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'Ultimate Eagle' remembered as Brandon High prepares for 100th celebration

BRANDON — The road leading to the entrance of Brandon High School's football stadium off Kings Avenue is aptly named Fussell's Way, and it leads to Pat Fussell Field at McLane Stadium.

As the school prepares to celebrate its 100th anniversary March 1 at the field, people who knew Fussell best say naming a rudimentary road or basic boulevard wouldn't have done justice to her legacy.

She's a woman who dedicated her life to the school.

Friends remember Fussell as an iconic teacher, a charismatic leader and a comical jokester. After graduating from Brandon in 1959 and the University of Tampa in 1963, she returned to her alma mater in 1964 as a physical education teacher.

A year later, she followed in her mother's footsteps and began leading the Brandon Dancerettes, a post she reinvented, invigorated and blossomed until her death in August 2001.

Some recall a militaristic matriarch who led her female troops with an overdose of prim and proper cotillion lessons. But no matter whom you ask, they all agree that Patricia Fussell will forever be known as the "Ultimate Eagle."

• • •

Pat's mother, Betty Fussell, taught for 36 years at Yates Elementary and Brandon High schools. She founded the Brandon High Dancerettes and color guards. When her daughter took over, the drill team became an institution.

"It was a very prestigious group to be a part of because they were so successful," said Karen Jessee, head majorette and Miss Brandon 1973. "It was a tough squad to become part of."

Making the team was just the first step in a litany of learning experiences for those half dozen majorettes and more than two dozen Dancerettes who yearned to perform in front of huge halftime crowds at Eagles football games and enter the world of statewide competitions.

In order to participate, your hair couldn't touch your shoulders and uniforms could not be worn out socially, especially not to cruise what was then a new McDonald's on State Road 60 after football games, a popular tradition.

She forced girls who broke the rules to dress out — bobby socks, white boots and all — but sit on the bench during games as a humiliating detention.

In 1970, Mike Burnett dared to date one of Pat's head Dancerettes, Yvonne, now his wife.

"She had a lot of input on the way you ran your life," said Burnett, who returned to the school in the late 1970s as a PE teacher and assistant football coach. "She really ruled the roost."

Burnett left Brandon in 1983 to become Armwood's first football coach, but returned to the school as an administrator and athletic director in 1996. That's when he became Fussell's "boss."

"That's a misstatement," said Burnett, now the PE department head at Newsome High School. "She was her own boss. She was supportive of the athletic program. If you talk to a wide variety of people, some didn't care for her. It was a love-hate thing.

"Those close to her knew she had tough love."

It took decades for Martha Futch Bennett to learn that lesson.

"As a student, I really couldn't stand her," said Futch Bennett, who went on to teach for 30 years in Hillsborough County. "She was such a . . . hard nose.

"As a professional, I became a cheerleading coach with 14 girls and then I understood exactly why she ran her squads the way she did."

• • •

On Friday nights, under the lights and in front of thousands of people, Fussell and her girls grabbed the spotlight. Always performing alongside the band, the squad and its vociferous leader danced its way into the hearts of Eagles fans.

"She was something to behold," said Alvany Wilson, who began as an English teacher at Brandon in 1951 before serving as dean of girls from 1968-1976. "She was marching the sideline always wearing a hat and sometimes it had a feather in it, following her troops down the field."

The legend of the Dancerettes surpassed high school football games, however. Fussell's girls performed at an NFL game, Detroit vs. Washington, and all over Florida including marching down State Road 60, parading through Walt Disney World and performing at the 1971 inauguration for Gov. Reubin Askew in Tallahassee.

Fussell's growing reputation led to her involvement in the 1984 Super Bowl. Fussell coordinated the local portion of the halftime show at Tampa Stadium.

"She was a go-getter," said Claire Jones, Brandon's librarian from 1973-1999. "We used to call her girls Fussell's Bussells."

Jessee concurs that Fussell's heart was in the right place. She recalls Fussell inviting the team to her family lake house in Central Florida as a graduation parting gift many summers.

She credits Fussell with helping her forge lifetime friendships, including a group of seven friends from the team who still dine together monthly.

• • •

Fussell was inducted into the Brandon High School Hall of Fame in 2005. Her dance squad survived another decade without her, but became defunct in 2011, giving way to winter guard.

Tim Williams, a 1974 Brandon graduate, recalls Fussell invited him to happy hour at Chili's in what turned out to be just hours before she died. Williams remembers a woman who never married because her first true love died in the Vietnam War.

Instead, she gave her life to the Brandon Dancerettes and majorettes. It was Fussell's way.

"She was Brandon High School," said Williams, who also noted that Fussell's funeral procession took her past McLane Middle and Brandon High schools one last time. "If you were one of her girls, that was your second mother. It hasn't been the same since she left."

Eric Vician can be reached at ericvician@yahoo.com.

Celebration plans

Brandon High School commemorates its 100th year at McLane Stadium on March 1 with a daylong celebration that will include a variety of activities and a food truck rally. For information, go to the Facebook page "BHS 100th Anniversary Celebration," or email bhs100th@yahoo.com.

'Ultimate Eagle' remembered as Brandon High prepares for 100th celebration 01/08/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 8, 2014 3:59pm]

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