TAMPA — The playground, sidewalks, landscaped berms, tennis and racquetball courts of Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park overlay a lot of history, and only visitors with long memories know about the vanished landmark.
Local historian Fred Hearns campaigned to change that, and on May 5, he and others will gather to dedicate a historical marker commemorating Phillips Field, the city's most popular football venue before Tampa Stadium opened in 1967.
During the segregation era, it was where Tampa's two black high schools, Middleton and Blake, played their games. And it was the only place that could accommodate the crowd for the annual Thanksgiving Day game between the big rivals among the white schools, Hillsborough and Plant.
More than 13,000 spectators would pack into the stadium, despite the fact that hundreds would have to stand.
University of Tampa football star John Matuszak, the top overall NFL draft pick in 1973, played there. So did Bob Hayes, a Florida A&M University standout in track and football and a 1964 Olympic gold medalist.
Buffalo Bills kicker Pete Gogolak booted what was said to be the first soccer-style field goal in professional football — a 57-yarder — during an exhibition game there against the New York Jets in 1964.
"I used to love the atmosphere there. We always had the thing packed,'' said Lloyd Mumphord, holder of two Super Bowl rings and a cornerback on the Miami Dolphins' undefeated 1972 team. He played for Middleton, graduating in 1965.
"I played everything. I used to go on the field for kickoff and come off at halftime — I played cornerback, fullback, linebacker, played everything,'' said Mumphord, 66, now living in Opelousas, La.
Hearns, retired as director of the Tampa Community Affairs Department, led the campaign to erect the historical marker at the park, which is now on the grounds of Tampa Preparatory School.
"There was nothing there, no signage,'' said Hearns, nothing to indicate Phillips Field ever existed. He appealed to the Hillsborough County Historical Advisory Committee, which approved it. Robert Kerstein, a University of Tampa history professor, did the research for the marker.
Hearns recalled the pep rallies, the festive atmosphere each year when Blake and Middleton played each other.
"I don't remember too many people going to school on the day of the game,'' he said.
Middleton and Blake each played five times a year at Phillips Field, culminating in the big game against each other, Hearns said.
"The university was kind enough to allow the black schools to play there. They did not have to do that.''
On Thanksgiving Day, fans of Hillsborough and Plant would turn out.
"The place would be jammed,'' recalled Plant alumnus George Levy. "Women would wear corsages — everybody dressed up — and men wore coats and ties.''
Levy watched his first Plant-Hillsborough turkey day contest as a 10-year-old in 1943. "I've probably been to just about all of them.''
He attended the University of Tampa games, too. A University of Florida graduate, Levy and friends would go watch the Gators play in Gainesville in the afternoon and rush back to see the Spartans' night game at Phillips Field.
The land, formerly the estate of I.W. Phillips, was donated to the city of Tampa in 1934, which turned it over to UT for the football stadium.
UT played its first game there on Oct. 4, 1937, defeating South Georgia College, and its last game on Oct. 21, 1967, defeating Furman. UT played the University of Florida Gators there several times between 1938 and 1942, losing each time. It was the site of the college Cigar Bowl in the late 1940s and early 1950s. UT, which played in Tampa Stadium when it opened, ended its football program in 1974.
Bethune-Cookman College played its Tilt of the Maroon and Gold game there.
During World War II, people packed the stands to watch the tough Third Air Force Gremlins football team from Drew Field take on teams from other military units.
For years, revving engines marked Saturday nights at Phillips Field, as stock car racers zoomed around an oval track. People even watched boxing matches there. Tampa heavyweight Tommy Gomez, known for his powerful punches, won two bouts at Phillips Field in the 1940s.
Hearns said he's planning to have a reunion after the dedication ceremony. He's inviting fans of all teams that played there, Blake, Middleton, Hillsborough, Plant and the others, to wear their school colors.
If it's a good turnout, he said, they may have a reunion every year.
Philip Morgan can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3435.
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This article has been revised to reflect the following correction: It was George Levy who reminisced about the football games he attended at Phillips Field. The Times misidentified him as Leonard Levy, his twin brother.