Monday, December 28, 2009

NFL Playoffs Come to Tampa Bay, 12/29/79

As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers near the finish line of one of the worst seasons in franchise history, a fan’s thoughts may wander back to happier, simpler times.

In 1979, Tampa Bay shocked the NFL by racing to a 5-0 start. Coming off a 5-11 record in 1978, the Buccaneers were at least seen as a team going in the right direction. Still, few could have anticipated such a staggering start. Amazingly, after five weeks the Buccaneers were the only undefeated team in the league.

“No one gave the Bucs a chance at anything,” says Dick Crippen, a former member of the Buccaneers broadcast crew, “yet somehow in training camp, they got the idea they could win.”

Win they did. The Buccaneers finished with a 10-6 record and won the NFC Central Division. This set up a divisional playoff showdown against the Philadelphia Eagles on December 29 at Tampa Stadium.

Former Tampa Mayor Bob Martinez had just entered office as the Buccaneers began their climb in the standings. By late December, Buccaneer mania had clearly run wild on the community.

“The city became alive with talk, preparation, shopping for playoff memorabilia, and trying to get playoff tickets,” Martinez recalls.

The success of the team, in turn, gave Tampa a unique opportunity to showcase itself on a national stage. This would be the first game in team history to be broadcast on national television.

“Tampa was marketing itself nationally and internationally as a place to do business, work and play,” Martinez says. “The playoff game gave us center stage during the run up to the game and the game itself.

“It's great for a community to have a big topic, like the Bucs, to talk about in addition to weather, politics, etc. Having big-time sports gives a community a sense of place and pride. Once the Bucs got their winning ways, Johnny Carson picked on something else, game attendance went up and the players stopped fighting being part of the Bucs organization.”

Much like the Buccaneers in 1979, up until 2008 the Tampa Bay Rays were a team that knew nothing but losing. Making the playoffs and winning the American League East division were considered such major accomplishments that reaching the World Series was gravy. In both instances, players and fans had cause to slip into “happy to be there” mode.

“Like the Rays in 2008, the Bucs were 'The Little Engine That Could,' Crippen says. “When the fans heard that the Eagles would be the opponent, I think many of them figured it had been a great ride and were just proud the Bucs made the playoffs.”

The Eagles, despite making the playoffs as a wild card, at 11-5 actually had a better record than Tampa Bay and were considered a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

“All the experts had Philadelphia going to the Super Bowl, and I think they were even a favorite to win it,” recalls radio personality Jack Harris, then a member of the Buccaneers broadcast crew. “We were supposed to be just a bump on their way to being champions. I don’t think anyone gave us much of a chance.”

True enough, the Eagles were installed as a four-point favorite despite being the road team. Because of Tampa Bay boasted the league's top-ranked defense, most prognosticators anticipated a close game no matter the outcome. Brent Musberger, host of “The NFL Today” on CBS, proved to be one of the few exceptions in predicting a 21-point Philadelphia victory.

Bucs coach John McKay anticipated a much-closer and low-scoring contest. He also said that to win, the Bucs would have to pass the ball effectively and often.

“Just taking the ball and driving it on them, I don’t think you are going to do that,” he said. “I just don’t see anybody doing that.”

Whether McKay truly believed that or just said it as a ruse, the Buccaneers did the exact opposite on their opening drive of the game. On a day officially proclaimed by Mayor Martinez as “Tampa Bay Buccaneers Day,” it turned out to be Ricky Bell Day at Tampa Stadium.

On a clock-chewing, morale-boosting opening drive, the Buccaneers controlled the ball for 9:25, marching 80 yards down the field for a touchdown. Bell , the workhorse on this drive and on the day, got into the end zone on fourth-and-goal from the Philadelphia four yard line to give Tampa Bay the early lead.

This would be just the beginning. With his team leading 10-0 in the second quarter, Bell scored his second rushing touchdown of the day, a one-yard run to give the underdog Buccaneers a three-score lead.

Tampa Bay ’s defense lived up to its billing as well, bullying and harassing quarterback Ron Jaworski all afternoon, limiting him to 15 completions on 39 attempts. The league’s top defense held Pro Bowl running back Wilbur Montgomery to just 35 yards on 13 carries. The hard-hitting secondary and linebacker corps, in the meantime, forced drops on catchable balls and held star wide receiver Harold Carmichael to just three receptions.

On the other side, Doug Williams had an efficient, if not spectacular, game at quarterback -- 7-15 for 132 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT – but managed the offense and made key throws at the right time. Bell simply had a monster performance with an NFL-record 38 carries, rushing for 142 yards and two touchdowns.

Despite a late rally, the Buccaneers held on for a 24-17 victory in a game that really wasn’t as close as the score indicated. Tampa Bay dominated on both sides of the ball and left no doubt as to which was the better team. The victory sent Tampa Stadium into what Crippen calls a state of “delirium.”

“When the Bucs ended up beating the Eagles, the euphoria set in and the fans believed anything was possible,” he says. “Everyone believed the team was capable of going all the way.”

Harris recalls how being the underdog in the game made the outcome that much sweeter.

“Consequently, it was almost like a Super Bowl win,” he says. “We had beaten the best team arguably in the NFL, and no one expected it. I think the unexpected wins are the best ones.

“But again, almost all the wins that season were pretty much unexpected, which tends to heighten the level of elation on the part of fans and players alike, almost exponentially.”

That afternoon, the Buccaneers earned the respect of the Philadelphia Eagles and, finally, the nation. Losing the following week to the Los Angeles Rams, while disappointing, did nothing to diminish the good feelings engendered by the Buccaneers, who thirty years ago this week, were indeed the toast of the town.

Monday, December 21, 2009

McKay Leaves With a Win, 12/16/84

Despite a disappointing 5-10 record, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers headed into their season finale twenty five years ago with something left to accomplish. With a playoff berth and a winning record long since out of reach, the Buccaneers could still end the season on a positive note: sending off coach John McKay with a win.

On Nov. 5, the day after a last-second loss to the Minnesota Vikings, McKay announced 1984 would be his final season on the sidelines. In the game at Minnesota, Vikings kicker Jan Stenerud broke a 24-24 tie on a 53-yard field goal with just two seconds left, sending the Bucs to their fourth consecutive defeat. This proved too much for McKay.

“When Stenerud hit that long field goal,” McKay said, “I said, ‘That’s as much as I can take.’”

The Buccaneers followed his announcement by dropping three of the next four games, ending any chance of making the playoffs or even finishing at .500. Still, coming off a 23-6 home win against Atlanta in Week 15, the Bucs had a chance to end McKay’s coaching career on an up note with a win over the 7-8 New York Jets.

Such circumstances hardly seemed appropriate for one of the legendary coaches in the history of football. As head coach of the University of Southern California Trojans from 1960-75, he won nine Pacific-8 Conference championships and four national championships (1962, 1967, 1972, 1974).

A winner of 127 games at the college level – with only 40 losses – many expected that success would translate to the pro level when he took over as first head coach of the Buccaneers in 1976.

We all know that did not happen, especially in the beginning. McKay received a most-humbling welcome to professional football, losing his first 26 games. Still, by his fourth season he had turned the Buccaneers into a winner and came within one game of going to the Super Bowl.

From 1979-82, McKay coached Tampa Bay to two NFC Central titles and three playoff appearances. A 2-14 season in 1983 was a huge step back for the organization, but McKay anticipated big things in 1984 and proclaimed it the most-talented Buccaneer squad ever.

Instead, the team underachieved despite having arguably one of the best offensive seasons in franchise history. Tampa Bay also had trouble winning close games, dropping seven of their games by seven points or fewer. So in many ways, 1984 had to be one of McKay’s most frustrating seasons, knowing his team was just good enough to lose when it mattered most. Still, the Bucs would find a way to come through for McKay one final time.

In front of 43,817 at Tampa Stadium on Dec. 16, 1984, the John McKay era ended not with a whimper, but with one of the most controversial conclusions in Buccaneer history. The fourth quarter, in particular, lives in infamy because of running back James Wilder’s pursuit of an NFL record.

Entering the game, Wilder needed 178 total yards to break Los Angeles Rams’ running back Eric Dickerson’s newly established record for all-purpose yards in a season (2,244). Wilder’s 4-yard touchdown run with 1:21 left in the game left him 15 yards short of O.J. Simpson for 2nd place on the list and 16 yards behind Dickerson. His touchdown set off a bizarre series of events still unmatched to this day.

Despite holding a 41-14 lead, on the ensuing kickoff McKay called for Obed Ariri to attempt an onside kick. A successful recovery represented Tampa Bay ’s best hope for getting Wilder in a position to break the record. Ariri’s first two attempts were voided by penalties, and finally on the third attempt, New York’s Russell Carter recovered the ball on Tampa Bay’s 35-yard line.

