On the long bus ride home from Pensacola, the pain of the previous night's defeat smothered any positive thoughts of the 13 previous victories.
Nobody really knew how to handle this, and who could blame them? Until this game, the one for the 1984 Class 3A state football championship, the St. Petersburg High football team had not lost. Jim Mewha and his assistant coaches tried to do what they could, soothing the players by reminding them just how much they had accomplished.
"They told us coming back from that game, "You remember this because it's going to stick with you for a lifetime,"' recalled Stacy Manning, the star quarterback. "I remember the exact words Mewha said and all the coaches _ "You will never forget this.'
And, as usual that year, Mewha was right.
Ten years have passed, and the little Devils have grown up. They are fathers and husbands and, in some cases, ex-husbands. They are policemen and janitors and lawyers and construction workers and salesmen and Marines. A couple have been arrested. One player and an assistant coach have died.
Individually, they have all moved on, from boys playing in the game of their lives to men in the game of life.
Collectively, they are still the team that rose meteorically from mediocrity to capture the heart of the community. The team that won 13 consecutive times until running into Escambia High and a sophomore running back named Emmitt Smith in the championship game. The team that, to this day, remains the winningest team in Pinellas County history.
"Ten years later, it's still like it was yesterday," Manning said. "Oh man, it's kind of mind-boggling at times."
How a great season started
The genesis of the Green Devils' startling success that season can be debated. But it all may have started when a high school football coach in Fort Lauderdale named Carl Schneider scored a pair of tickets to the 1984 Super Bowl in Tampa.
Schneider needed a place to stay and called Mewha, his old Purdue roommate. The two spent the day before the game talking _ what else? _ football. Mewha had been at St. Petersburg 10 years, with just a 33-67 record to show for it. The past three seasons, he had won a total of 13 games. Schneider suggested a drastic change in the offense. Mewha found himself listening more and more.
"All of a sudden," Mewha said, "the light went on."
The archaic Wing-T offense, which he had run all 10 of his previous seasons, was replaced with the Nasty Slot, a formation designed to take advantage of the Devils' speed. He scrapped the 4-3 defense for a five-man front. He entrusted two of his assistants, Mark Wiszowaty and Chuck Gibson, with responsibilities for the offense and defense.
There were more changes. Mewha decided to get tough with the kids on grades and rigid with discipline, taking notice at a coaches' clinic when a speaker said to "get rid of the kids who don't want to do anything." He made conditioning a priority and emphasized a summer weightlifting program. He decided there were a half-dozen kids he needed to play both offense and defense and told them they had better be in shape because they weren't coming off the field.
And he decided to get positive, stressing team play, talking about winning a district championship and, for the first time in his career, putting up motivational signs around campus.
"I just made my mind up to put everything into this year," Mewha said.
The Devils weren't big _ except for muscleman lineman Todd Doty _ and they weren't deep, with only 36 players on the roster. They opened with a 21-6 win over St. Cloud, a Class 2A school. Then they reeled off three straight shutouts, beating Lakewood, Bayshore and Gibbs. They followed that with wins over Bradenton Southeast and Boca Ciega.
They hardly could believe it.
"As we were going along winning, Mark (Wiszowaty) would come up to me (whispering), "Coach we're 5-0. Coach we're 6-0.' " Mewha said. "I'd say, "Mark, we're not going to talk about that.' "
The Devils survived a 6-3 battle with Northeast, then scored wins against Osceola and Seminole. Amazingly, the oft-downtrodden Green Devils were 9-0. But they still hadn't won a thing, having to go over the Skyway Bridge to play at Venice for the district championship.
"Going into that ballgame we were still tense," Mewha said. "In the first quarter we were down 16-0 and all of a sudden we're looking at each other like, "Oh jeez, don't tell me we're gonna get humiliated here.' And the kids came back and won it (24-19)."
The Devils went down to Naples and beat Lely for the region title. They came home _ their only game at Stewart Field in a month _ and beat defending state champion Titusville for the section title. They went to Homestead, playing against boys the size of grown men, and won their way into the state championship.
