Monday, May 25, 2009

George Foreman at the Armory, 5/23/69

On May 23, 1969, Muhammed Ali announced that he would retire from boxing forever because the sport ran counter to his religious convictions. The previous evening in Tampa, one phase of another boxer's life concluded for real: the amateur career of boxer George Foreman.

After a three month absence, boxing returned to the Fort Homer Hesterly Armory with the Olympic heavyweight champion highlighting the card. The event would mark the 20-year-old Foreman's last bout as an amateur.

Long before any rumbles in the jungle or best-selling fat-grilling machines, the Houston native scaled the heights of his sport just nine months earlier in Mexico City.

In October 1968, George Foreman defeated Ionas Chepulis of the Soviet Union with a TKO to capture the Olympic gold medal. Foreman endeared himself to those watching at home by waving a tiny American flag in the ring following his match -- quite the contrast to the black-fisted salutes on the medal stand by Olympic sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos.

Foreman also appeared to be the ideal contrast to Ali. Unlike Ali, who had his heavyweight championship stripped following his draft dodging conviction, Foreman brandished his patriotism openly.

"I got a military obligation, and I'm going to honor it," Foreman said at the time. "When it's my time to go, I'll go. I plan to make a lot of money in this country and spend a lot here, too. This is my country. I'll do right by it."

Manager Dick Sadler, who also handled the career of Sonny Liston, knew Foreman could eventually climb the ranks of professional boxing.

"He's a diamond in the rough," Sadler said of Foreman. "He's an untapped oil well. He can hit with either hand. He can think and coordinate his fists with his brain. That's important. He has the power in both hands that others don't."

The crowd of just over 1,000 fans at the Armory knew they weren't going to get a 12-round slugfest so much as the chance to see an Olympic hero. Foreman didn't really come to Tampa to box his opponent George Savage, either, so much as to put on a show.

"We're not here to try and hurt each other," he said.

In fact, Foreman mostly toyed with the outgunned Savage in a no-decision three round fight. Sporting a "USA" t-shirt, Foreman dodged and ducked Savage, who landed only two clean shots to the face of the gold medalist.

The crowd still enjoyed the bout and showered the boxers with plenty of applause. These would be the last moments Foreman would spend in the ring as an amateur fighter.

The next day in Houston, Foreman signed his first pro contract with Sadler, who indicated on their way out of Tampa that Foreman would one day return for a big-time bout.

It took Foreman a little over three years and 37 wins without a loss to become the world's heavyweight champion. On January 22, 1973, down went Joe Frazier.

Foreman would never again box in Tampa, although he made several appearances in Orlando during his comeback in the late 1980s. On that one night, however, fans at the Armory could say that Tampa sent George Foreman on his way in style.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Doug Williams Returns to Tampa, 5/14/84

On May 14, 1984, former Buccaneer quarterback Doug Williams returned to Tampa Stadium as a member of the USFL's Oklahoma Outlaws. The game against the Tampa Bandits should have been an occasion for local football fans to offer one last salute to the man who led the Buccaneers to three playoff berths in four seasons. If only life were that simple.

Instead of a hero's welcome, Williams returned to town as public enemy number one. A bitter contract dispute with Buccaneer owner Hugh Culverhouse following the 1982 season, sadly, forced many fans to choose sides.

At the time, Williams made less money than every other starting quarterback in the NFL -- including 12 backup quarterbacks -- and wanted a substantial raise from his base salary of $120,000. Culverhouse failed to meet his contract demands as the two parties were just $200,000 dollars apart. Publicly, Williams asked for $875,000, but had been willing to settle for $600,000. Culverhouse offered $400,000 with a chance to make $600,000 by the third year, an offer which Williams said at the time made him feel unwanted.

Things eventually turned ugly when Williams wondered whether racism was really at the core of Culverhouse's offer, suggesting that if he was white, "Don't you think I'd have gotten what I wanted?" He also questioned whether Head Coach John McKay did enough on his behalf, as McKay called the Culverhouse's bid to keep Williams a "fair offer."

