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The bus slowly made its way down Busch Boulevard, and the wide-eyed rookies sitting inside could hardly believe the scene unfolding before them.
Hundreds of people were milling around in the parking lot at Chamberlain High School. Some had brought barbecue grills and coolers.
Thousands more were already sitting in the stands or standing around the chain-link fence ringing the field. An extra set of bleachers had been brought over to accommodate the crowd.
If the kids didn’t know it before then, they knew as they stepped off the bus and waded through the crowd: Blake vs. Middleton was still a big deal.
“It was a real shocker,” said Stoney Woodson, who was then a 16-year-old junior at Middleton. “When I saw that, I was like, ‘Oh, so this is what everyone is talking about.’ ”
This was Sept. 13, 2002, the renewal of the football rivalry between two of Tampa’s historically black high schools.
Little more than 10 years later, excitement for the game isn’t nearly so high. Each team will limp into Friday’s contest with only one win and coming off a lopsided loss.
Unlike many of the previous games, this one will take place at Blake — the modest on-campus home of the Yellow Jackets — instead of a larger neutral site like Chamberlain or the home stadium of the Buccaneers.
Still, the game has resonance in the schools' respective communities and with their alumni that defies the on-field product.
“Of course we want to win,” said Francis Jennings, president of the Blake Booster Club and a member of the 1959 graduating class. “But the game doesn’t really matter. We more want to show the young people how we can come together and enjoy ourselves and the legacies of our parents and forefathers.”
Before integration, Blake and Middleton were heated rivals until court orders forced both high schools to close in 1971. That meant black students were sent to other high schools such as Hillsborough, Jefferson and Plant, and Blake and Middleton became middle schools.
For first-year Blake coach Darryl Gordon, who grew up in the housing complex across the street from the school, it meant he never experienced the spectacle for himself.
“My dream was to wear that black and gold,” said Gordon, a 1973 graduate of Plant. “Of the Yellow Jackets.”
Blake reopened as a high school in 1997 and, after a 31-year hiatus, the series was renewed in 2002 when Middleton reopened.
That game was met with an excitement that awed then-freshmen like A.J. Jones, who had grown up in Tampa mostly unaware of the historical importance of the rivalry.
“The older people were into it but not so much us,” said Jones, who would go on to star at Middleton and the University of Florida as a linebacker. “But from the bus, we saw people in maroon and gray and black and gold everywhere. It was like, this ain’t just a high school game.”
Jones and the Tigers went on to win 46-0 before a crowd of about 6,000, a game that didn’t count in the standings because Middleton’s first-year varsity team played Blake’s junior varsity.
Of course, varsity or not, Middleton still savors the victory.
“If we played it, it counts,” said Harry Hubbard, who coached at Middleton from 2002-08 and Blake from 2009-11. “You don’t dress up for nothing.”
Before 2005, the game was twice played to sellout crowds at Chamberlain’s John Adcock Stadium. The series was then moved to Raymond James Stadium when overcapacity forced its relocation, giving local players the opportunity to play in an NFL stadium.
“That prepared me for not being starstruck when I got in front of the big crowds at the Swamp,” Jones said. “It was like playing against Florida State and Georgia. It was actually a college atmosphere.”
“It was like playing against Clemson,” said Woodson, who went on to play at South Carolina and for several NFL teams. “Playing in that game put you on a bigger stage. It had the same atmosphere, the same feeling you had playing against Blake.”
Middleton has won all but two in the rivalry since 2002. Blake won in 2004 when Hubbard sat his starting quarterback for disciplinary reasons and last season when Middleton went 0-for-2011.
Whether the one-sided nature of the rivalry has diminished enthusiasm or the novelty of the annual game has worn off, fan support has dwindled.
From an average of nearly 10,000 fans in its first three seasons at Raymond James, fewer than 1,000 have shown up since the move back to the schools in 2010.
Building off the momentum of last year’s win, Blake hopes to inject a little life into the series this year. The Yellow Jackets held events every day this week, including a church event Sunday, to rally support from the players’ families, alumni and community.
Jennings said many students and booster club members have made plans to tailgate before Friday’s game along the Hillsborough River, which runs behind Blake’s stadium — the so-called Hornet’s Nest.
Gordon, who finally gets his chance to take part in the series that enticed him as a boy, thinks Blake-Middleton can be a big deal again.
“The kids are looking forward to it,” he said. “It means something to them, their parents and the city of Tampa.”