PALMA CEIA — Stephan Athan remembers the funny look in his old friend's eyes when he ran into him at Home Depot two years ago. It was 2006, three days after Plant High won its first state football championship.
"We could've done that," Tony Duany, a 53-year-old South Tampa doctor, deadpanned to his 53-year-old engineer buddy.
Both played football for Plant and graduated in 1973.
"I said, 'Tony, woulda, shoulda coulda,' ... I've never heard him talk like that," Athan said. "He was like a kid."
And now, as Plant prepares to play in another state championship game against Tallahassee Lincoln in Orlando Saturday, the fever is spreading again. All over town, grown men are giddy over the thought that their team might just win another state title.
The number of former Plant football players who linger around the field on Friday nights is staggering. They are attorneys and doctors, contractors and shop owners. They are great-great-grandfathers in their 90s and college kids home for the weekends.
They stand at the end zones, sell candy at the concession booths, high-five each other in the stands. They get nauseated before big games. They call Plant's Bob Weiner "Coach," as if he were theirs.
"We've been so blessed," said '78 grad Jimmy Kalamaras, "to have a coach like him."
Kalamaras, a 48-year-old former Plant linebacker who now owns the Ybor City-based Larmon Furniture, played during one of Plant's better eras. Coach Roland Acosta led the Panthers to 30 wins and five losses over the three seasons Kalamaras played, he remembered.
The Panthers' 2006 championship and their potential win Saturday feels like an extension of that early success, Kalamaras said.
"They're winning something we didn't win," he said. "But it feels like we're all a part of it."
Former player Doug Shields, owner of a South Tampa roofing company started by his father, Bill Shields (also a former player), credits "Coach" for that feeling.
"This guy (Weiner) has created such a great atmosphere," said Shields, a 1980 grad who still attends games. "My senior year, we went undefeated until we were beat by Lakeland. Weiner acts like that season helped contribute to this success they're having now, like we're all building blocks. And that's how it feels to former players. We're like, 'Wow, it finally paid off.' "
Weiner, who grew up blocks from Plant but attended Jesuit, said that sense of family tradition and history was one of the first things he wanted to bring back when he became Plant's coach in 2004.
He gets a kick out of seeing men in their 50s, 60s and 70s on the sidelines, swapping football stories about the good ol' days.
"I love the 'Remember whens,' " Weiner said. "And it's not the big things they remember. It's always little things, like, 'remember this tackle,' or 'remember this thing that happened at the end of that game.' "
It's easier to instill a sense of tradition at a place like Plant, Weiner said, where he's coaching kids whose brothers, dads, uncles and grandfathers were also Panthers. Plant is an old school, and the city's district boundaries haven't changed as much as those in newer suburban areas of the county.
There's a special sense of belonging about the football team, Weiner noticed, and it never seems to change, no matter how great or dreadful each season is, or who the players have become.
"I want them to know that they're welcome here anytime," Weiner said. "They're welcome to come to the practices, they're welcome on the field ... It's their place."
Emily Nipps can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3431.