The situation had become untenable by August 1983. Unsure of their quarterback situation, the Buccaneers traded a number one draft pick to the Cincinnati Bengals for backup quarterback Jack Thompson. On August 9, Williams announced his intention to play the following spring in Tulsa for the Oklahoma Outlaws of the USFL. On his way out of town, the quarterback declared that he hoped Tampa Bay would finish 0-16 without him. The team came pretty darned close, finishing the 1983 campaign a disastrous 2-14.

This all set the stage for Williams' dramatic return to Tampa for a Monday night contest against the Bandits at Tampa Stadium. A local coin dealer named Art Arbutine got into the spirit by offering 50 silver dollars -- worth $750 -- to any Bandit player for each sack of Williams. The offer, made purely out of fun, paled in comparison to the vociferous booing Williams endured by Bandit fans.

Many in the local football-watching populace called Williams greedy and selfish, blaming him for turning his back on the Buccaneers and leaving the team a disaster. Williams got an earful from the majority of the 45,000-plus fans as he took the field for his opening offensive drive against the Bandits.

Despite a chorus of boos, Williams completed six of his first seven pass attempts while leading the Outlaws to touchdown on their opening possession. The quarterback did his part to silence the detractors in the stands by tossing three touchdowns in the first half to keep his team -- a 13.5 point underdog -- within seven points of the Bandits, trailing just 28-21 at the half.

For all his heroics in the first half, however, Williams fared just as poorly in the second half, throwing three interceptions and no additional touchdowns. Williams lost his cool after two of the interceptions, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct for arguing with a referee and later an unnecessary roughness call for tackling Bandit safety Tim King out of bounds. The later offense resulted in debris being thrown at Williams from spectators behind the visitor's bench.

On the night, Williams finished 25 of 48 for 347 yards with three touchdowns, but it clearly was not enough against a Bandit offensive-machine that racked up a team-record 511 yards of total offense en route to a 48-21 victory.

While local football fans earned a measure of revenge that night, Williams ultimately found redemption in his career by leading the Washington Redskins to a Super Bowl championship in January 1988, earning the game's Most Valuable Player award in the process. The Buccaneers, meanwhile, would endure a string of 14 consecutive losing seasons from 1983-1996.

Welcomed back to the Buccaneer family with a front office position in 2004, today Williams serves as the team's Coordinator of Pro Scouting, proving that despite the bad blood and hard feelings of the past, it truly is possible to come home again.

“Coming back to play here was emotional because I felt I never should have left anyway,” Williams recalls today. “Playing the Bandits, who were one of the most productive and well-supported teams in the USFL, made it even better. You knew they’d bring their best because I was coming to town.”

The response from the fans that night, he says, was expected and he doesn’t let that cloud his perspective on the present.

“People weren’t really sure why I left Tampa,” he says. “It was a lot different back then. The team really controlled the spin, not the player. People understand that now though and you go forward.

Some people respect what I did, some maybe not, but at the end of the day you just have to roll with the punches. I have enjoyed my time being back here and the respect that has been given to me.”

Monday, May 11, 2009

Tampa Smokers, May 1951

Joe Benito, left, and Charlie Cuellar, right, were two integral players for the Tampa Smokers baseball team in the 1940s and 1950s. Benito, an Ybor City native and a veteran of the Inter-Social League in Tampa, had numerous stints with the Smokers. A fan-favorite and the ultimate utility player, Benito was usually signed when a player of any position suffered an injury. He also put in time with several teams in the Florida State and Florida International Leagues including the Lakeland Pilots, Palatka Azaleas, and the Miami Tourists.

Cuellar, also a native of Ybor City, won 253 games as a minor league pitcher, appearing on 15 minor league teams from 1935-1950. The hurler made his mark with the Smokers by throwing a no-hitter on July 23, 1947, at Plant Field against the Havana Cubans. Cuellar finally reached the major leagues in 1950, throwing 1 1/3 innings for the Chicago White Sox in what would be his only two games at that level.

The teammates are shown here in a May 1951 photograph taken at Plant Field. Benito is now 86 years old and still lives in Tampa, while Cuellar passed away in 1994 at the age of 77.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Bandits v. Federals, 4/28/84

On paper, the April 28, 1984, showdown between the Tampa Bay Bandits and Washington Federals seemed like a sure mismatch. The Federals, one of the worst teams in the USFL at 1-8, came to town for a Saturday night ESPN tilt against the surging Bandits, winners of three straight. While the 6-3 Bandits were jockeying for playoff position in the competitive Southern Division, the Federals merely hoped to be competitive.