"I hate to use cliches, but it's unexplainable," Manning said. "You can not put it into words how everything seemed to fit in that one season."
White kids got along with black kids. Rich with poor. Underclassmen with seniors. "It was," lineman Rollo Christensen said, "just teamwork."
The dream ended swiftly on a warm December night in the Panhandle. Maybe it was the two-day bus ride to get there. Maybe they finally realized where they were. Maybe the Gators and their 15-year-old star-to-be were just better. Smith rushed for 205 yards and two touchdowns. Escambia won 47-14. The Green Devils carried Mewha off the field.
"You're looking at a team that, God, forever, always was 5-5, 6-4, 4-6," Devils lineman Tim Murray said. "And then one year it blew the doors off everybody."
Nothing like it before or since
There was something about being a Green Devil that year. Wherever the kids went around town _ the teen hangout at the Fourth Street McDonald's, Demen's Landing, the malls _ people wanted to talk football. Wherever their parents went, people wanted to talk football. Eventually, the excitement spread to the whole community. Extra bleachers had to be brought in for the Titusville game. Cheerleaders from Lakewood and Gibbs High took part in the send-off for the state final.
"That was the year that meant everything," said Bob Pfeiffer, the Class of '33 relic who is the Devils' unofficial mascot. "There's never been anything like it before or since then that I know of."
That season has become an emblazoned point of reference for everybody involved. For some it was a springboard. For others a zenith.
Manning went to North Carolina State to play football but quit after three seasons because he thought the coaches were more concerned with his performance on the field than in the classroom. He came home, found a job and planned to enroll at USF until a friend led him to something else, a scholarship to Tampa College, a small school trying to assemble a track program. Manning ran cross-country and walked away in June 1993 with a bachelor's degree in business administration.
That earned an interview with Raymond James Financial Inc. for a job in the retirement services planning department, processing IRA transfers. A few minutes into the talk with supervisor Shelley Castle, Manning realized a good part of his past would be a good part of his future.
"She was reading my resume and said she screens through a lot of applications and resumes. Then she remembered the name Stacy and it started right there. She said, "I remember you were the quarterback who went 13-1 and played Emmitt Smith.' I'm like, "How'd you know?'
" Manning said.
"We interviewed for about an hour, hour-and-a-half, and 30-40 minutes was on St. Pete High. She was telling me how she was an alum, and how we have associates and an assistant VP from the school. I think that helped out a lot. I believe that's how I won her over, with my charm and St. Pete High. I believe that's how I got this job."
After eight months on the job, Manning still gets kidded by the guys in the office about his football career. His uniform, though, is a shirt and tie now, and the same high-pitched voice that called out signals now verifies details on investments. And Manning, as usual, is looking downfield _ taking classes at Raymond James with hopes of becoming a registered broker.
Linebacker Donny Herring has a job that allows him to see some of his old high school teammates. But he is St. Petersburg police Officer Donny Herring now, so they are not always social calls. In five years on the force, Herring has worked shootings and suicides and other tragedies. But one of his toughest days came during an incident a few years ago involving Carlton Jones, whom he once played alongside at linebacker.
"One of the worst things I had to do was arrest Carlton Jones, and that wasn't up to me," Herring said. "There was a big problem and his buddy was causing a problem. I had to take him to jail. I didn't like that. He was real cool about it. He didn't have a problem with it. Carlton's one who's always been a good guy."
Police work keeps Herring, 27, busy. For about three years he was a professional boxer and ran up a 7-0 record fighting as the Green Machine. But he met his match last April against Johnny Williams for the state middleweight title, getting knocked down three times in the first round, losing the bout and leaving the ring for good.
"It almost looks like, actually that's what it does look like, like I lost and I just flat out quit," Herring said. "But actually that was going to be my last fight anyway, although I didn't let a lot of people know that. I had made a decision that I'm gonna quit. It took up time. The kids were getting older and I wanted to spend more time with them."
Time always seems to be short for Herring, who works the midnight shift almost exclusively. Between collecting overtime for court appearances in the morning and taking extra jobs at night before he goes on duty ("I'm trying to work as much as possible since my wife doesn't work," he said), keeping up with a 3-year-old and a 1-year-old and trying to grab a few hours sleep in the middle of the day, there isn't much time for anything else.
