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School, spirit shared

The Charlotte-Port Charlotte rivalry had a new tenor after Hurricane Charley forced the schools together.

Published November 9, 2004

[Times photos: Lara Cerri]
Charlotte players hit the field Friday vs. rival Port Charlotte. Charlotte High was damaged by Hurricane Charley, and its students have shared Port Charlotte's campus since August.
[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
The Charlotte High campus in Punta Gorda still shows storm damage. The football field reopened for Friday's game.
[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Charlotte High parents wait with their children to hear their names announced on Senior Night. "I think the situation is little less tense this year," Charlotte player James DeGaeta, whose home was leveled by Charley, says of Port Charlotte.
[Times photo: Lara Cerri]
Some Port Charlotte fans wore T-shirts reading, "Divided by a River, United by a Storm" to Friday's game. "There's a lot more heartfelt respect for each other," says senior Jodi Butts, center. "We've kind of opened each other up."

PUNTA GORDA - Over the past three years, James DeGaeta developed a genuine disdain for Port Charlotte High.

The Charlotte High senior lineman would grit his teeth at the mere mention of the other school. Port Charlotte was the enemy, the source of the occasional toilet paper raid on the goal posts.

"There has been some animosity between us," DeGaeta said.

How could there not be?

In Charlotte, a county where schoolboy stars are household names, the biggest game every year is Charlotte vs. Port Charlotte.

The battle line is drawn by the Peace River, which separates the towns of Punta Gorda and Port Charlotte. Though the rivalry has been decidely one-sided (Charlotte was 22-1 entering this season), it has staying power in two communities that view the game and its festivities as a matter of civic pride.

But civic pride took on a whole new meaning in the aftermath of Hurricane Charley.

No need to rachet up the intensity this year. Everyone is on the same side, or at least in the same building. The storm ravaged the facilities at Charlotte, rendering them useless. Students from both schools are attending Port Charlotte in split shifts.

"I think the situation is little less tense this year," said DeGaeta, whose home was leveled by Charley. "We've become closer, more united. We've all been through the same thing. But I had to stay away from those guys the week of the game. I mean, the game still means something."

The 24th edition of "The Rumble by the River" was played Oct. 30 at a stadium still rimmed by wind-torn buildings and huge mounds of rubble.

The teams were playing for more than bragging rights. The playoffs were on the line. But rather than focus on district standings, the teams played for something else: The chance to give the area a desperately needed distraction.

"We tried our best not to hype the intensity that fuels this rivalry," Charlotte athletic director Brian Nolan said. "We didn't even want to use phrases like "Rumble by the River.' The kids have been pretty good about that. There's more important things to worry about. All this does is give us a chance to get away for a few hours."

* * *

Hurricane Charley came and went Aug. 13, nearly three months before the game, but is still a presence everywhere.

Debris is piled on sidewalks. Street signs have not been replaced. And the roar of chain saws, generators and work trucks is still heard at the Charlotte Sports Complex, where Charlotte High players now practice.

"This was one of the most devastating things to happen to our community," said Charlotte coach Robert "Binky" Waldrop, who graduated from the school in 1983. "It's going to take years to get over this. Even then, I don't know if you can ever really say that anyone will completely forget what happened."

Waldrop went to the school after the storm pushed inland to survey the damage. While driving through the wreckage and rubble, Waldrop crunched over shingles, weaved around telephone poles and stared at houses without facades.

Once there, he saw 78-year-old buildings torn to pieces or pancaked. The stately, shingled, three-story administration building looked like a scaled fish.

But that was nothing compared to the athletic facilities. The stadium, affectionately known as the Fish Bowl, was destroyed. The light poles snapped and the bleachers were twisted and mangled beyond repair.

"I cried," Waldrop said. "Everything we worked so hard to build was gone."

In the days that followed, Waldrop knew he had to forge on, to lift a demoralized community's spirits and give friends and family something to cheer about again.

He had plenty of help.

Sarasota High baseball coach Clyde Metcalf and Bradenton Southeast football coach Paul Maechtle were among many chopping wood, sweeping rubble or scrubbing away the mud heaved up from the bottom of the harbor. Washington Redskins kicker John Hall, a Port Charlotte grad, left training camp to help Charlotte's football team salvage what it could.

The equipment was moved to assistant coach Wade Taylor's 5-acre farm, half a mile from school. His barn became the weight room for the football, baseball and track teams. There, after missing a week, the Tarpons held their first practice in a cow pasture. Of the 41 players, were without homes or displaced. Three moved out of state. Those who stayed did not quit.

The Charlotte students finally got back to school as co-habitants of Port Charlotte High, which was not as severely damaged.

Port Charlotte students attend classes in the morning (7-noon) and Charlotte students come in the afternoon (noon-5). The teams practice on the opposite schedule.

The situation was difficult. Charlotte High is in the historic district of Punta Gorda and one of the oldest schools in the state. The residents were in love with its past. They did not want the school to face the wrecking ball.

And the students certainly did not want to cross the river to attend a rival school.

"We kind of wondered how all of this was going to work out," DeGaeta said.

To make things go more smoothly, Port Charlotte officials decided that no students would have lockers and the faculty would share offices.

"We wanted to be as fair as possible," Port Charlotte athletic director Mark Primerano said. "If we couldn't provide something for their students, we would not have it available for ours, either."

Still, it would be hard to fault Port Charlotte students for having some resentment. The school also was hit hard by the hurricane. Scoreboards were crunched, roofs were damaged and equipment rotted. But the national media attention focused on Charlotte High.

That was bad enough. Now Charlotte, which owned the football rivalry, had taken part-ownership of Port Charlotte.

"It would have been easy to have that kind of reaction, but I have not seen it from our students," Primerano said. "I think, deep down, a lot of the students are still friends. It's just too hard to hold a grudge."

* * *

The feel-good atmosphere was detectable through the first eight weeks of school. Then came the week leading up to the game between the schools.

The rivalry exerts a powerful pull on the county's deep-seated football culture, requiring most residents to choose sides and demonstrate their loyalty on the last weekend in October.

But this year's game also provided residents a night of diversion.

By game time, the Fish Bowl bore barely a mark from the storm. That's because construction crews and volunteers worked for 71 days to clean debris.

The scoreboard was portable, the lights temporary. Otherwise, the stadium was a haven of normalcy, or the illusion of it, for the approximately 9,000 fans who showed up.

The game had more pomp and circumstance than usual. Gov. Jeb Bush was on hand for the coin toss and stayed until halftime.

"It was not that long ago that this stadium was ravaged," Bush said. "Now, here we are playing a football game three months later. That's pretty amazing."

Charlotte won 38-10 to clinch the Class 4A, District 11 title and advance to the playoffs for the 11th straight year. Afterward, players from both teams gathered at midfield for the customary hugs and handshakes before going their separate ways.

"It's been a strange year being in the same building with our rival," DeGaeta said. "But we're better for it. This year, this game, it's something I'll never forget."

[Last modified November 9, 2004, 07:00:52]


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