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Gulf alumni suit up for benefit

Sure, it pays the school, but it also lets lots of ex-players bang heads one more time.

By JAMAL THALJI

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 14, 2000


NEW PORT RICHEY -- It's a battle for the ages -- by the aged.

photo
[Times photo: Janel Schroeder]
Quarterback Mike Welch, right, prepares to hand off to Bruno Buosanto, with knee brace, during a practice for the Gulf High alumni game.
The inaugural Gulf High School alumni charity football game is at 7:30 tonight at Des Little Stadium. It will feature 50 former Buccaneers players, divided into teams of 25 each, battling each other to benefit the school's athletic program.

Mimi Mendonca, president of the newly-revitalized booster club, said the school needs the help.

"These guys are wonderful to come up with this idea and do all the work," said the 46-year-old mother of four Gulf students. "It could definitely help, especially being the oldest school in west Pasco. Things over time need to be replaced. The local businesses are really supporting it.

"Everybody's talking about it."

Said current Gulf football coach Keith Newton: "It's almost like a fantasy game."

All proceeds from the game will be donated to the school: the $4 admission fee, money earned from the concession stand and money from a halftime raffle of a baseball autographed by New York Yankees star Derek Jeter, and a Yankees team shirt and cap.

The players paid $80 apiece to participate and have been practicing since Sunday. After their insurance premiums were paid, nearly $3,500 was left to donate to the athletic program.

"Put it this way," said 26-year-old Will Rueck (Gulf's class of '91), now a medical technician. "I would have come out here for a grand rather than pay 80 bucks.

"I came, got a nice stinger (bruise), I'm icing it, I love it. It's still not going to keep me on the sidelines, though. I pulled my hamstring, and I still feel great."

It got started, of course, in a bar.

"If you want to find a Gulf High alum," joked Scott Bussey (Class of '90), a 28-year-old who works for Catches Seafood & More, "that's the place to go."

Chad Goldenberg (Class of '90), a 28-year-old regional manager for Mr. Transmission, bumped into Kevin Adler (Class of '92), a 26-year-old accountant for the Yankees, at a Tampa Applebee's in November.

Goldenberg had just returned from a trip to Jacksonville's Trinity Christian Academy, where he spent his freshman and sophomore years. Trinity has an annual alumni football game: pads and helmets, full contact, the works.

"If they do it up there," Goldenberg wondered, "why can't we do it here?

"(But) who is the best person to get ahold of? We both said Jim Watson. There's nobody better, and Jim's given his heart and soul to this thing.

"If it wasn't for Jim, this thing wouldn't have happened."

Every Gulf alumnus knows Watson (Class of '89).

One of the best football players in school history, the 28-year-old went on to play on the University of Florida's offensive line. He graduated in '94 and tried out for the then-Houston Oilers until he injured his back. Now in Jacksonville, he handles sales for Safeskin Corporation, which makes latex gloves.

Watson called up more than 60 former football players. Interest spread like wildfire. They couldn't take everybody, though.

"We had to turn away about 15 to 20 guys," said Watson, who decided not to play himself. Instead, he'll coach the white team over the green.

"My playing days are done, my friend. That's why I'm a coach," Watson said. "At first it felt weird, but the more (the players anger) me, the more I like it. Everybody's put their egos aside. ... Everybody does what's asked of them."

Or as much as they can ask of their bodies.

Some stayed in shape; some didn't.

"You've got guys still running, catching, throwing in a flag football league," Watson said, "and guys who haven't taken a sprint step in 10 years."

None, though, have put on helmets and pads since they graduated.

"You can tell they're feeling it," said Newton, who has coached at the school for 16 years,"especially their legs."

Especially after Sunday's grueling five-hour practice. It was a long day of full-contact drills, punctuated by "Oklahomas," an intense two-on-two hitting drill.

The ages range from the oldest, 37-year-old Steve Conley (Class of '81), who works for Florida Power, to 18-year-old Jason McCue, who graduates this year, one of five seniors playing with the alumni tonight.

They hope to make the game an annual fundraiser. They've also had interest from alumni from Ridgewood and Hudson high schools, who want to assemble their own alumni teams and play.

As much as the players are enjoying their reunion, frankly, they just want to hit each other.

"We haven't seen everybody in years," Rueck said, "and some of these guys, you grew up admiring, you always wondered if you could play against them. Now you're here and can put a whack to them.

"That's the best part of it."

* * *

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