The 1954 Hillsborough Terriers reunion celebrates a city championship and, just as importantly, the way the game was played half a century ago.
TAMPA - They played at a time when football was less refined.
They protected their heads with leather, with no facemask, instead of fiberglass helmets. They pulled off pranks when it was considered innocent fun. They didn't blink when asked to play on both sides the entire game. They earned nicknames like All City, Ballhawk, Bowlegs and Machine Gun. They played in heavy, long-sleeve jerseys and practiced in canvass pants.
They were the seniors on the 1954 Hillsborough team and are the group gathered this weekend to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their city championship.
"This is such a thrill to see all these guys together again in one place," lineman Don Williams said. "I've been looking forward to this for a year, and as the day got closer I got more and more excited."
Some of the players had congregated every five years, but with this being the golden anniversary it was the biggest turnout since they were on the field together in their final game. For some players such as quarterback/defensive back Donald Andrews, it was the first reunion with his teammates.
"It's overwhelming to be here with these guys again," Andrews said. "I would have hardly recognized some of these guys, but when I found out who they were, it was like they morphed back into how they looked in high school right before my eyes."
And how they looked fifty years ago vastly differs from high school players today. Weightlifting was frowned upon, offseason conditioning was nonexistent and offensive lineman of 50 years ago would be considered undersized defensive backs today. Consider this: Only two Terriers weighed more than 200 pounds, and the majority of the line was between 150 and 175. This year's Hillsborough offensive line averaged about 270.
"We were advised not to lift weights because we were told it would bound up our muscles," defensive end Cecil Cheek said. "There was a muscled-up guy that came out for the team one year and he just wasn't a good football player, so that was all the proof we needed."
Most of the former players laugh at the equipment that's commonplace in today's game.
Fiberglass helmets didn't come along until a few years after their games, so the old Terriers didn't think twice about protecting their heads with nothing but leather.
"That's why we're all a little dumb now," lineman Raymond Kelly said with a laugh.
The Terriers finished 7-3 in 1954 but would have been just as happy with a 1-9 record, providing that victory came against cross-town rival Plant, one of five public schools in the county then.
"Plant was the snob school," Kelly said. "A successful season was to beat Plant, period."
The crescendo each season was the Thanksgiving Day season finale, when Hillsborough met Plant in the "Turkey Day Game." It was the biggest and brightest stage for these athletes and the city of Tampa.
"The town shut down," Kelly said. "It was the place to be in Tampa after eating Thanksgiving dinner."
More than 10,000 fans packed into Phillips Field on Nov. 26, 1954 to see the Panthers and Terriers battle for supremacy of the city. Both teams had beaten Jefferson, so the Hillsborough/Plant winner would be crowned city champion.
The pregame psychology started during the week leading up the game when some of the Terriers kidnapped a statue of the panther outside of Plant.
"It got taken, spray-painted red and returned," Kelly said. "After that happened we had players who would stay outside the school and guard our Terrier."
Kelly threw the block that sprung running back Wally Walegorski for the winning touchdown in the Terriers' 13-7 victory.
"I was downfield after blocking on the line and I hit their safety," Kelly said. "It was one of those perfect blocks where I just lifted him off his feet. I can still vividly remember knocking him down, sliding on the grass and seeing Wally's back as he ran all the way to the end zone."
With all the changes and evolutions in the way football is played and despite the years that have passed, one constant has remained for this group of players: pride in their team and school.
"Once a Terrier, always a Terrier," Williams said.