Although Washington captured their first victory just a week prior against the winless Oakland Invaders, Tampa Bay refused to look past the downtrodden Federals. Quarterback John Reaves knew the stakes were too high for a letdown.

“We’re in a position where we have to go out every week and win,” Reaves said. “Washington looks good on film. They’ll be all fired up after their first win last week.”

Tampa Bay head coach Steve Spurrier acknowledged the threat of his team becoming complacent as well, particularly given their short week of practice following a Monday night road win over the defending USFL champion Michigan Panthers.

“There’s a definite chance to get complacent if you don’t watch for it,” Spurrier said. “If you go out there and play lazy, they can give you a hard time. We’re planning on this being a tough game.”

On “Tax Relief Night” at Tampa Stadium, the Bandits offered to pay up to $25,000 in taxes for 15 lucky fans. On the field, however, the Bandits would show no such leniency to their guests from Washington, D.C.

The Bandits, a 16.5-point favorite in the game, had little chance of becoming complacent early on as the Federals committed three turnovers on their first three offensive possessions. Tampa Bay boasted one of the hottest defensive units in the league since switching from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme in Week 9, and their stellar play continued against Washington.

Tampa Bay’s defense capitalized early on a Washington miscue, recovering a botched center-snap at the Federals 27 yard line. It took just six plays for Tampa Bay to take advantage. Running back Gary Anderson scored the first of his two touchdowns on the game, leaping into the end zone from one yard out to give the Bandits the early lead.

On the ensuing possession, cornerback Jeff George intercepted Washington quarterback Mike Hohensee in Tampa Bay territory and returned the ball 31 yards to the Washington 43. The Bandits would need only five plays to score this time, the drive capped by a one-yard pass from Reaves to fullback Greg Boone.

Following two turnovers and trailing 14-0, the Federals coughed up the football once again, this time on the ensuing kickoff. The Bandits recovered the ball at the Washington 30 yard line, and would only need four plays to set the rout in motion. Gary Anderson notched his second touchdown of the quarter, this time a 17-yard run, to give Tampa Bay a commanding lead.

The Bandits had run only 15 plays and controlled the ball for just 5:32, but were already up by three touchdowns. The 21 first quarter points tied a team record set during a 45-17 victory over the Birmingham Stallions in 1983.

After surrendering a 51-yard field goal to the Federals on the first play of the second quarter, the Bandits answered with an eight-play, 80-yard drive. Reaves tossed his second touchdown pass of the night, a 20-yard strike to tight end Marvin Harvey, to extend Tampa Bay’s lead. In one Tampa Bay’s few miscues, placekicker Zenon Andrusyshyn botched the extra point leaving his team with a 27-3 lead.

Leading 27-6 after one half, Tampa Bay had been virtually assured of victory. The Bandits were historically 11-0 to that point in games they led at the half and this game would prove no different.

John Reaves tossed his third touchdown pass of the game in the third quarter, an 18-yard strike to receiver Larry Brodsky, and Andrusyshyn added a 44-yard field goal to account for the rest of Tampa Bay’s scoring output. Late meaningless touchdowns by Washington, long after the game had been decided, made the final score of 37-19.

While Reaves’ passing numbers were mostly pedestrian (12 of 24 for 172 yards), his three touchdowns and command of the offense were all Tampa Bay needed to win the game. With the victory, Reaves improved to 12-3 as a starter in a Tampa Bay uniform.

“John had them guessing all night,” said wide receiver Eric Truvillion. “He was on target.”

The victory propelled the 7-3 Bandits into a tie for second place in the Southern Division with the New Orleans Breakers. The Bandits would travel to Jacksonville in Week 11 before returning to Tampa Stadium on May 14 for a game of special interest to the local football watching populace.

The Monday night showdown against the Oklahoma Outlaws, who were quarterbacked by Doug Williams, would mark his first appearance at Tampa Stadium since being released by the Buccaneers following the 1982 season.