SEFFNER — Tucked away in a nondescript plaza off Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in Seffner sits a quasi shrine to great Armwood High football teams past and present.
Adorning the walls at B & D Barber Shop, a Seffner staple for nearly three decades, are faded newspaper clippings, championship memorabilia and signed photographs.
"We opened up this place and became boosters the same year Armwood (opened in 1984)," said Al Hancock, whose father, Bruce, owns the shop. "We love sports, and we love Armwood football."
About 20 players and coaches regularly sit in Hancock's barber chair, but wearing the blue and white isn't a requirement for talking Armwood football. Hancock, a man with an easy smile and quick tongue, will typically provide anyone in earshot the skinny on everyone from free safety Trevor Weeks (1987) to fullback Kalvin Bailey (2004) to current star Alvin Bailey.
"What they have going on over there at Armwood is special," said Hancock, a school booster for all 27 years.
He just wishes more people around here realized it. As the Hawks prepare for Saturday's Class 6A state championship game against Miami Central at Orlando's Florida Citrus Bowl, their success isn't fully reflected in the support it receives from the community or the student body.
The Hawks have entrenched themselves as the kings of eastern — if not all of — Hillsborough County with a pair of state titles and two more finals appearances in the last eight seasons under their belt.
Before the Hawks won the first of their back-to-back championships in 2003, no county team had won a state title since 1969. From that season on, every Armwood team earned a state ranking and many received national acclaim.
"We have one of the best high school football teams in all of the country in our backyard," Hancock said. "And it's disappointing that place isn't jammed to the gills with fans."
Because of their dominance, most Hawks' regular season games are all but in the books by halftime, which lends itself to subpar attendance. But most recently against visiting Bartram Trail last Friday, the buzz at Lyle Flagg Field was far from a typical state semifinal atmosphere.
Beyond a devoted group of parents and a band of longtime supporters, the stands did not overflow.
"It's kind of sad because you sure would like it to be packed in here," Hawks coach Sean Callahan said this week as his team prepared for its fifth state final appearance in the last eight seasons. "These kids deserve it."
Armwood once had pep group of students years back called the Blue Crew who would paint their faces and bodies, filling a section of the stands. That group doesn't exist anymore and a quick scan of the home stands against Bartram Trail certainly didn't reveal a large student presence.
"There are a lot of things to do in the surrounding area for kids these days," Armwood principal Mike Ippolito said. "There are more distractions so it's different than in years past."
Despite the five-hour drive, Bartram Trail filled the smaller visitors side but the overflow forced more to stand along the fence. The Bears also came in featuring quarterback Nathan Peterman, a four-star national recruit headed to the University of Tennessee.
"I'm always promoting these games here (in the barber shop)," Hancock said. "Heck, you can watch the greatest team in the nation right down the road. Come on in, I'll buy you a corndog, and the mustard is free."
There are myriad theories as to why a team with Armwood's pedigree struggles to provide the same level of support as say Plant, the only other school in Hillsborough County on the Hawks' football pedestal.
"I don't like to make comparisons between us and another school because I don't really think that's fair," Ippolito said. "But obviously in Plant's case they have a much larger alumni having been around something like twice as long as we have."
The Panthers, who have three state titles in the past six seasons and will play for a fourth Saturday, routinely sell out playoff games. Plant games have become the Friday night thing to do in South Tampa and even finding room to walk within Dads Stadium can be difficult.
"But that's one of the things that sets (Seffner) apart," Hancock said. "We're not South Tampa corporate. This is a laid-back, country way of life out here."
Callahan said Armwood's location plays a part.
"We don't have a downtown in this little Seffner, Mango, Thonotosassa area," he said. "We're kind of stuck out here on I-4."
Hancock said the economic disparity between South Tampa and Seffner also is a factor.
"You get a dad who takes his three kids, that's $36 and parking makes it $38," he said. "Add concessions on top of that and it we're talking some money."
Callahan noted the Hawks aren't always the only ticket in town.
"You had Plant at home last week, too, so I think that hurt our attendance a little," he said. "I'd say half of our fans up there (in the stands) were just football fans from around the Tampa Bay area."
Very few area businesses have voiced support through storefront signs, but Ippolito noted that "there are only really two major roads in and out of Seffner."
"There is a Beef 'O' Brady's off MLK and the Clubhouse on Parsons that are big supporters of the football team and provide pregame meals at a discounted rate," Ippolito said. "The support may not be visible, but it's there."
Hancock, who has cut three generations of hair locally "from grandfathers to fathers to sons" said his father's shop will always support the Hawks. Although B & D Barber Shop is tough to spot without looking for it, the giant blue "Hawks #1" sign —one of the few posted by area businesses — makes it a little easier.
Someone recently offered Hancock $1,000 for a football signed by all the 2003 Hawks players and coaches.
"No way buddy," he said tapping the glass case it rests in. "No way."
Brandon Wright can be reached at email@example.com.