Herring played a year of football at Loras College in Iowa and had a couple of stints at St. Petersburg Junior College before joining the force. He is trying again for a degree, taking a class one night a week. "I don't know if that's my thing," he said. "I may not it's hard. I'm like what am I gonna do with it? Where am I gonna go?' I mean this is pretty much it right here."
Members of the Devils team are spread around. Only a few played college football, and none really made it big. Center Dave Forziano recently passed the Florida Bar and is working as a law clerk in the Hillsborough County Attorney's office waiting for an opening. Doty and Christensen are in construction. Linebacker Shawn Perrine is doing graduate work. Details on others, such as running back Mike Davis, star receiver Vader Green, kicker Shawn Burns, and receiver Fred Rowe, are harder to come by.
Murray has probably gone the farthest since high school, at least in terms of miles. He decided SPJC wasn't the answer and joined the Marines, going around the world twice, with extended stays in Japan, Panama and Saudi Arabia.
Nothing matched what he saw in Kuwait during the Desert Storm invasion. Murray, who started in the Marines as a diesel mechanic, was a non-commissioned quality control officer when his battalion became the second Marine division to go into Kuwait. "We took over the airport and a small city," Murray said. "We were actually going through a minefield in Kuwait. My truck got holes in it from shrapnel."
The most vivid scene came toward the end of the operation. "It was the most incredible thing I'd ever seen," he said. "Nothing around you but burning oil wells and on the horizon all you see is people in a single-file line walking in and dropping their guns."
After four years active duty, Murray came home in April 1991; his reserve status will expire next spring. He is divorced and now runs his own tree service. Even with all he has been through, thoughts of 1984 are not far away. "I think about it an awful lot," he said. "It was a really good year. We had a really good time."
Earl Mack had a good time too that year. He was a starting safety and backup quarterback, playing a key role when Manning went down with leg cramps against Titusville.
"The main thing I remember was how we stuck together as a team and helped each other out with our problems," Mack said.
Mack's problems started soon after. He was unable to play high school sports the next season because he was too old. He wanted to get into the Marines, but said they wouldn't take him.
He has been arrested nine times since on a variety of felony and misdemeanor charges. He has been sent to state prison twice and served several shorter stints in the Pinellas County Jail.
Now, Mack says he is staying out of trouble and working as a janitor. "I was hanging out with the wrong crowd doing things I had no business doing," Mack said. "I'm straightened out now."
For all of the people who were touched by the 1984 success, perhaps it had the most effect on Mewha. He had played football and coached football and lived football for most of his 38 years, but had decided during that season _ he's not sure just when _ that he had had enough.
"I had given it good thought," Mewha said. "It turned out to be the ideal time."
Mewha stayed at the school _ he's still there today, teaching driver's ed _ but doesn't get involved much with the football program. He does keep tabs on his assistant coaches _ Dusty Boylson, for example, is the Devils' head coach and Wiszowaty is the coach at Dixie Hollins. And Mewha keeps in touch with the sport by providing color commentary on the weekly Paragon Cable game.
Now 48, he says he has no plans to return to the sidelines, not unless there was a critical situation. "When people would ask me, I tell them I miss it on Friday nights, but not during the week," he said.
Just about everybody involved with the 1984 team enjoyed the experience. But for some, the joy gave way eventually to tragedy.
Kevin Jantschek was a sophomore lineman on the 1984 team. He was good then, but great as a junior and senior. Jantschek went on to Tulane, overcoming a severe knee injury to play four seasons as a defensive tackle for the Green Wave.
Jantschek was the kind of guy everyone liked to be around, pleasant and quick with a joke. But something was wrong. On Christmas Eve in 1992, Jantschek was diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma, a vicious form of bone cancer.
"In the beginning he said he was going to fight it, and he did fight it," his mother, Elsie, said. "He didn't give up until the end. He never once gave up. He never complained. As someone said, he tackled it like a football game."