Here’s where things got interesting. New York knew the Buccaneers wanted the ball back, and with barely a minute left in the game, the Bucs could only regain possession on a punt, turnover or safety. Set up with excellent field position, a punt by the Jets seemed unlikely, so the Buccaneers' best bet was for New York to score.

The ensuing drive gave new meaning to the term “prevent defense.” Back-to-back completions moved the ball to the Tampa Bay 9-yard line with 1:07 left in the game. On the next play, safety Mark Cotney tackled running back Johnny Hector at the 2 and then, realizing his “mistake,” immediately called timeout. There would be no such confusion on the following play.

Hector again took the handoff, but this he time encountered nothing but backpedaling linemen, giving him an unmolested run into the end zone.

“We tried to make it look inconspicuous,” linebacker Scot Brantley said after the game, “but I guess we didn’t succeed. The Jets knew what was going on.”

New York knew and was not pleased. The Jets countered by attempting an onside kick of their own. George Peebles recovered Pat Lahey’s attempt, however, at the New York 45, giving Wilder one last shot at the record.

The Jets, who had been focused on shutting down Wilder for most of the fourth quarter, were not about to let him have an easy path to the record, especially after Tampa Bay’s flop-play on defense.

On Tampa Bay’s three final offensive plays, Wilder was tackled for a loss of 2, ran for a gain of 2 and was held for no gain on the last play of the game. With nearly ever defender committed to stopping him – and only him – on the play, Wilder never had a chance.

After the game, several Jets immediately directed their ire towards McKay, lobbing obscenities at him as he left the field. New York coach Joe Walton had harsh words for McKay following the game as well.

“The way it ended was a total embarrassment to the NFL,” he said. “It set football back 20 years and was completely uncalled for.”

McKay refused to apologize, saying he did what he did in the best interests of Wilder and the fans. The fans, who stayed to the end hoping to see history, showed their displeasure with New York by showering the team with a mixture of boos and debris as they exited toward the locker room.

It was appropriate that McKay left the game in a style befitting a man who never much cared what his critics said about him: defiant to the very end, and ultimately, a winner.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Ali Denied Chance to Fight in Tampa, 12/11/69

As the turbulent 1960s neared a conclusion, the city of Tampa – which had been mostly removed from the major upheaval faced by other large cities during the decade – had to contend with one last issue of cultural importance.

Perhaps never before, and certainly never since, have sports and politics been so intertwined as in the career of boxer Muhammad Ali. One cannot speak of his boxing career without noting the social, cultural and political impact. Likewise, one cannot mention his place in boxing history without acknowledging how the divisiveness of his personal politics affected his career in the ring.

A refresher: In 1967, Ali – who changed his name from Cassius Clay after joining the Nation of Islam in 1964 -- refused to be drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces due to his religious convictions and opposition to the Vietnam War. Although today Ali is generally a sympathetic figure, well-respected and admired, it’s worth remembering how public opinion about him has changed over time.

His association with Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad made him a lightning rod for controversy during the heart of the civil rights movement. His views on the Vietnam War, and his famous reason for not having a quarrel with the Viet Cong, provoked outrage from those who didn’t understand what made him so different from other Americans subject to the draft.

Arrested, stripped of his heavyweight title, found of guilty of draft evasion and denied a boxing license, Ali found himself at a career impasse as the decade came to a close.

It just wouldn’t have been a proper sendoff to the 1960s had sports and politics not intersected yet again. Over the course of several days in December 1969, Tampa served as the battleground for one more cultural tug-of-war with Muhammad Ali at the forefront.

On December 9, 1969, news broke that local businessman and promoter Ron Gorton had arranged to stage a bout between Joe Frazier and Muhammad Ali at the 46,477-seat Tampa Stadium on February 16, 1970. Gorton, executive director of the Lions Club American Bowl game, called the potential fight “the biggest sports thing to ever hit Tampa.”

He was right. A heavyweight title fight at Tampa Stadium would have been seen by hundreds of millions around the world and easily would have been the most significant sporting event in the city’s pre-Super Bowl hosting history. One could argue Tampa wasn’t officially a big-time city until acquiring a pro football franchise in the mid-1970s. This boxing match, however, might well have been the event to put Tampa on the map.

The likelihood of the fight taking place cleared an enormous hurdle when the Tampa Boxing Commission unanimously voted to license the fight.

Many public officials came out in support of the event, even if they did not openly agree with or like Ali personally. For his part, Gorton clarified that as a veteran he disagreed with Ali’s politics, but he thought Ali deserved a chance to lose his title in a ring rather than a courtroom.
Leonard Levy, vice-chairman of the Tampa Sports Authority, declined to publicly reveal his personal feelings on Ali, but said: “If all regulatory bodies approve this, then who are we to say that they can’t use (Tampa Stadium)?”

Boxing and Wrestling Commission chairman Eddie Flynn, like Ali an Olympic gold medal-winning boxer, said he would be happy to see the fight happen. He cited an obligation to bondholders to help pay off debt on Tampa Stadium, while bringing sporting events to this area that would meet the public’s approval. The fight could almost certainly help accomplish the former, but not the latter.

The public backlash against the event started almost immediately.

Tampa City Council voted unanimously in opposition to any fight involving Ali, while acknowledging it had no legal recourse to stop the bout.

In his Tampa Tribune column, Tom McEwen accurately predicted that only public opinion could stop the fight from happening. The court of public opinion turned quickly and dramatically against the fight, and even previous supporters began running for cover.

Mayor Dick Greco carefully toed the line, initially saying that while he and others may disagree with Ali’s politics, that did not necessarily merit a reason to ban the fight. The following day, however, Greco became convinced from an overwhelming number of phone calls to his office that residents of this area would never approve of the fight. He also took much stronger stand, as well.

“As for me, I am bound by law and what’s legal,” he said, “but I would not myself buy a ticket that would help contribute to (Ali's) financial well-being, and I’m a boxing fan. I hope the sports authority and boxing commission, who are the only bodies with jurisdiction here, will give the matter serious thought.”

The Tampa Tribune, in an editorial entitled “We Object – Conscientiously,” cited a moral imperative in stopping the fight. The editorial also mocked Ali for claims that boxing violated the teachings of Islam, then suddenly changing heart based on a $300,000 fight guarantee.

Politicians throughout the state weighed in on the fight, which became a hot-button political issue because of the involvement of Florida Gov. Claude Kirk. The Republican governor made headlines early for his enthusiastic public endorsement of Tampa as host for the fight. In the spirit of bipartisan cooperation, both Republicans and Democrats took turns in denouncing Kirk and Ali.

U.S. Rep. Sam Gibbons (D-Tampa) announced he was “personally repulsed by Ali and his willful failure to serve his country,” but that hosting the fight was a matter for locals to decide.

U.S. Rep William Cramer (R-St. Petersburg) called Kirk’s actions a “shocking disgrace,” while U.S. Rep. Paul Rogers (D-West Palm Beach) called Kirk’s actions “most unfortunate.”

“Ali’s convictions,” Rogers said, “demand that he not be granted a license anywhere.”

On the morning of December 11, the Tampa Sports Authority dashed Ali’s chances of fighting in Tampa by voting to deny Gorton’s request to rent Tampa Stadium. The Sports Authority cited the public good, as in protection of the facility and its attendees, as the primary reason for denying use of the Stadium. Frank Neff, a member of the special events committee, referenced riots during the 1968 Democratic Convention: “If we do not turn Ali down, we can expect a situation here that would make Chicago seem mild.”

By December 12, the once enthusiastic Kirk had changed his mind, too. Endorsing the fight proved to be a surprisingly bold – some might call reckless -- move politically for Kirk, Florida’s first Republican governor since 1877. Whatever his initial motives, be they political, financial or just a desire to see Frazier whip Ali in the ring, Kirk let Ali have it in a written statement.

“It comes as a surprise to me that a man who lacks the courage to fight for his country could have the guts to get into the ring," Kirk said. “I see no reason why an alleged draft dodger should be in a position to lay claim to any title.”

Without political cover from Kirk, any chances of the fight taking place in Florida were effectively over. Gorton tried wooing Orlando into hosting the fight, but that option encountered a public death too.

In the end, Tampa proved no different from the other cities and states during this period that refused to sanction Ali. Opposition to Ali the man – his beliefs, his values, his actions – overrode the sporting interest or financial windfalls such a fight would invariably produce.
McEwen called Ali a “protester in a time of protest.” The prevalent attitude in Tampa, as well, could be accurately seen as reflective of its time.

