Blake vs. Middleton: It's more than just a game

The annual contest between two local high school powerhouses is a social event, concert and tearjerker all rolled into one.

Published September 27, 2006


It is just before noon Saturday, and the grease in the deep fryer at the back of Alphonso Ball’s minivan is already crackling.

This is the third straight year he and his wife, Ophelia, have set up shop in preparation for the Blake-Middleton game, and as the smell of fried fish mixes with the Smokey Robinson song playing on a hand-held radio, it’s easy to see why they keep coming back.

“Tonight, it don’t matter who loses,” Ball says as he drops some shrimp into the cauldron of grease.

“We’re all going to be having a good time.”Ball graduated from Middleton in 1969, two years before integration brought a close to the all-black high school.  Ophelia, who says she didn’t see white students until she enrolled at St. Petersburg Junior College, graduated three years earlier.

They both grew up in Ybor City but did not meet until a friend’s card party in 1989. Four years later, they were married, and nine years later they were in the stands together at Chamberlain  when the Middleton-Blake rivalry was renewed.

Ball was the president of the Middleton booster club at the time, a position he held through last season. He did not play football in high school, but he ran track. “Or, should I say, it ran me,” he says.

Back in the day, the Blake- Middleton rivalry was all about football.

“Now,” he says, “it’s more of a social event.”

Which is why Carlton Gambrell decided to take the train from 125th and St. Nicholas in Harlem — “Two blocks from the Apollo,” he says — to Tampa for the game.

The trip lasted 24 hours. But, he says, “If you ain’t got nowhere to be, the train is the way to go.”


It was minutes before kickoff and Henry “Shake” Washington  was in full social bloom, glad-handing his fellow Middleton football fans in a suite at Raymond James Stadium.

“I guess I’ll always be noticed when it comes to this school and the football program,” he said.Washington is a Tigers man, all the way. He was Middleton’s quarterback from 1966-67 and still remembers the games he played against Blake.

“That was like our Super Bowl,” Washington said. “The whole community was involved. We’d have hundreds of people come out just to watch practice the week before the Blake game. The crowd got to be so big, we started holding practices at a secret location.”

In the 1966 game at old Phillips Field, Washington threw a 97-yard touchdown to Ted Washington, who went on to play for the Houston Oilers. The score made it 19-all. It was the only game in the series that ended in a tie.
The following season, Middleton and Blake were the first high school teams to meet in the original Tampa Stadium.

Integration forced both schools to close in 1971.

Washington stayed in the school system and was named Middleton’s principal when the school reopened in 2002. He made sure to trumpet  spirit in the week leading to the Blake game.

“It’s different now, the students don’t understand the tradition,” said Washington, who now works as an area superintendent.  “It’ll come around. Just give it some time.”


When Blake’s players ran  on the field at the beginning of the game, little Byron Carter was hoisted on their shoulders.

They dropped him down to the turf around the 10-yard line and he stumbled, his helmet fell off and he nearly got run  over by the stampede. But  all the players knew he was there, even if he barely came up to their waists. The team calls him “our little mascot.”Blake coach Sean Washington calls Carter the team’s inspiration.

When talking about him after Blake’s  loss to  Middleton, Washington started crying. He says he feels a responsibility toward him.

“I’m not a father figure, but I’m trying to be a role model,” Washington said. “Just a good black role model.”
Byron, raised by his grandmother, started hanging at Blake practices during the summer. He’d just come and sit on the fence. Every day.

Soon coaches and players took notice and started putting him to work to help out the squad. After a while, Byron became one of the guys, a part of the team.

Now Byron is a full-fledged  member — you see him every game on the Blake sideline, peeking around or between players’ legs to see the action on the field. He even has to submit weekly progress reports like players to make sure his academics are in order.

You might see Byron in a couple years actually playing on the field. His dream is to play running back for the Yellow Jackets.You most definitely will not see him donning a Middleton jersey. Though he seldom has much to say, Byron left no doubt about where his allegiance lies in the rivalry game.“Blake!’’ he exclaimed.


Abe Brown wore white Saturday because, he said in his jazzy baritone, “You have to be careful at these Blake-Middleton games. If I wore the wrong colors, it might cause an uproar.”

He stood  next to an Abe Brown Ministries truck  collecting canned goods for the needy.  “We knew our community was coming together today in a big way,’’ he said. “We saw it as a chance to do some good.”

Blake? Middleton? Didn’t matter. Both sides came to contribute and say hello to the 79-year-old legend, who played and coached for Middleton (1940s-early ’60s) and was the head coach for Blake when it won the 1969 state title.

A few well-wishers got lucky when they heard Brown tell pieces of the Blake championship story: a monthlong run that broke down racial barriers, particularly in the state semifinal  Blake won 6-0 over Lake City Columbia, a classic battle between an all-black and an all-white school.

