Monday, August 11, 2008

Redskins vs Falcons Exhibition, 8/10/68

As the city of Tampa readies itself for the upcoming Super Bowl XLIII in February 2009, it is interesting to think about how much the local sports scene has progressed in the last 40 years.

In the absence of Major League Baseball, going to a ballgame meant a trip to Al Lopez Field to see the Class-A Tampa Tarpons of the Florida State League. The University of Tampa still had a football team, and had just moved into brand-new Tampa Stadium. Professional sports such as soccer, football and hockey were either years or decades away. Late in the summer of 1968, however, the dream of professional football in Tampa took its first major step towards becoming a reality.

On the afternoon of Aug. 10, 1968, President Lyndon Johnson hosted lunch at his Texas ranch for the just-announced Republican presidential ticket of Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew to discuss the war in Vietnam. Nearly 1,900 miles away, the city of Tampa rolled out its own welcome mat as host for the Atlanta Falcons and Washington Redskins. The worries of the day – the war, inner-city riots, and political assassinations - were briefly put aside because, for one night, the National Football League had come to Tampa.

The contest, dubbed the Suncoast NFL Football Classic, was sponsored by the Tampa Jaycees (Tampa Junior Chamber of Commerce) and spearheaded by Jaycee president Bill Marcum. In the years that followed, Marcum played an instrumental role in bringing the NFL to Tampa full-time.

The crowd for the game exceeded all expectations. The Jaycees would have broken even at the 20,000 mark, and would have considered 30,000 a major success. More than 42,000 showed up for the game, at the time the largest crowd to ever attend a sporting event on the state’s West Coast. This despite weather reports warning of a 90-percent chance of rain and gridlock in traffic that caused thousands to miss the start of the game. Many, in fact, couldn’t find nearby parking and weren’t able to reach their seats until after the start of the second half.

By contrast, a game played four years earlier had set a low standard for success. The upstart American Football League came to town for an exhibition between the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets on August 9, 1964. The game, held in a breadbox of a stadium called Phillips Field, drew a crowd of only 5,887. To compound the embarrassing attendance, game promoter Mac Mascioli found himself $39,000 in the hole for his efforts. The construction of Tampa Stadium truly paved the way for exhibition games such as these to succeed. While professional teams could be lured to Tampa because of its state-of-the-art facility, fans would turn out in droves out of curiosity or to take pride in the city’s newest jewel.

Many raved about Tampa Stadium, which had just opened in November 1967. Redskin head coach Otto Graham called the turf the best he had ever seen and likened it to a putting green. Bill Kastelz, a reporter for the Jacksonville Times-Union, called the stadium “perfect” and suggested Jacksonville start over by leveling its own stadium, the Gator Bowl.

Certainly the teams on the field didn’t much matter to those in attendance. The Falcons and Redskins hardly represented the best and brightest of the NFL. The Falcons were an expansion team created just two years earlier, and finished the 1967 season with a 1-12-1 record. Washington, mired in mediocrity, hadn’t enjoyed a winning season since 1955. The Redskins could at least boast of a few marquee players in future Hall of Fame quarterback Sonny Jurgensen, the NFL’s leading passer in 1967, future Hall of Fame wide receiver Charley Taylor and tight end Jerry Smith, two of the best ball-catchers in the league. Jurgensen, however, did not play in the game due to an injury to his throwing arm.

The game itself provided plenty of excitement after a scoreless first half. Atlanta opened the scoring on an interception return for a touchdown with 8:59 left in the third quarter. Trailing 7-0, the Redskins answered on their ensuing possession with a 24-yard field goal by Charlie Gogolak to trim Atlanta’s lead by three.

The Falcons responded just 39 seconds later with a 52-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Randy Johnson to tight end Ray Ogden to make the score 14-3. This set the stage for furious fourth quarter rally by the Redskins.

A 43-yard field goal by Gogolak early in the fourth quarter pulled Washington to within 8 points of Atlanta, a two-score deficit in the days prior to two-point conversions. Running back Ray McDonald scored on a plunge from the 1 yard line with just 1:58 remaining to cut the lead to 14-13.

On the ensuing kickoff, the Redskins were flagged for offsides, a 5-yard penalty. Taking advantage of the opportunity to kick again, Washington recovered an on-side attempt at their own 49 yard line. With just 23 seconds remaining and the ball at the Atlanta 38, Gogolak came on to attempt the game-winner. The Hungarian-born Gogolak, who had missed the entire 1967 season with a leg injury, nailed the 44-yard attempt to give Washington a 16-14 comeback victory.

After the game, Tampa Mayor Dick Greco called the event “a great day for Tampa and [Florida's] West Coast,” saying “I don’t know when I’ve been so proud of our city.” Greco correctly predicted the game as the first “of many great ball games in this stadium.”

Even flush with success and pride, not Greco, the game’s organizers nor fans in attendance could have predicted that 40 years later the city would be preparing to host its fourth Super Bowl. The road to Super Bowl XLIII began with the Falcons, Redskins, Bill Marcum and the Jaycees in 1968. The former mayor couldn’t have put it any better when he said: “We owe them a debt of gratitude.”

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