It would take 15 months before Ali and Frazier finally met in the ring, a bout at New York’s Madison Square Garden dubbed “The Fight of the Century.” Frazier retained his belt in a unanimous decision, an outcome that surely pleased Kirk, who had failed in his bid to win re-election the previous November.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Brandon Make Run for State Title, 12/5/69

On December 5, 1969, Tampa Stadium served as the site for a district battle between two unbeaten teams each seeking their first state title.

Clearwater (10-0) hoped to return to the state Class AA finals for the first time since 1964. Brandon (8-0-2) sported the best record in its relatively short history and were on unfamiliar ground. At stake in this contest, a trip to the state semifinals.

The two schools were quite a contrast in styles. Brandon made their mark in 1969 on defense, shutting out eight of their ten opponents. The Eagles allowed only three touchdowns the entire season, but were not quite the scoring machine, either. Brandon averaged just 15.9 points per game, and recorded two scoreless ties against Hillsborough and Plant.

Clearwater, meanwhile, rolled up the points, scoring 323 points in 10 games. Its defense, by contrast, gave up an average of 11.2 points per game.

Clearly, Brandon's defense would have to carry the day against the potent Tornadoes offense. The two teams slogged it out in the game's opening quarter, playing to a scoreless tie through the first 12 minutes. A huge play on special teams by Brandon, however, helped open the scoring in the second quarter.

Return man John Rayburn brought a punt back deep into Clearwater territory early in the quarter to set up Brandon with terrific field position at the Tornadoes 20. Running back Lane Exum carried on each of the next five plays, finally capitalizing from one yard out to give Brandon a 7-0 lead.

The defense then proceeded to blow the game wide open for the Eagles. An interception by Larry Bass on the next Tornadoes possession once again set up Brandon in Clearwater territory at the 47. This time, Rayburn found his way into the end zone on an eight-yard run to extend Brandon's lead to 14-0.

On the ensuing drive, John Lacer picked off an errant screen pass by Clearwater quarterback Frank Duncan and returned it 14 yards for Brandon's third touchdown of the quarter. A missed extra point left the score 20-0 in favor of Brandon.

The Eagles essentially shut down Clearwater's vaunted offense all game long. Brandon surrendered just 43 yards rushing -- 21 on one play in the third quarter. The Tornadoes were able to throw the ball somewhat successfully, gaining 130 yards through the air, but had four passes intercepted.

On the other side of the ball, Brandon was able to control the clock by running the football while completely eschewing their passing attack. The Eagles' 217 yards of total offense came entirely on the ground. Quarterbacks John Snowden and Mike Burnett attempted five passes between them but failed to complete a single one.

It didn't matter, however, as Brandon's defensive domination kept Clearwater off the board with the exception of a third-quarter touchdown run, a fourth-and-goal scamper from the 1 by Tyson Sever. The Eagles held on from there to capture a 20-6 victory over the Tornadoes.

The win propelled Brandon into a semifinals showdown in the Orange Bowl against Miami Jackson High School (11-0). In Jackson, Brandon would face a similarly defensive-minded team that had shut out five opponents during the season.

A mere 6,000 fans showed up for the contest in the 75,000-seat Orange Bowl on Dec. 12. Those in attendance saw a hard-fought 7-6 triumph by Brandon.

Lane Exum scored Brandon's lone touchdown in the second quarter and the Eagles carried a 7-0 lead into the fourth quarter. Brandon's defense characteristically saved the day when it mattered most.

A touchdown by running back Moses Moore brought Jackson within one point. The Generals chose to go for two -- and the lead -- instead of kicking. Brandon's Jim Dorsey sacked quarterback Willie Hayes back at the 20 to preserve the lead and ultimately the win for the Eagles.

With the victory, Brandon joined Robinson High (1963) as the only Class AA Tampa-area schools to have reached a state playoff final in football.

The Eagles' dream run finally reached an end at the hands of Leon High School (12-0) on December 19 in the Class AA championship game. In front of 20,000 at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, Leon High rushed for 245 yards and overcame a 14-7 deficit, rallying in the second half to defeat the Eagles, 24-14. For the second week in a row, the once stout (but perhaps fatigued) Brandon defense surrendered more than 200 yards on the ground.

While the loss ruined Brandon's hopes for a championship and an undefeated season, the Eagles finished 10-1-2 and produced one of their most memorable seasons ever.

"It's welded the entire community together, having this fine winning football team," Brandon Principal Lyle Flagg said 40 years ago. "Our winning tradition has begun."

Monday, November 30, 2009

The AFL Comes to Tampa Stadium, 11/30/69

This season, the NFL has celebrated the 50th anniversary of its one-time rival, the American Football League, by allowing former AFL teams to wear their original uniforms. This year also marks the 40th anniversary of the league's final season before merging with the NFL in 1970.

During that final season in 1969, Tampa played a small part in the league's final days. Having previously hosted three exhibition games, the November 30 contest at Tampa Stadium between the Miami Dolphins and Boston Patriots would be the first regular-season professional football game ever played in Tampa. In front of a national audience on NBC, the Tampa Bay area would get a chance to show that it should one day merit a franchise.

Ticket sales were expected to approach 35,000, despite the less-than-marquee matchup. The Patriots entered the game with a 3-8 mark, while the Dolphins enjoyed a slightly worse 2-8-1 record. Not helping matters, the Dolphins announced that star quarterback Bob Griese would miss the game due to a season-ending knee injury.

A blackout on local television coverage meant anyone interested in seeing the game would have to attend in person. For a city hoping to impress the brass from the AFL and potentially even lure the Patriots out of Boston, the lack of local television coverage certainly guaranteed more butts in the stands. AFL president Milt Woodward, director of pro football Jim Kensil and Patriots president Billy Sullivan planned on attending the game to scope out Tampa's viability as a pro market.

A crowd of 32,121 -- below expectations, but still the largest crowd to attend either a Dolphins or Patriots game -- enjoyed a back-and-forth contest.

The Dolphins motivated the partisan home-state crowd by jumping out to an early first quarter lead. Behind the leg of kicker Karl Kresmer, Miami capitalized on their opening drive to take a 3-0 lead.

Boston's first offensive possession proved costly, as an interception by Miami's Bob Perella set up the Dolphins at the Boston 27. Running back Jim Kiick extended Miami's lead six plays later on a 3-yard touchdown run and the Dolphins went ahead 9-0. Kresmer failed to make it a 10-point game, however, and made the Miami record book by recording the first missed extra point in franchise history.

Boston rebounded on the following drive, going 80 yards on 4 plays, the capper a 46-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Mike Taliaferro to former Florida State All-American Ron Sellers. Miami blocked the extra point attempt to hold a 9-6 lead.

Kiick added another touchdown for the Dolphins early in the second quarter, this one from a yard out, to give Miami a 16-6 lead, and it began to look like the Dolphins would cruise to their third win of the season.

Boston reversed Miami's momentum courtesy of a special-teams gaffe by rookie Mercury Morris. With 6:05 left in the first half, Morris fielded a punt at his own 5-yard line. Then, in a move Dolphins head coach George Wilson later called "a high school play," Morris ran into the end zone to try and buy some running space. The Patriots tackled Morris for a safety, cutting Miami's lead to 16-8.

This began a sequence in which Boston scored 16 unanswered points and began taking control of the game. Taliaferro connected on touchdown strikes of 50 and 14 yards to Charlie Frazier and Bill Rademacher to give the Patriots a 22-16 lead at the half.

Miami briefly regained the lead late in the third quarter, again behind the legs of Kiick, who fumbled while heading into the end zone for the go-ahead score. Ocala native Gene Milton, however, recovered the ball, enabling Miami to take a one-point lead over Boston.

Things quickly fell apart for the Dolphins. On their first drive of the fourth quarter, Boston's Larry Carwell intercepted a Rick Norton pass and returned it all the way to the 2-yard line. Running back Jim Nance would punch it in from the one with 10:12 left to regain the lead for Boston, 28-23. Another Miami miscue effectively put the game out of reach. Miami punter Larry Seiple fumbled a low snap at his own 2 and Boston's Jim Hunt recovered to set up the Patriots' final touchdown, another 1-yard score by Nance.

A late field goal by Gino Cappelletti provided the game's final margin as the Patriots reeled off 16 unanswered points for the second time to cap a 38-23 triumph.

The Tampa Bay area triumphed as game's host, scoring high marks from league officials and visiting journalists. Today, the game is just a footnote in Tampa Bay's quest to land an NFL franchise but its most lasting connection to the old AFL.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Tampa's First Winless Season, 11/18/49

Before defeating the Green Bay Packers two weekends ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seemed destined to endure the indignity of another winless season.

