being a wide-open shootout, however, the game was a defensive struggle. In fact, Team Canada, not the U.S., was be responsible for the only offensive touchdown of the game, a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter to avoid a shutout and cap the game's scoring.

The U.S. put up the majority of its points on a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns. In the second quarter, Vanderbilt cornerback Bernard Wilson picked off a pass by Arcadia University’s Bob Cameron and returned it 44 yards for the game's first touchdown. Wilson’s score followed a U.S. field goal and two "rouges," one-point bonuses awarded to the kicking team for tackling a returner in his own end zone on a kickoff or punt. Colorado State punter Mike Deutsch recorded two rouges in a span of two minutes and two seconds for the Americans.

"On the first rouge, I didn't know at first I had scored a point," he said. "I knew something had happened and then they flashed the point on the scoreboard. All I could say was wow.”

Georgia linebacker Ben Zambiasi added to the Americans’ lead with a 10-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter. The extra point put the U.S. ahead 22-0. Coincidentally, Zambiasi went on to have a successful 11-year career in the professional Canadian Football League. An eight-time CFL All-Star who played in four Grey Cup championship games and won one, he was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2004. And Cameron, Canada’s beleaguered quarterback that day, eventually won three Grey Cups and still holds the CFL record for most career punting yards.

Another interesting tidbit about the game was not apparent at the time, but the American squad featured two athletes who became well-known to Tampa football fans: Missouri’s Jim Leavitt and Bruce Allen from the University of Richmond. Leavitt, now head coach at the University of South Florida, made his mark in college as a linebacker. Allen, son of Hall of Fame Redskins and Rams coach George Allen, shared punting duties for the U.S. squad and connected on field goals of 23 and 25 yards.

Twenty-five years later, however, the game is more likely to be remembered for the steady downpour of rain than for any on-field performance. An 11,000-strong crowd attended the game, but by the end the rain had driven away all but a few thousand -- mostly Canadian -- diehards.

"What do I remember most about the game? The rain was the biggest problem," Sam Bailey recently recalled. "It wasn't totally unsuccessful, but it didn't do as well as we thought we could."

The game continued in various incarnations for three years after the first Can-Am Bowl, eventually turning into an exhibition between two Canadian squads.

In 1986, however, Tampa Stadium became a big-time bowl destination as host of the Hall of Fame Bowl, the first major college bowl game to be played in Tampa.

Monday, January 7, 2008

Dixie International Tournament, 1940

The scene is the International Dixie Tournament. The place is the Davis Islands Tennis Club in January 1940. Participating in the finals of the tournament were Bobby Riggs and Bitsy Grant. Riggs, the world's amateur singles and doubles champion, won the tournament in 1938 and sought his second Dixie championship. Grant, dubbed "126 pound of tennis dynamite" by Tampa Tribune writer Pete Norton, had already won two Dixie titles.

The match began on Sunday afternoon in front of a tournament-record 2,000 fans, but was postponed by rain until the following day with Riggs leading by a set. Grant would storm back when play resumed, winning a five-set thriller 1-6, 6-2, 6-1, 3-6, 6-3 to capture his third Dixie title in five years. He then delighted the crowd during the trophy presentation by accepting the D.P Davis Trophy and then handing it right back to the presenter, Tampa’s mayor R.E.L. Chancey.

"Tampa has always been one of my favorite places," Grant said. "I want this cup to stay right here so when I get too old to play for it, some of you good people will remember me."

The crowd then rewarded Grant, the Dixie Tournament's greatest and most gracious champion, with a five minute standing ovation.