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Football and life were very different in the 1950s


© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 30, 2001

TAMPA -- Thanksgiving Day 1956. Plant vs. Hillsborough. The biggest game of the season, played on the one day everybody in the county could come watch.

Thirteen thousand fans packed into Phillips Field, braving chilly winds to show off their game day ensembles of suits and ties, pretty dresses and corsages. This was, after all, the thing to do.

Forty-five years later, three close friends and former teammates -- Shields Gay, Dick Guagliardo and John Palios -- still get excited at the memory of donning their black and gold Plant jerseys and taking on the hated Terriers.

Palios remembers the day began with the players dressing at the high school and then boarding a school bus for the trip to the stadium on the University of Tampa campus. Then there was the warmup in front of the packed stands before heading into the locker room for coach Frank Lorenzo's pregame speech.

"It was very cold, and both teams were in this tunnel. And I was standing right next to this Hillsborough player," Palios said. "He had black stuff under his eyes. I don't know what it was for. We'd never seen anything like that. They said it was to cut down the glare from the sun, but he looked like the devil himself. Then he spit on me and called us some 'Palma Ceia Country Clubbers.' Well, that got us really upset.

"We all got that black stuff, and I don't know why, but we smeared it all over ourselves. And we went right back out there. It was like war paint."

The Panthers stormed out of the locker room and outgained Hillsborough 322-167. The Terriers' only touchdown, a Howard Bryant run, was nullified due to an illegal procedure penalty. Plant drove to the Terrier 3, but one of its four fumbles killed the drive.

The game ended in a 0-0 tie, the fifth tie in the series' 29-year history, meaning the schools were forced to split the City Championship.

"We beat the crap out of them, but we couldn't score," Palios said.

* * *

For Guagliardo and his teammates, life in Tampa during that era resembled a black-and-white movie.

There were drive-in restaurants, tough as nails football coaches and harmless teenagers having a good time. For them, crime was virtually non-existent and the streets were safe to walk at night.

There were some lines that just weren't crossed, though, and one of them was the Hillsborough-Plant border. Terriers didn't roam into South Tampa, and Panthers didn't explore Seminole Heights. Not without consequences at least.

"They knew not to come down here, and we didn't go up there," Guagliardo said.

Guagliardo, Palios and Gay had their favorite hangouts. No. 1 on that list was the Colonnade on Bayshore Boulevard.

In those days, it was a drive-in restaurant nestled underneath a stand of old oak trees. The view of the bay was as beautiful as ever.

The Colonnade was a place Gay would show up in his Model-T while others would ride their bikes to in order to enjoy a soda or burger. It also was the place to meet girls.

"It was just a little wooden shack back then," Gay said. "We used to go there and make out behind the oak trees."

There's one oak still standing that holds a special place in Guagliardo's heart. It's the place where he first noticed the girl who would become his wife of more than 40 years.

But life wasn't all soda fountains and sneaking kisses either. There was always football practice, and that meant another day with Lorenzo.

One of the few coaches around with a paid staff, Lorenzo was legendary for his toughness, and he tried as hard as he could to pass that on to his players. Palios, Gay and Guagliardo said the message got through perfectly clear.

Theirs was a day when high schoolers looked up to idols such as Paul Hornung and Jimmy Taylor, and Lorenzo was determined to make one of his players the next name on that list.

"If we did something wrong, we would pay for it in laps," Guagliardo said. "And water breaks? There were no water breaks back then. They wanted something out of you. They made men out of boys."

Practices were wars.

Players often hobbled off the field with broken limbs. Ambulances were seen on several occasions. So was seeing guys walk off the field, never to return in a uniform.

"They were vicious practices, unbelievably brutal," Guagliardo said. "I can still feel the pain."

Players back then were expected to play both ways and not miss a play. Injuries could be taken care of Saturday morning.

"One play, I had my tooth knocked down my throat," Palios said. "I ran over to the sideline, and he yelled at me, 'What are you doing over here?' I opened my mouth and showed him the blood. He grabbed some gauze, stuffed it up in the hole and sent me back out there. I finished the game and went to the dentist the next day."

By all accounts, Gay, the biggest player on the team at 6 feet 4, 240 pounds, was one of the most respectful players to Lorenzo. One day, the coach got in Gay's face, pulled him down to his level by grabbing the single bar on his face mask and chewed him out before pushing him away.

The coach then challenged the much bigger player to hit him, which Gay refused out of respect. The coach kept on, and Gay kept refusing until he'd had enough. The coach shouted one more time for Gay to hit him, and the senior did.

"Laid him right out," Guagliardo said. "One punch."

Not much was said about the incident after that, and, if anything, it somehow made player and coach that much closer.

"To this day, he's like my second father," Gay said. "He had that kind of impact on me."

* * *

The football days are long past.

Guagliardo, one the area's fastest players at the time, suffered a leg injury that he never fully rebounded from.

Gay went to the University of Miami and now lives in Plant City. Palios opened the restaurant he still owns shortly after graduation, at times buying kingfish, which Gay and Guagliardo caught, for $1 each.

The three former players still get together and reminisce about the glory days, breaking out wilted newspapers, old 25 cent game programs and memories that tie together more than just three football careers.

"It meant everything to us," Palios said.

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