It would have been the second time the franchise failed to win a game during the course of a season, the first of course coming in 1976 -- the team's inaugural campaign -- when the Buccaneers went 0-14.

That miserable season was not the first time, however, local football fans had to endure a "perfect" season. A now long-forgotten edition of the Tampa Spartans provided such a season 60 years ago.

Heading into their final game of the season on Nov. 18, 1949, the Spartans owned a dismal 0-7 record. All year long, the Spartans were plagued by a lack of offense. The team scored a season-high 19 points in a Sept. 30 contest against Milligan College, but averaged just nine points per game.

The defense, meanwhile, fared no better in surrendering a staggering 36 points per game. The team allowed 100 points alone during the first two weeks of the season, highlighted by a 70-6 whitewashing at the hands of Memphis State.

The Spartans, led by second-year head coach Mike Gaddis, limped back into Tampa to prepare for their season finale on the heels of a 46-7 drubbing at Delta State in Cleveland, Miss. The team had quite a task at hand in preparing to play the Florida State Seminoles. The Seminoles, making their inaugural visit to Tampa, arrived with a 6-1 mark and were smarting from their first defeat the prior week to the Livingston State Teachers, a 13-6 setback.

The Seminoles, however, were the class of the Dixie Conference, a collection of small schools such as Millsaps, Stetson, Howard College (now Stamford University) and Mississippi College. A win against Tampa would guarantee Florida State a second consecutive conference championship, while a loss for Tampa would guarantee the program the first winless season in its 13-year history.

Florida State also made news during the week leading up to the game based on a future engagement in the city of Tampa. The Seminoles voted unanimously to accept a bid to play in the Shrine Cigar Bowl at Phillips Field. While the team had not yet been formally offered an invitation by selection committee chairman J. Rex Farrior, the team voted in preparation for that eventuality. Nothing short of a staggering upset to the Spartans could stand in the way of Florida State coming back to play at Phillips Field on Jan. 2, 1950.

The Seminoles first had to deal with the matter at hand of avoiding an upset against the Spartans. On a chilly November night, a season-high crowd of 4,000 turned out to Phillips Field for the Homecoming Weekend contest. Those who came to see the Spartans fight hard and give their best did not leave disappointed. Neither did the Florida State backers who hoped to see their team emerge with a victory.

The Spartans played Florida State to a scoreless tie after one quarter, but turnovers plagued both teams and neither could gain traction offensively.

The Seminoles were first to capitalize, however, taking advantage of an interception by Tampa's Jerry Jackson. Norman Eubanks scored on a 60-yard run a few plays later to give Florida State a 7-0 lead. Following an exchange of punts, a Buddy Strauss touchdown dive from the goal line upped the lead to 13-0, and Florida State took a 20-0 lead into the half after another Tampa interception set up halfback Wyatt Parish's 20-yard dash to the end zone.

The Spartans threatened to make a game of it in the third quarter as its defense kept them alive. Tailback Gene King scored on a fourth-and-goal attempt from the 1 to bring Tampa within two scores, 20-7.

That is as close as the Spartans would get, however, as Florida State iced the game with two fourth quarter touchdowns en route to a 34-7 triumph. The Spartans committed seven turnovers for the game, dooming them to defeat and the dreaded winless season.

Fortunately for the University of Tampa, it would be the only winless season in the program's history, and brighter days would lie ahead with the hiring of Marcelino Huerta as head coach in 1952.

As for Florida State, they accepted an invitation to play in the Shrine Cigar Bowl against Wofford College. The Seminoles capped their 9-1 season with a 19-6 triumph, a memorable outcome to the first bowl appearance in the rich history of Florida State football.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Steve Garvey Named NL MVP, 11/12/74

The 1974 baseball season served as a coming out party for Tampa native Steve Garvey. Following his major league debut with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1969 as a 20-year-old, Garvey showed steady improvement each season until he finally emerged as an elite player in the majors.

On Nov. 12, 1974, Garvey earned one of the game's highest honors, beating out Lou Brock by 37 points to earn National League Most Valuable Player honors.

The future MVP, born at St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa on Dec. 22, 1948, grew up playing in the long-gone Drew Park Little League on the corner of Lois and Alva. His father, Joe, drove buses for a living, including the Dodgers' team bus every year during Spring Training. Steve, exposed to the world of professional baseball at an early age, became hooked.

He enjoyed a stellar prep career at Chamberlain High School -- where he earned the nickname "Little General" -- starring on the baseball and football teams.

The Minnesota Twins selected Garvey in the 3rd round of the 1966 amateur draft, but he chose not to sign and instead attended Michigan State, where he played on a baseball scholarship. Although baseball was his true calling, Garvey got the itch to resume his football career and started at defensive back for the Spartans in his sophomore and junior years.

He left school in 1968, when the Dodgers chose him as the 13th overall pick in the draft. He began his rise to the majors in Ogden, Utah, in the Pioneer League, and would make his Dodger debut as a September call-up at the end of the 1969 season.

For all his talents, it wasn't immediately apparent that Garvey would turn out to be such a crucial piece of the Dodger franchise. From 1970-72, Garvey showed flashes of potential but struggled to break into the starting lineup at third base. Strangely enough, his prowess as a pinch hitter during the early stages of the 1973 season earned him duties as the everyday first baseman.

He would become a fixture at first for the Dodgers over the next nine seasons.

In 1974, Garvey took the majors by storm. He became one of only two players ever voted to start in the All-Star Game as a write-in. Not only that, he captured the game's Most Valuable Player Award by going 4-for-4 with a double, RBI and run scored in the National League's 7-2 victory.

His regular-season numbers at the plate -- a .312 batting average, 21 HR, 111 RBI and 200 hits -- as well as smooth fielding that earned him a Gold Glove Award, helped propel the Dodgers to the National League pennant. Unfortunately for Garvey and the Dodgers, in the World Series they ran right into the Oakland Athletics dynasty. Garvey shined with eight hits and a .381 average in the Series, but the A's needed only five games to dispatch L.A. on their way to a third consecutive world championship.

Despite the disappointing ending to the season, 1974 signaled a return to prominence for the Dodgers and the emergence of Garvey. The MVP vote reflected as much, as he earned 13 first-place votes to eight for Lou Brock, who himself a monster season with 118 stolen bases.

Later in the month, Tampa got to show love for its native son with a Steve Garvey Appreciation Night dinner, an event in the works even before he was named MVP. More than 400 guests turned out at the International Inn, including Mayor Bill Poe, who had declared Nov. 25 Garvey Family Day in Tampa.

His superlative 1974 season, however, proved to be just the beginning of a storied career. Although he's not in the Hall of Fame, his career credentials are worth of Hall consideration.

Just for starters, Garvey was a 10-time All Star, a winner of four consecutive Gold Glove Awards, a two-time All-Star Game MVP, a two-time NLCS MVP, a league MVP, winner of a World Series in 1981, owner of 2,599 career hits and the holder of the National League record for consecutive games played at 1,207.

He may not have earned enshrinement in Cooperstown, but all in all, not too shabby for a kid from Drew Park.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Plant-Plant City Clash at Tampa Stadium, 11/9/79

A pair of undefeated teams battling it out for a Class 4-A district championship made for a dream matchup. The differences between the two teams made for a sportswriter's dream. The headline on the Nov. 7, 1979, front page of the Tampa Tribune sports section simply read: "The Game: It's the Country Boys vs. the City Slickers."

"Out here in Plant City, we're kind of the country folk," says former Plant City High head football coach Hank Sytsma, "with Plant being the city folk, so to speak. We were both 8-0 and everyone got caught up in it."

Sytsma refers to the hype surrounding the showdown for the District 7 title between Plant and Plant City, respectively the No. 4 and No. 6 ranked teams in the state. This would be the first time since the 1950s that two undefeated teams would meet to decide the champion. Interest in the contest had reached new heights in the week leading up to the game, scheduled to be played on Plant's home turf, Dads Stadium.

The stadium on Plant's campus could comfortably handle 7,500 fans, a number that raised red flags with the Hillsborough County School Board due to the immense interest in the game coming from fans of Plant City.

The previous week, County Athletic Director Wayne Williamson suggested spacious Tampa Stadium would serve as a more suitable location for the game. The idea of losing a home game -- and home field advantage -- at such a crucial moment bothered both Plant Principal Jack Marley and Plant Head Coach Roland Acosta, who doubted interest in the game would warrant a change of venue.

"We can handle up to 10,000 and I don't think we'll have more than that," Marley said.

For his part, Acosta predicted "there will be less people than you might expect."

