TAMPA — On Fridays in the fall, they would convene at Southwest Port Tampa Park and play until well past dusk. As many as 30 neighborhood prepubescents showed up for these games of eight-man football.
Sometimes, the turnout was so great, two games were staged at once. On dry days, they would play tackle. If it rained, flags were used. Sweaty and sometimes grimy, they then would adjourn in time to make kickoff for the Robinson High games at nearby Jack Peters Field.
“Everybody had that raw talent,” junior safety Marqus Baker recalled.
This is the origin of the 2009 Knights, as home-grown a team as you’ll find in Hillsborough County. Baker, multi-purpose threat Frankie Williams, quarterback Blake Rice, fullback Rob Smith, linebacker Steve Baker, wideout Ruben Gonzalez, two-way tackle Quinton Preston — all (and many others) were spawned from that sandlot.
Perhaps more amazingly, they never drifted far from it. In an era of rampant prep football free agency, these Knights serve as a 9-2 testament of what can happen when a nucleus of neighborhood kids stick together.
“We never thought about, like, just leaving and going to another school because everybody’s just friends here and stuff,” Marqus Baker said. “The chemistry brought us together and kept us together.”
Tonight, this veritable band of brothers — reared through the Tampa Bay Youth Football League, and later Coleman and Monroe middle schools — hosts Wauchula Hardee in the Class 2A playoffs. With a win, Robinson will find itself two victories from a state title.
Along the way, it has endured middle-school mediocrity, a one-win freshman season, a 2-8 sophomore year, and the gnawing temptation to go play at a more successful program.
“There’s no doubt in my mind these guys had the opportunity to go someplace else,” coach Mike DePue said.
“I don’t know if they all got together and made a little secret pact that they were going to (stay), and we never asked them to take a blood oath to stay at Robinson. But we told them listen to us, do what we ask, work hard in the summer and good things will happen.”
Actually, a secret pact isn’t far from the truth, Williams says. He admits at one time his mother wanted him to transfer to Plant, and says other players got pressure from their parents to move on.
But from the talent they brandished at Southwest Port Tampa Park, and later in middle school, they knew they could evolve into something special if they didn’t fragment.
“We all just talked out of school and we were like, ‘If one leaves, we’ve all got to leave,’ ” said Williams, who has more than 1,200 all-purpose yards and 14 touchdowns. “We just wanted to stick together, then we decided to stay. …We just fell in love with our coaches and didn’t want to abandon them.”
The reward for such loyalty: A playoff berth, of course, and a potential dynasty in the making. Nineteen Knights, including virtually every significant skill player, are juniors.
“It feels pretty good,” Williams said. “We’re partyin’.”
Picture: Robinson quarterback Blake Rice is one of several Knights who have stuck with the program, never straying to other schools during the tougher times.