A few months after he began chemotherapy treatments, Jantschek wanted to get together with his buddies. They met at a local bar.
"He had been going through the treatments and he had no hair, but he said he wanted to pound some beers with his friends," Forziano said. "He was really upbeat for a guy dealing with what he was dealing with. It was never quiet at the table."
12, 1993, a football Friday, Jantschek died at home.
Being part of the 1984 team meant a lot to Jantschek. In the Tulane media guide, it says the highlight of Jantschek's athletic career was playing in the state championship game as a sophomore. "That was his proud moment," Elsie Jantschek said. In the Jantschek home, they still have the clippings, videotapes and one of Kevin's jerseys.
"We have all the memories," Elsie Jantschek said. "I wish we didn't."
There is another member of the Devils team who passed on. Assistant coach George Icke III died March 16, 1990, at the age of 41 after suffering a heart attack. Icke, according to Mewha, was another one of those wonderfully upbeat people who always brightened a room.
"We had him go and scout Escambia. He was supposed to come back and give us a report," Mewha said. "Well, he was a little confused. He didn't know exactly where the players were lining up. But he said they had this little sophomore running back who's not too bad. NOT TOO BAD! That was his exact quote."
"I tackled Emmitt Smith'
That little running back, of course, was Emmitt Smith. And no matter what happens to any of the Green Devils, no matter how far into the recesses of their minds they have packed the memories of the 1984 season, all it takes is one mention of Emmitt's name on the sports pages, or one video clip of him on TV, and it all comes crashing back.
"That's so annoying," Herring said. "Actually I'm happy for him. And it's a nice thing to say _ "I tackled Emmitt Smith.' And I've got a picture in the yearbook to show it, too."
Green Devils lineman Mike Cheek got his hands on Smith a few times in the championship game. He got close again in 1991, when Cheek was in Houston on a sales call and Smith was preparing for his second season with the Cowboys.
Cheek and his boss from his sporting goods company were packed into a hotel elevator. "We go down one floor, the doors open, and Emmitt Smith walks in," Cheek said. "I go, "Oh, God!' He says, "Hey.' I said, "Don't you remember me? I played against you. The 1984 state championship game.' He smiles and says, "Oh yea, St. Pete High.'
Smith's success isn't the only present-day reminder of 1984. It doesn't happen quite as often as it used to, but there are still times when a player runs into a buddy who wants to talk about that season, or meets somebody who remembers them from that year. They occasionally still look through the scrapbooks or pop in a video. ("I've never watched the last game," Doty says almost defiantly.) The school, surprisingly, has no plans to recognize the team at tonight's homecoming game, but there is talk of a 10-year class reunion in the spring. Pfeiffer wants to see if Emmitt Smith will come.
Manning, 27, is amazed at how often he still is associated with the team. Sure he was the star quarterback, safety and kick returner, but he hasn't played football in years.
When he is not working with the youth groups at his church or biking or spending time with his longtime girlfriend, he heads to one of the city rec centers for a pick-up basketball game. There's always a fair amount of talking and jawing before they get around to choosing teams. When the time comes, Manning calls an audible _ he tells them his name is Ray.
"If I would say Stacy, well you don't hear of many guys named Stacy, and when I'd tell them where I'm from, then automatically whatever we were talking about stopped because they wanted to talk about football," Manning said.
"So when they're picking teams now my name is Ray. They still kinda know me a little by my face. I just use Ray so it's not so much of a hassle when I'm out with my peers and stuff. I still do that today. It's weird. It's something."
St. Petersburg High was 13-0 before losing to Escambia in the Class 3A state title game. The 1984 team still is the winningest in Pinellas County history.
Beat St. Cloud 21-6
Beat Lakewood 3-0
Beat Bayshore 21-0
Beat Gibbs 36-0
Beat Southeast 16-8
Beat Boca Ciega 28-6
Beat Northeast 6-3
Beat Osceola 27-14
Beat Seminole 48-0
Beat Venice 24-19
Beat Naples Lely 28-7+
Beat Titusville 21-9+
Beat Homestead 23-20+
Lost to Escambia 47-14
+-playoff game; -state final