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.