It has been an adventurous four years for 15 players from Hillsborough County's three newest schools.
By FRANK PASTOR
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 3, 2000
TAMPA -- Tommy Godbolt wanted the glory. There was not much to go around that first year, and this was his chance to grab a share.
Blake had the football just outside the Palm Harbor U. goal line. Godbolt, a freshman guard, wanted the Yellow Jackets to run the ball behind him.
He would drive his man through the end zone. Blake would score. He was sure of it. His coach was less certain.
Clarence Higdon called timeout. He wanted to run the ball up the middle, just not behind Godbolt, who had plenty of heart but little experience.
Higdon looked to the sideline for a replacement. But before he could signal for a change, Godbolt said, "Don't take me out, coach. You can put your trust in me."
Suddenly feeling like he had no choice, Higdon looked the freshman in the eyes.
"All right, son," he said. "Then get in there and make the block."
He did, and the Yellow Jackets scored.
It was just one moment in a 48-14 loss, but it might have reversed the fortunes of both player and coach.
"Here it is, four years later," Higdon said, "and the kid is a starter for me and doing one hell of a job."
Godbolt's story is rare at Hillsborough County's three newest schools. Of the 57 freshmen who played when Blake, Sickles and Wharton opened three years ago, only 15 -- or about one in four -- remain.
Godbolt, Henry Ballard, Ronnie Davis and Terrance Montgomery are left from the 10 freshmen who started at Blake. Nine remain from Sickles' 17-player class. At Wharton, 28 of the 30 players who started the program are gone. Only Roger Beaubien and Terrence Royal survived.
"Everything is very easy now," Sickles coach Shannon O'Brien said. "You don't really have to go out and try to really bust your tail and try and earn something."
Retaining players is not easy for any program as more teenagers opt to work to support their lifestyles.
Getting players to commit to a fledgling program is almost impossible.
New programs lack tradition. Expectations are low and seldom met. Problems mount.
When Blake opened practice three years ago, players did not have helmets. They had to be shown how to put pads into their pants.
Most of the players were new to football because no middle school or junior varsity programs existed. The inexperience still shows as Hillsborough's three newest teams have lost 91 of 114 games. Eight of their 23 victories have come against each other.
Sickles had it particularly tough, enduring a county-worst 14-game losing streak.
"The hardest thing for us," said Sickles senior Martin Alejandro, "was doing all the off-season work we had to do and the effort that everyone put into that and then not getting that W."
At Blake, Higdon set short-term goals to keep his players from getting discouraged.
At first, the goal was to beat Sickles and Wharton. When the teams were put in different districts, Blake tried to win more games than the others.
"Now," Higdon said, "my kids are out to be the first out of the three to make it to post-season play."
The coaches said the players who survived are not the best athletes, but rather good students who dedicated themselves to the program.
Beaubien enjoys the camaraderie of team sports, his father Roger said. Besides football, he plays soccer, swims and runs track. He reached an agreement with Wildcats coach Richard Wood that allows him to miss practice when he has a swim meet.
Ballard said he worked too hard to walk away from football. He considered transferring to Robinson before the season, but changed his mind after discussions with his father and his sister's boyfriend.
Godbolt started playing "to make a statement for Blake." He backed up his bravado by throwing himself into off-season workouts.
Three or four days a week, he got up early to run 11/2 miles. After work, he went to the gym to lift weights.
"In the back of their minds, I think they believe that if they work hard, something good will come of it," Wood said. "But there's also that hump time. How much time are you willing to spend?"
Higdon said most of the players who left had academic problems. Players do not have grade-point averages as freshmen, so everybody is eligible to play. That changes when they become sophomores. The players who stay not only meet academic requirements, but endure long practices and losing seasons and ignore taunts from opponents and classmates.
Roger Beaubien said his son used to get frustrated because he spent so little time on the field. Because Wharton rarely scored, he had few chances to kick field goals or extra points.
"I'm surprised he's sticking it out," Beaubien sometimes told his wife.
Godbolt's low point came during a 96-0 loss to East Bay in 1997. It was the type of game that drove many kids from the program. But it gave Godbolt incentive.
"We had something to prove," he said. "And that always kept me going."
The survivors are glad they stayed.
Ballard and Godbolt were named co-captains for Blake, which has won five games this season. The Gryphons experienced the thrill of ending their losing streak.
Alejandro enjoyed his first injury-free season. And Beaubien kicked the winning field goal in a 15-14 victory over Plant.
"For him to come in at the end and win it, that was sort of the highlight of the year," Beaubien's father said, "and almost the four years the school's been there."
Thursday, Blake's seniors practiced for the final time. The team marked the occasion with a ceremony called "The Swarm."
Higdon called the seniors into his office. When the players left the office, they found their game jerseys displayed on a table. They put on the jerseys and took the field one last time.
They addressed the underclassmen then ran through a gauntlet of teammates and crashed into a tackling dummy at the end of the field.
As they left the field, Higdon met with each of them for an emotional farewell.
Since Blake reopened, assistant coaches have come and gone. Losses have outnumbered wins. Teammates have fallen by the wayside.
But when Higdon greeted Godbolt for the final time, he knew the freshman he doubted three years ago had proved worthy of his trust.
The Blake, Sickles and Wharton seniors who have played football since their freshman year, according to their coaches: