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."

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