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.