The School Board disagreed, voting to move the game from Dads Stadium to Tampa Stadium. Anyone wanting to see the contest would have the opportunity.

"Common sense tells you that we needed to change the venue," Sytsma recalls. "I think the initial reaction by Plant is that they were ticked about the game moving, but it was good for both programs. We wanted everyone to see the game and the big thing was, the kids got the exposure and opportunity to play in a venue like Tampa Stadium."

There would be plenty of parking, plenty of available tickets and plenty of hype leading up to the game.

"It was in the papers and on television all that week, every day and night," Sytsma says.

People were drawn to the off-field contrasts between the two teams, despite their many similarities on the field. Both were defensive-minded teams that had given up a combined 80 points in 16 games. On the other side of the ball, each squad averaged 20-plus points per game. Sytsma describes his Plant City squad as a hard-working bunch who loved to play the game.

"We were pretty balanced on both sides of the ball," he says. "They weren't spectacular, but they played the game right."

Acosta predicted victory in this game for one reason: experience.

"Our kids have watched Plant win big games before and they've played in some big wins themselves," Acosta said. "We don't need any home field advantage to win."

On Nov. 9, 1979, all the hype and controversy surrounding the relocation of the game gave way to a simple battle between two teams with one goal: a district championship.

In front of an estimated crowd of 23,620 -- a Hillsborough County high school record -- the two schools played a game that lived up to all the anticipation. Both defenses succeeded in making life miserable for the opposing offenses, as neither team found success in sustaining drives.

An early Plant City fumble led to Plant's first touchdown, a 10-yard run by Reggie Walker to give his team a 7-0 lead. The score would remain that way until the third quarter, when Plant City turned a Plant fumble to their advantage.

Rudy Guion scored from six yards out to cap a 58-yard drive, and Plant City seemed poised to tie the game. Plant City kicker Chuck Everidge, however, pushed the extra-point attempt wide left, and instead of tying the game, the Raiders trailed the Panthers, 7-6.

With just 5:53 left in the fourth quarter, Plant running back Harold Ricks iced the game on a 39-yard touchdown dash up the middle to give his team a 14-6 lead.

Plant City got as close as the Plant 37 with 2:43 left in the game, but turned the ball over on downs and never regained possession. Plant defeated Plant City 14-6 and captured the District 7 championship.

A heartbreaking defeat for Plant City, but an experience that Sytsma says has proven unforgettable now 30 years later.

"When I see some of the kids from that team, that's something we always come back to," he says. "It was a big thing for the school, the city, the fans, but also for the players themselves. I don't think I've seen anything like that game since -- having over 23,000 for a high school game -- that would require a venue change or that so many people have gotten wrapped up with. And it was a well-played, close game that could have gone differently."

The city slickers vs the country boys. Plant vs Plant City. More than 23,000 in attendance at Tampa Stadium. A district championship hanging in the balance.

It was, as Sytsma says, "the perfect setting for the perfect storm."

Monday, November 2, 2009

Catching Up With Brian Bradley, Part II

When he announced his retirement from the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1999, Brian Bradley ranked as the most prolific offensive player in team history. His 300 points in a Lightning sweater – 111 goals, 189 assists – highlighted a career that began in the 1985-86 season with the Calgary Flames. In 1992, the Lightning selected Bradley from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL Expansion Draft. During the team’s first season, Bradley led the team with 42 goals and 86 points, earning the first of his two career All-Star Game appearances. Though injuries forced him from the game prematurely, Bradley remains one of the Lightning’s all-time greats. He recently sat down to talk about his career in Tampa and how he remains involved with the organization today. The following is the second of a two-part interview with Brian Bradley.

Q. After three seasons at the ThunderDome, the Lightning finally opened its own building, the Ice Palace, on October 20, 1996. What were your thoughts going into the opening home game against the New York Rangers?

A. To play Opening Night against the Rangers and Wayne Gretzky at home in front of 20,000 people, I mean, it was a special moment for all of us. Expo Hall and ThunderDome served their purpose, but the Ice Palace was a true hockey building. It really felt similar to Opening Night in 1992. I was fortunate enough to score the first goal, and the guy who scored the next one was Gretzky.

Q. The Lightning fell short of returning to the playoffs during the 1996-97 season, and began to decline as a team over the following years. To what do you attribute that fall-off?

A. After the playoff season, it got to the point where the organization could not afford to keep all of its players. We went from a competitive playoff team to a situation where ownership had to release or trade a bunch of veteran players. As you know, you can’t just throw young kids in the lineup and expect them to do as well as veterans. We struggled a bit and injuries started to take their toll as well.

Q. It was about that time that you developed a nagging wrist injury and had a serious concussion that kept you off the ice.

A. I think the wrist injury developed in the 1996 playoffs, but I continued playing until the 1997-98 season. Then I had the major concussion injury during a game at Los Angeles in November of 1997. The injury was severe enough that the doctors didn’t want me to take a chance again of playing. I had post-concussion syndrome for two years. I wasn’t feeling good, had migraines, and would get dizzy at certain times of day. It took a long time for me to get back to where I could function.

Q. You were called out for not playing hurt by teammate Dino Ciccarelli. At the time, that really had to sting coming from a guy in your own dressing room questioning your heart.

A. I’ve talked to Dino since then and he’s apologized to me. I think at the time I went down, the Lightning had lost 9 out of 10 games. We had a bad, bad start. It was frustrating for me because I had to deal with the concussion injury, the headaches, then trying to work out and getting sick. To have someone say something like, “our best player isn’t here because he doesn’t want to play,” I took it right to heart. I’d been with the organization for six straight years, and for someone to say that when the doctors didn’t clear me to play, I felt that wasn’t the right thing to do. I’d never been injured up until that time, so it was difficult to hear someone say that and not know the circumstances. I was going up to the University of Florida Shands Hospital every six months for tests, and the doctors would not clear me to play.
So, what could I do in terms of going on the ice to help the team? Doctors told me I still had post-concussion symptoms, and if I were to go on the ice and get hit, I could die. I don’t think the players really knew the ramifications and seriousness of the injury. I understood the seriousness though at that point, and I felt better after three years.

Q. Did you entertain the idea of coming back to play?

A. By that time, I was 36 years old. Could I have attempted a comeback? Maybe. But the doctors said, “It’s too risky to come back and try to play at your age. You’re married with three kids, you should think about doing something else and enjoy your life.” Yeah, I wanted to come back, but I didn’t want to take the chance of being in a coma the rest of my life or not getting to see my kids grow up.

Q. You’re back with the Lightning this season. What is your new role?

A. I’m the Director of Youth Hockey. I go out into the community and work with young hockey players at all levels. We’ve come up with a program called “Lightning Made,” where we set up clinics at rinks around the community.

Q. What do you make of the explosion of youth hockey in this area?

A. Well, I really think it’s just starting. The previous ownership really didn’t do a lot for youth hockey over the last 10 years, but the new group has the same vision I do. You need to go out in the community and have exposure at all the different rinks. We’re working at Brandon, Ellenton, Oldsmar, Clearwater and rinks as far east as Orlando and Daytona Beach. We have clinics once a month for kids, and we have kids come to our rink to promote the game, give them proper teaching, work with the coaches, work with the high school programs. We’re really trying to do a lot in terms of being active in the community, and I’m excited because giving back is what we want to do to further the sport of hockey.

Q. Some quick questions. What are your thoughts on original Lightning Head Coach Terry Crisp?

A. The thing about Terry Crisp is if you went out and worked hard, did your job, at the end of the day you could just sit down with him, have a beer and relax. With most coaches, that’s something you can’t do. Yeah, he was hard on some of the players and liked to yell and scream, but when you left the rink he’d still come up and ask how things were going and treat you like a human being.

Q. Who was the toughest guy you ever played with?

A. Enrico Ciccone, by far. Rudy Poeschek is right up there, but Ciccone was very, very tough, and he was always game to fight every night.

Q. Finally, two of the best players in Lightning history have worn the number 19: Brian Bradley and Brad Richards. Should the Lightning go ahead and just retire the number already?

A. (laughs) Well, I think they’ve got someone wearing it this year. You know what, Brad was a great player, won a Stanley Cup here and the Conn Smythe Trophy as well. I’m glad I paved the way wearing the number for six years, but was really glad to see a guy like Brad Richards – who’s a classy guy and a great player – wear the number after me.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Catching Up With Brian Bradley, Part I

When he announced his retirement from the Tampa Bay Lightning in 1999, Brian Bradley ranked as the most prolific offensive player in team history. His 300 points in a Lightning sweater – 111 goals, 189 assists – highlighted a career that began in the 1985-86 season with the Calgary Flames. In 1992, the Lightning selected Bradley from the Toronto Maple Leafs in the NHL Expansion Draft. During the team’s first season, Bradley led the team with 42 goals and 86 points, earning the first of his two career All-Star Game appearances. Though injuries forced him from the game prematurely, Bradley remains one of the Lightning’s all-time greats. He recently sat down to talk about his career in Tampa and how he remains involved with the organization today. The following is the first of a two-part interview with Brian Bradley.