“When we beat Lake City, the blacks from their community swarmed our players as the highway patrol guided us to the bus,” Brown said. “The blacks up there were thanking us for the victory.”
Some players said they had money shoved in their helmets. Other s said people asked for their addresses so they could send them a thank-you card.

“It was a magical moment,” Brown said. “It was amazing.”

On Sept. 5, 2003, Middleton named its home field “Abe Brown Stadium” in honor of  everything the man has done  and  continues to do.


If the drum major of the Blake  or Middleton marching band, as many presume, bears all the prestige of a starting quarterback, then Geoff McLean  might be deemed a baton-wielding, busby-wearing Daunte Culpepper.

But that would be a slight to McLean, a 6-foot-2, 250-pound senior. At these two schools, the person directing the brass and percussions arguably is held in higher regard than the one directing the offense.

“Sadly to say, people don’t come out there for the football team,” McLean said. “They come out there for the band.”
Though that statement might be  debatable, the entertainment value provided by the Blake and Middleton bands in the schools’ annual football rivalry isn’t.

That point was driven home again Saturday, when the two most raucous, riveting bands in the county did their darndest to upstage the football game they crashed with choreographic  aplomb.

Leading the Yellow Jackets was McLean, in his second year as head drum major. With a deftness belying his size, the east Tampa resident juked, gyrated and  managed a split while leading Blake to the coveted  Battle of the Band  Trophy.

At Blake, aspiring drum majors must agree to a two-day audition, attend a leadership camp (typically in Tallahassee) and compose an essay outlining the qualities of a drum major.  

“When you’re out there performing, you see everybody in the stands, the stands are packed; you just get this adrenaline rush like you just want to go out there and dance,” McLean said. “It’s unreal.”


Sweat dripped from Fred Hearns’ forehead as he made a quick, pregame trip to his car Saturday afternoon.
Hearns, a 1966 Middleton grad and founder of the school’s alumni association, reluctantly removed his maroon Tigers cap and tossed it into the back seat.

“I’ve got to be objective,” quipped a grinning Hearns, Tampa’s director of community affairs. “I’m handing out the MVP trophy.”

For Hearns, a reporter’s cap is also difficult to shake. Hearns wrote for the Florida Sentinel Bulletin in the late 1960s  when there were  few African-American journalists.

When C. Blythe Andrews Jr., longtime chairman for the Bulletin, hired Hearns, he offered an apartment to sweeten the deal — “That’s how much we wanted him.”

Hearns covered Blake-Middleton games from 1966-70, when thousands would pack and circle Phillips Field on Friday nights, dressed in their finest black and gold, turning the event into “a football game with a fashion show,” he said.

Hearns said what made the game so much more special  was that it was the social event.

“A lot of doors were closed to us,” he said. “There were a lot of places we were banned from going to because we were black. This was one place we felt was ours. It’s where we felt like we could be king or queen for the day.

“This was our Gasparilla celebration.”

Hearns, 57, felt the doors close on him as a member of the Middleton band, where he played bass clarinet from 1964-66. He remembers traveling with the Tigers to  games in Orlando and Gainesville, only to find out they couldn’t stay in local hotels.

Instead,  parents of the home school’s band members would  house  students, picking them randomly from the parking lot: “I’ll take that one and that one,” Hearns said.

“You’d never see that today,”  he said. “Letting your daughter stay with a total stranger in a strange place … But it’s a different world now.”


The irony in his last name is about as subtle as his waist size.

Were his fortitude weaker, 300-pound senior center Joe White might have washed out at Middleton long ago, or at least shriveled into a super-sized ball of insecurity. His team roster remains almost exclusively African-American and White isn’t … well … black.

Yet there he was Saturday, one of about a dozen players not of African-American descent in what was once an exclusively black rivalry.

“You know, sometimes when I was younger I did (feel out of place),” said White, a Brandon resident who commutes to Middleton for its engineering program. “But then I realized it’s my family here. I’ve been going here forever. I love these people, they love me, and I feel part of the family.”

For the second straight year, White basked in the big-stadium atmosphere of the Blake-Middleton game and figuratively drive-blocked any stereotypes associated with this contest.

In the process, he also picked up a nifty piece of hardware: an academic excellence trophy recognizing his 3.44 GPA.

“Joe White is one of the coolest guys, you know what I’m saying? ” said Tigers wideout Jonathan Sanders, who is black. “(Friday) at our pep rally, everybody just stood up and gave him thanks. He’s one of the coolest guys; we don’t really see it as a black-and-white thing.”

Statistically, though, the Tigers’ three-year starter remains an anomaly in this series.

Middleton’s student demographic features only a narrow slice (271, or 14.89 percent) of Caucasians. And though 25.81 percent (476 students) of Blake’s population is white, all but nine of the Yellow Jackets players who suited up Saturday were African-American.

All of which meant exactly  zilch to White. “It was excellent,” he said of Saturday’s atmosphere, moments after the game. “Just phenomenal.”