By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
Middleton and Blake fans gather to reminisce, relax, and yes, watch a little football.
TAMPA - As a group of longtime Tampa residents gathered outside Raymond James Stadium early Friday evening before the annual Blake-Middleton game, they reminisced about the good old days.
Rudolph Hammond, 58, described how he used to walk all the way through downtown Tampa to get to school at Blake. Arthur Pride, 59, recalled the teams once played each other down by the river. And J.C. Brantley, 49, lamented about having to attend Hillsborough because of integration, though his "heart was with Middleton."
For these men, and for many others at Friday's game, this wasn't just about football. It also was about community, tradition and meeting up with family and longtime friends.
"It's really quite exciting," said 1970 Middleton graduate Lu Robertson, who attended the game with his wife, Betty, class of '68. "This brings the whole community together."
Before integration, the Blake-Middleton rivalry was among the state's biggest, but the once all-black schools were closed by court order in 1971 and the series was dormant until 2002.
"This," 1966 Middleton graduate Fred Hearns said, "was the biggest social event of the year for the African-American community in Tampa. It was the one event you didn't miss. If you owned a business, you closed it. If you had to work, you took the day off."
The series appears to be back on track. Last year's meeting, held on a Thursday night at Chamberlain, had an estimated sellout crowd of 5,500. Because Raymond James cost about $30,000 to rent, an attendance of about 6,400 was needed Friday to pay the bill, county athletic director Vernon Korhn said.
The game easily exceeded that. The final paid attendance was 13,135.
"It was a wonderful experience," Middleton coach Harry Hubbard said. "This is something the players will be able to tell their kids and grandkids about."
The teams weren't the only ones who entertained the crowd. Both bands had dazzling shows before the game and at halftime that featured a dynamic blend of music and dance moves. When they completed their routines, Middleton's football team put the finishing touches on a 24-7 win.
"This means a lot," Middleton cheerleader Sharonise Grace said. "We can say we beat Blake."
On the other sideline, Blake players sat in silence as their foes celebrated. But despite the outcome, they too seemed to enjoy the experience.
"Just being out there was fun," Blake linebacker Michael Thomas said. "I can always say I got an interception at Ray-Jay."
Next year's game is expected to be played on a Saturday, Hubbard said. The hope is that the change in day might allow more out-of-town alumni and fans of other schools to attend.
"It's going to get bigger and bigger," Blake coach Sean Washington said.