TAMPA — There’s a solid gold agenda planned at this weekend’s 50-year reunion for the Jesuit High School 1968 state-championship football team.
Some Tigers haven’t stayed in close touch. Others get together on a weekly basis. Regardless of the relationships, this should be a special gathering.
The Tigers will be honored by their alma mater while they catch up on lost time and trade some well-worn stories. They will watch the game film (again). They will have a legendary dinner, where the tributes will flow for departed teammates and their unforgettable head coach, Bill Minahan, who died in 2013.
They will attend Mass. They will give thanks.
"What’s really amazing is we have a bunch of guys who love to get together, who are still interested in each other and have a genuine love for everyone,’’ said former fullback Arnold Sheidler, now of Alpharetta, Ga. "I mean, it’s 50 years later, and we’re still here getting together. I think that says something.
It was Dec. 20, 1968, when the Class A state championship game was played at the old Tampa Stadium, barely a year old. Jesuit, which got a police escort from its campus — less than a mile away — defeated Lakeland Kathleen 39-25 to win the first state football title by a Hillsborough County team in the playoff era.
The night’s sensation was running back Leonard George, who raced for four touchdowns just two days after becoming the first African-American player to sign a football scholarship with the University of Florida. George was clearly Jesuit’s most celebrated player. But the Tigers were far from a one-man team.
They featured speedy quarterback Steve Krist, now a Tampa dentist, and rugged two-way linemen such as Kent Corral, a doctor, and Greg Harlow, who played at Florida and now runs a private investigation business.
The Tigers, who lost at powerful Lake City Columbia in the 1967 state semifinals, weren’t expected to be a serious contender. But they finished 12-1, losing only to Middleton, 7-6 in the third week — a defeat that proved to be beneficial. The Tigers registered four shutouts, including a 20-0 victory at DeFuniak Springs in freezing, drizzling conditions, setting up a trip to the state championship game.
"We were not that big and I’m not sure any of us would be playing (a prominent role) with today’s athletes,’’ Corral said. "But we were a team. We were smart. We were well coached by Bill Minahan, who was so far ahead of his time with the way he prepared a team.’’
"Winning the state title is not the first thing I think of when I wake up in the morning,’’ Harlow said. "But it has certainly remained with me almost every day. I think it helped set in motion a successful life for most of us.’’
The Tigers will sit together during Friday night’s Jefferson-Jesuit game at Jesuit’s Corral Memorial Stadium, where they will be introduced at halftime. Saturday night, there’s a dinner at the Columbia Restaurant. Sunday, it’s Mass at the new Jesuit chapel and a tour of the school, followed by a brunch.
"There will be laughter and there might be a few tears,’’ Krist said. "The bottom line is that experience continues to mean so much for all of us. It’s an unbelievable bond that united us forever. It made us realize that all things are possible.
Krist said he still remembers the exhilaration of performing under the Tampa Stadium lights, the thrill of watching the final seconds tick off the clock and the quick bus ride back to campus. Before the night got away though, Krist got a hug from his father, who said, "Son, I’m so proud of you.’’
"It meant a lot then,’’ Krist said. "It means even more now. Just like most everything about that season still means so very much to us all.’’
Sheidler remembers the postgame words of Jesuit team physician Frank Massari, who said the state championship experience would live forever.
Fifty years later, it’s still true.
"When you’re 17 or 18, you think you’re invincible and can live forever,’’ Sheidler said. "To be part of this team, part of us has lived forever. Dr. Massari was correct.
Contact Joey Johnston at [email protected]