Q. What was it like coming to Tampa for the first time in 1992 and seeing the place you were going to play hockey?

A. It was actually exciting, and interesting just to see the Fairgrounds for the first time. I’d played in Calgary, Vancouver and then Toronto, where Maple Leaf Gardens was like a hockey shrine. Expo Hall really wasn’t set up as an NHL facility, but we made the best of it over there. The weather is always great here, and I knew coming down that I’d look forward to getting some sun in the winter especially after playing in three Canadian cities (laughs).

Q. Coming from Maple Leaf Gardens, it had to feel like you’d gone back to juniors playing in a building like Expo Hall.

A. Absolutely. I played juniors in London, Ontario, in a building that was about the same stature as Expo Hall. I remember the stands at the Fairgrounds were all aluminum, so they were noisy as anything. The building only held 10,000 or so for hockey, but in a place like that fans could make a lot of noise. It was a noisy building, which was very nice, but there’s no way that today you could ever have a building like that in the NHL.

Q. What are your memories of Opening Night in 1992 against Chicago?

A. Well, we had a really good team that people probably underestimated at the beginning. We had some young kids -- with Roman Hamrlik being our first-round pick that year -- but we had a core group of older guys like me, Joe Reekie, Rob Ramage, Basil McRae, Doug Crossman, and Wendell Young in goal. We went out there as a team and played solidly. The Blackhawks had gone to the Finals the year before, and probably expected to come out and beat an expansion team 5-0 or 10-0. We had a lot of pride and respect for our jersey, so we went out there and worked hard. Chris Kontos had a four-goal night, we won 7-3, and the rest is history.

Q. Do you think that win helped kick-start the passion for hockey that took off in this area?

A. I think so. We got off to a good start and built on it the whole season. We caught a lot of good teams off guard. It wasn’t until about Christmas time that teams started to realize that, yes, we were an expansion team, but we weren’t a bunch of rookies. Some guys had played 800-plus games in the NHL, so they knew we weren’t young kids. I think the novelty wore off on a lot of teams though, and as time went on it was tougher for us to win.

Q. You had a career season with goals and points. Do you attribute it to more ice time or better chemistry with your linemates?

A. I think it was a little of both. I had some chemistry with John Tucker and Rob Zamuner, but I definitely think it had to do with having more experience. Things never worked out in Toronto according to plan, so I just wanted to come down here, regroup and focus on my career. I played hard, earned ice time and things went my way. It started with a good off-season that year. I got in better condition .To be honest, I think I even exceeded my expectations. I thought maybe I’d score 30 goals, and ended up with 42. I had a very successful season that was a culmination of the training regiments I started in the beginning of the summer.

Q. You were rewarded with a trip to Montreal to play in the All-Star Game. What was that experience like?

A. Well, the two big things from that season were the first game, and then to play my first All-Star Game in Montreal. I played on a line with Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull for a little bit. To be in the All-Star Game was a very special moment in my career and it’s something I’ll never forget.

Q. In 1993, you went from Expo Hall to the ThunderDome. How did it differ going from playing in basically a barn to a baseball stadium?

A. Yeah, it was a totally different atmosphere. You had the FanLand set up in the back for kids. It was a fan-friendly situation and made for great interaction with our fans. I think those were three really fun years. We had some major crowds there, breaking all kinds of league attendance records. I think you could even get a ticket for five or ten dollars, so people would show up at the last minute. It all really culminated when we made it to the first round of the playoffs against the Philadelphia Flyers in 1996.

Q. What was it about that 1995-95 team that clicked so well?

A. Well, we built a solid team. We had three really solid lines, we had Daren Puppa in net, who was the key to our team and our MVP that year. We had Paul Ysebaert, Brian Bellows, Alex Selivanov, Bill Houlder, Petr Klima was a huge part of our power play, Chris Gratton and Roman Hamrlik were up-and-coming kids. We were made up of guys who’d been the league a long time, and we picked up some key components along the way. Daren injured his back in the first game of the playoffs and wasn’t as strong as he could have been. That really hurt our chances, to lose a goalie of that magnitude. We lost the series four games to two, but Philly definitely knew they were in a series.

Q. You were on the ice for the overtime winner in Game 3. What are your memories of that goal?

A. I had the puck on the half-wall and threw it back to Billy Houlder on the point. He took a shot on goal, and Alex grabbed the rebound and shot it in. Just to hear the crowd of 26,000 erupt was something special. We went up two games to one at that point. I think it was a really fun time for the fans here. They were so excited for us and those were special moments for the Lightning franchise.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Florida Federal Open, 10/14/84

On the morning of October 14, 1984, Michelle Torres fought off the nerves one might feel going into a tournament final. Instead of being anxious, Torres felt relaxed and confident of her chances in the championship of the Florida Federal Tennis Open in Tarpon Springs.

“There was no pressure,” she recalls. “I felt like I was out there having fun and trying to do my best.”

At just 17 years old and in her fourth week on the pro tour, no one could have faulted Torres for butterflies in her stomach. Instead, she delivered a steely performance that would make even the unflappable Chris Evert – the player after whom she patterned her game – quite proud.

As she geared up for the match, Torres found herself a long way from home. Still a senior at New Trier West High School in Northfield, Ill., Torres straddled the line somewhere between being a carefree high school student and serious touring pro.

"When a tournament ended, I went back to my high school," she says. "Since I was only on the tour part-time, it didn’t feel like a job. It was more of a thing on the side for fun.”

She’d prepared herself for life as a pro, however, by spending two weeks at a time in Bradenton the previous year training with tennis guru Nick Bollettieri. Already a state high school tennis champion, and at one time ranked as the 10th best junior player in the world, Torres felt like she belonged on the tour.

The previous month, she made waves in Ft. Lauderdale at the Maybelline Classic, making it all the way to the finals. Her opponent in that match: Martina Navratilova. A young player new to the tour could not have drawn a less-favorable matchup. From 1982-84, Navratilova dropped a total of six singles matches during one of the most dominant stretches by any athlete in any sport.

Torres left Ft. Lauderdale a witness to that dominance, falling 6-1, 6-0.

“That was an embarrassing experience,” she says. “I had not played her before and wasn’t prepared for her style. She had this left-handed kick serve which I wasn’t used to, and her serve-and-volley game the way she’d come into net behind these amazing drop shots. I wasn’t disappointed though, because overall I had a great week. I just felt bad because people had paid to come see the finals and it would have been nice to make a match out of it.”

Wiser for the experience, she entered the Florida Federal with as good a chance as anyone in the draw. Navratilova, the defending champion, declined to play in the tournament due to scheduling conflicts. Hana Mandikova, a winner of four Grand Slams and the fourth-ranked woman in the world, presented the biggest challenge to Torres’ chances.

Torres opened the tournament with victories over Ann Henrickson and Mary Lou Piatek to set up a quarterfinal match with No. 3 seed and Largo resident Bonnie Gadusek. Torres made short work of Gadusek in the quarters, 6-3, 6-4, to avenge a defeat earlier in the year at the Virginia Slims of Florida.

Tournament favorite Mandikova, suffering from flu symptoms and a 102-degree temperature, dropped the first set in her quarterfinal against Camille Benjamin before retiring from the match. So instead of facing Mandikova, Torres drew the unseeded Benjamin in the semifinals.

Benjamin was no pushover, however, and raced to a 4-3 advantage in the first set. Torres rallied back to take the first set 6-4, then held on in a thrilling second-set tiebreaker, winning 7-6 (7-2).

That set up a showdown with fellow 17 year old and recent U.S. Open semifinalist Carling Bassett. Bassett, the daughter of Tampa Bay Bandits managing partner John Bassett, came into the tournament ranked 10th in the world and riding a high from her recent run of success in New York. The two Bollettieri proteges were each seeking their first pro tournament titles.

"I had played Carling in practice, and was familiar with her game, as she was with mine," Torres recalls. "Going into the finals, you feel comfortable and aren't intimidated with what you're going to see.

Carling didn't play very well in the first set. She made a lot of errors, which was great for me because I got an easy set and was halfway to winning the match. All I had to do was hang in there. She played a lot better in the second set, but I think she was just nervous that day. I stayed mentally tough and remember eeking it out in a 2nd set tiebreaker."

