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.