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.

1 comment:

  1. a few years later ('67 season) Gables settled the question with a 56-0 win against John Reeves Tampa Robinson team.

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