Torres captured the match 6-1, 7-6 (7-4) along with a check for $28,000. She vividly remembers the trophy presentation, which included the requisite giant check, and for some reason, a photo op of her holding a chimpanzee.

"I asked my mom if I could buy it, but she said no," Torres recalls with a laugh.

Her triumph in Tarpon Springs was the sole championship during a career in which Torres rose to as high as No. 18 in the world before retiring in 1989.

Torres, now known by her married name of Michelle Casati, remains active in tennis as an instructor in Northbrook, Illinois. The passage of time, however, has done little to dull her memories of that week a quarter-century ago.

"I think about it now and then because it was my only win on the pro tour," she says. "As a teen, you really don't take it in as much as when you're older and have the benefit of time to appreciate it."

Monday, October 12, 2009

Super Saturday in Tampa, 10/11/69

Ever since the University of South Florida began playing football in 1997, local fans have become accustomed to having the Bulls and Tampa Bay Buccaneers play home games on the same weekend. See the Bulls on Saturday, go see the Bucs on Sunday and have a nice football doubleheader.

On a warm fall Saturday 40 years ago, football fans experienced something even better than two games in two days. That's because on October 11, 1969, Tampa Stadium played host to two college football games on the same day, a mega-event that became known as Super Saturday. Prior to the playing of Super Bowl XVIII in 1984, this arguably ranked as the biggest sporting event in Tampa history.

The West Coast Bowl Association, sponsors for the first half of the twin-bill featuring the University of Florida and the Tulane Green Wave, anticipated a sellout crowd approaching 52,000.

Meanwhile, University of Tampa Athletic Director Sam Bailey anticipated a crowd of 23,000 for the nightcap between his Spartans and the University of Tulsa Hurricanes, which would approach the school’s single-game attendance record of 23,865.

Just how did this event come together? For starters, the West Coast Bowl Association purchased the game from Tulane, which had been scheduled to host the Gators in New Orleans. Tulane earned a payday of $105,000, or $610,000 in today’s dollars, while Tampa Stadium reaped the financial rewards that accompanied a local appearance by the Gators.
Some boosters of the University of Tampa, however, saw the Gator game as an intrusion that would overshadow their game. UT simply could not match Florida in terms of prestige, fan support, or sponsorship dollars. Still, hosting both games would be a winning proposition as a whole for the city of Tampa.

There was plenty of off-field entertainment and festivities to go along with the football games as well. Prior to the 2 p.m. Florida-Tulane game, the Florida Alumni Club of Greater Tampa hosted a lunch pep rally at Al Lopez Field. The Columbia Restaurant catered the event, called the “Futbol Fiesta-Dos,” which featured performances by the Gator band and cheerleaders, the Plant High School German band and an appearance by Florida head coach Ray Graves.
Between games, fans could return to Al Lopez Field for the “Super Supper,” an event featuring the Miss Tampa Quarterback beauty contest and a concert by recording artist and Florida orange juice pitchwoman Anita Bryant. For her part, Bryant predicted a Florida win but the Oklahoma-native stopped short of saying Tampa would defeat Tulsa.

“I’m sorry Tampa, but old school ties are there,” she said.

Despite Bryant’s protestations, the Spartans were motivated in this game to avenge a 77-0 thrashing at the hands of the Tulsa Hurricanes two seasons earlier. The Gators, who came into their contest against the winless Green Wave undefeated and ranked 12th in the nation, simply hoped to avoid an upset.

“Tulane always gives us fits,” Graves warned prior to the game.

The “host” Green Wave indeed gave more than fits to Florida - they nearly stole the show.
It took a touchdown in the game’s final minutes by Florida to avoid a huge upset. With 2:10 left, tailback Tommy Durrance scored from 1 yard out to pull Florida within a point of Tulane, 17-16.

Urged on by the partisan crowd of 49,102, Graves signaled that the Gators would go for the win rather than settle for a tie. Robinson High product and Gator quarterback John Reaves tossed a pass to Carlos Alvarez in the end zone for a successful two-point conversion, giving Florida an 18-17 lead. An interception on the ensuing drive preserved the heart-stopping victory for the Gators.

The Spartans had no such difficulties in handling the Hurricanes. Before a below-projected but still healthy crowd of 20,179, the Spartans thoroughly outplayed Tulsa on both sides of the ball. Running backs Bruce Brown and Leon McQuay paced Tampa on the ground, combining for three touchdowns en route to a 31-14 victory.

In all, nobody could ask for a better day. The Gators and Spartans each won, the “Futbol Fiesta” and “Super Supper” were both huge hits, and a total of 63,281 fans turned out at Tampa Stadium on the day. In its own way, the day billed as “Super Saturday” helped set the stage for the many Super Sundays awaiting Tampa’s future.

Monday, October 5, 2009

James Wilder Leads Bucs to Win, 9/30/84

On Nov. 8, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will debut their Ring of Honor during halftime against the Green Bay Packers. Lee Roy Selmon, the team's only player in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, will be the first inductee.

The Ring of Honor -- not to be confused with the previous Tampa Stadium Krewe of Honor featuring Selmon, Ricky Bell, Doug Williams and John McKay -- will feature just one inductee per year and include players and coaches who left an indelible mark on the franchise.

One can only speculate who will be the second inductee in 2010, but a sometimes-overlooked player in Buccaneers history merits worthy consideration: running back James Wilder.

Taken in the second round of the 1981 draft out of the University of Missouri, Wilder played nine seasons for the Buccaneers. Arguably the best running back to ever wear a Bucs uniform, against the Green Bay Packers on Sept. 30, 1984, Wilder proved why he should someday join Selmon as an inductee in the Ring of Honor. Consider that just a week earlier, New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor called Wilder the "best back I've ever played against in my life." He then turned in one of his best games of the season against Green Bay.

In front of 47,487 fans at Tampa Stadium, the Buccaneers and Packers both stumbled into the game with matching 1-3 marks. They delivered, however, one of the more exciting games of 1984.

Wilder opened the scoring in the first quarter with a 33-yard touchdown run, at the time the second-longest scoring run by a Buc at Tampa Stadium.

Things quickly took a crazy turn as Tampa Bay linebacker Scot Brantley intercepted Packer Lynn Dickey's first pass of the game. One play later, however, Tim Lewis intercepted Buccaneer Steve DeBerg. It took but one play for Jessie Clark to score on a 43-yard touchdown run to even the game at 7-7.

The teams traded field goals and were tied 10-10 until late in the second quarter. As the half neared its end, DeBerg engineered a 10-play, 83-yard scoring drive capped by his six-yard bootleg run for a touchdown. Leading 17-10 with 30 seconds left in the half, however, the Bucs gave up a quick 4-play drive that resulted in a 51-yard field goal by Packer Eddie Garcia to make the score 17-13 going into the break.

DeBerg's second interception of the game set Green Bay up at the Tampa Bay 16 late in the third quarter. It took 5 plays, but a 4-yard Lynn Dickey touchdown pass to Paul Coffman put the Packers on top 20-17.

The Buccaneers responded on their subsequent drive. Kicker Obed Ariri -- who would successfully kick three field goals of over 40 yards on the day -- nailed a 49-yarder to tie the game at 20.

With 6:35 remaining in the fourth quarter, Bucs nose tackle David Logan seemed to make the play of the game. Logan intercepted a Dickey screen pass and galloped 27 yards to the end zone, giving Tampa Bay a 27-20 lead.

This set the stage for a miraculous Green Bay comeback. Driving late from their own 25 with no timeouts, the Packers made it to the Tampa Bay 36-yard line. With 8 seconds left, Dickey connected with wide receiver James Lofton on a crossing pattern at the Tampa Bay 22. Surrounded by would-be tacklers, Lofton lateraled to running back Gerry Eillis who took it the rest of the way for a game-tying touchdown.

The Bucs lost the coin toss to start overtime, but the defense forced a Green Bay punt. The Packers pinned the Bucs back at their own 2-yard line, however, and Tampa Bay faced an almost-certain defeat if they were unable to change the field position.

James Wilder made one of the biggest plays of the game for Tampa Bay by catching a 20-yard pass from DeBerg to give Tampa Bay some breathing room. Although the Bucs would punt to end the possession, they would start their next drive on their own 33.

Wilder set the tempo for the drive with a 15-yard carry. Eight plays later, the Bucs had advanced to the Packers 31. The Nigerian-born Ariri then calmly drilled a 48-yard field goal with 4:22 left in overtime to give Tampa Bay a 30-27 win.

Wilder's monster 172-yard day on the ground -- with 44 more receiving -- made the victory possible. After the game, he seemed unaware that he'd tied the NFL single-game record with 43 carries.

"I lost count of how many times I carried the ball," he said. "When you gain a yard, you don't think about how many carries you have."

It has been 25 years since Wilder turned in one of the most dominating offensive seasons in NFL history.

In 1984, Wilder set a then-record with 407 rushing attempts, ran for 1,544 yards and caught 85 passes for 685 yards. Although he fell just 15 yards shy of breaking O.J. Simpson's record of 2,243 all-purpose yards in a season, his 492 total touches from scrimmage for the season remains an NFL record to this day. For this and his other career contributions as a Buccaneer, Wilder should one day take his rightful place in the Ring of Honor.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Hurricanes Top Spartans, 9/28/74

Heading into a September 28, 1974, showdown against the Miami Hurricanes, University of Tampa quarterback Freddie Solomon had every reason to exude confidence.

In a 28-25 loss to San Diego State the previous weekend, the senior rushed for 185 yards on 22 carries, including an 81-yard touchdown run. Veteran San Diego sports scribe Jack Murphy called him “an outstanding back,” while Aztecs head coach Claude Gilbert said
Solomon had earned his vote for the Heisman Trophy.

Meanwhile, Pete Elliott, head coach of the Hurricanes, chimed in with praise for Solomon even as his team prepared to stop the dynamic quarterback.

“Fred Solomon,” Elliott said, “is one of the finest football players I’ve seen. Certainly he’s the most dangerous. His running is something out of this world.”

Miami would need to contain Solomon if they would have any chance of snapping a two-game losing streak to the Spartans. As a sophomore, Solomon led the way for Tampa in a 7-0 triumph over favored Miami in 1972.

In the Hurricanes' favor this time, however, was a human hurricane by the name of Rubin Carter. The nose guard -- who was no relation to boxer Rubin “The Hurricane” Carter and never sat like Buddah in a 10-foot cell -- had just earned the Southeastern Lineman of the Week award for his efforts against the Houston Cougars despite being triple-teamed for most of the day.

“He is a notch above the normal,” Elliott said. “He’s got to be one of the best in the country. You talk about him in a special breath.”

Cut from stone and blessed with above-average speed for a big man at 6 foot 3 and 260 pounds, Carter had the potential to disrupt Tampa’s offense all on his own. The Ft. Lauderdale native earned high praise too from George Gallet, Miami’s sports information director for 38 years, who rated Carter the third-best Hurricane of all-time.

Spartans head coach Dennis Fryzel knew his team would face a daunting challenge against Miami as well. He called the 12th-ranked Hurricanes the best team to come into Tampa since the 1967 Tennessee Volunteers, who christened the new Tampa Stadium with a 38-0 whipping of the Spartans. The Hurricanes would be the first top-20 squad and the highest-ranked team ever to play the Spartans since their showdown against the Vols seven years earlier.

“You want to talk about a complete football team,” Fryzel said, “you talk about the University of Miami.”

The anticipation of seeing stars Solomon and Carter go at it helped push attendance to 41,672 – the second-largest crowd ever for a UT game -- on a warm and humid night at Tampa Stadium. The showdown more than lived up to the hype.

Solomon, as usual, put on a performance that left both sides in awe. The Hurricanes failed to contain Solomon, and he nearly matched his output from the previous week by rushing for 182 yards on 19 carries with three touchdowns -- two by land and one by air.

“Two words, just two words,” Rubin Carter said following the game. “Freddie Solomon.”

A relieved Pete Elliott remarked: “One thing I won’t have to worry about again in my life is how to stop Fred Solomon.”

For all of his efforts, however, the contest is remembered today for two special teams plays that changed the game’s outcome. In the fourth quarter, Miami’s Paul Horschel blocked two Kinny Jordan field goal attempts from 18 and 21 yards.

The last block, coming at the Hurricanes 1-yard line, caused the most distress amongst Spartan fans. Trailing 21-19 with 8:57 left in the game, the Spartans elected to kick a field goal rather than go for a touchdown.

Miami recovered the blocked kick at the 35-yard line, and proceeded to salt away the game on a time-consuming, 65-yard drive that culminated in a 1-yard touchdown run by Don Martin. The Hurricanes took a 28-19 lead, and a too-little, too-late touchdown by the Spartans in the last minute made the final score 28-26.

After the game, Fryzel defended his decision to kick a field goal despite having had an attempt blocked just a few minutes earlier.

“We felt the way that the defense was playing, Miami would not score,” he said. “We would have been ahead 22-21 and that would have been final.”

The Hurricanes may have escaped as victors, but left with more than a little respect for the Spartans.

“That’s one of the fightingest bunch of football players I’ve ever seen,” said Miami quarterback Kary Baker. “They fought us all the way.”

Monday, September 21, 2009

Gators Top the Terps, 9/21/74

While detractors of the University of Florida like to claim the Gators never play non-conference teams on the road, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, 35 years ago the Gators packed their bags to play a road game against the University of Maryland ... in Tampa.

Yes, on Sept. 21, 1974, the Terrapins and Gators squared off at Tampa Stadium in a contest that served as a University of Maryland home game. How did this happen?

After the 1965 season, the two schools signed an agreement to play home-and-home contests. The West Coast Sports Association, the sponsors responsible for bringing Gator games to Tampa, later contacted Maryland about moving the game to Tampa Stadium.

When the agreement between the schools was originally signed, the Gators had just made a Sugar Bowl appearance and the Terrapins were coming off a losing season and head coaching change.

The first game in the series (although the 12th overall) came in 1971, when the Gators barely escaped with a 27-23 win at The Swamp in Gainesville.

Coming into the 1974 meeting, however, the Gators were facing a Maryland team tied with them for the No. 14 ranking in the United Press International poll. The Terrapins finished 1973 with an 8-4 record -- the school's first winning record since 1962 -- and a berth in the Peach Bowl.

Maryland, 0-1 after a close opening loss to top-ranked Alabama, was clearly a favorite to challenge for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. Installed as a six-point favorite against Florida, the Terps figured to give the 1-0 Gators a run for their money.

"I'd have to say when we signed Maryland," said Florida athletic director Ray Graves," the idea was for a breather. Now look what I've gotten (Florida head coach) Doug Dickey into."

The late-arriving crowd of 41,410 knew from the get-go that the game would be no breather for the Gators. On the third play of the game, Florida quarterback Don Gaffney fumbled and Maryland's Harry Walters recover the ball at the Gator 27.

The defense stiffened, however, and limited the Terps to a 31-yard field goal attempt. The kick by Steve Mike-Mayer was good and the Gators quickly trailed 3-0.

The game then settled into a defensive struggle for most of the first quarter. Early in the second quarter, freshman running back Tony Green energized the Gators with two big carries. Running from his own 35-yard line, Green sprinted 35 yards into Maryland territory at the 30-yard line. Just two plays later, Green again broke loose on a marvelous run, breaking two tackles en route to a 26-yard touchdown run. A successful extra point gave Florida a 7-3 lead.

Maryland answered right back with a touchdown of its own. A halfback pass by future Tampa Bay Buccaneer Louis Carter to Walter White set up the Terps at the Florida 7-yard line. John Schultz punched it in two plays later to give his team a 10-7 lead heading into the half.

The third quarter belonged to Florida. The Gators were able to march down the field on their opening drive of the half. Walk-on kicker David Posney attempted a 49-yard field goal -- the longest of his career -- into a strong wind and just barely cleared the uprights to tie the game at 10-10.

Although he missed a 41-yard try later in the quarter, the Gators were imposing their will defensively and a Wayne Fields interception set up Florida in Maryland territory at the 28.

Quarterback Jimmy Fisher of Tampa led the Gators on what would be the deciding scoring drive of the game. On 3rd-and-12 from the Maryland 17, Fisher connected with Plant High product Lee McGriff at the 2-yard line. McGriff then shed two tacklers and found his way into the end zone for the score. Following the successful extra point, Florida took a 17-10 lead into the final quarter.

The teams both played a tight fourth quarter, and Maryland had one quality chance to tie the game late. Facing 3rd-and-2 at the Florida 17, Richard Jennings gained the first down but fumbled after a jarring hit by Tyson Sever. Glenn Cameron recovered for the Gators at the 12 to all but seal the game for Florida with three minutes left in the game.

The win sent the Gators to a 2-0 mark, while the Terps fell to 0-2 on the young season. Maryland would recover, however, and go on to win the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. The Gators, meanwhile, slumped later in the season en route to an 8-4 mark and a Sugar Bowl berth.

The Terrapins would ultimately avenge the defeat in Tampa one season later, as the two teams met in the 1975 Gator Bowl, a game Maryland would win 13-0.