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Starlings fuel long decades of two teams' rivalry

With the Pasco-Hernando high school football series resuming Friday after a two-year layoff, the Times is taking a weeklong look at memorable games and personalities.

His voice is not as powerful as it once was. In it there are a hint of old age and a slight tremor that makes his Southern drawl sing with storytelling authenticity.

When Bill Starling speaks about Pasco County football, you feel compelled to listen.

And when he tells you that the bitter feelings between the Pirates of Pasco High and the Leopards of Hernando High transcend any other rivalry in the North Suncoast area, you feel compelled to believe him. After a two-year layoff, that rivalry resumes Friday when Hernando plays at Pasco with the Class 4A, District 8, playoff spots on the line.

"I tell you right now, this (rivalry) is big, real big. I would not miss a game between Pasco and Hernando as long as I'm alive," said Starling, who at 79 is one of few surviving members of the 1933 Pasco team that played one of the early games of the rivalry. "If they have to push me out there in a wheelchair, I'll be there."

You can't blame him. He is the oldest link in a remarkable chain of Starlings who have played for the Pirates. Bill's two sons, Edward and Virgil Starling, were outstanding players for the Pirates during the 1950s. Edward was a running back, Virgil a defensive end.

Edward went on to become the mayor of Dade City but lost a battle to cancer in 1984. His two sons, Mike and Brad Starling, were key players through the early '80s. Mike was a linebacker, Brad a star quarterback who went on to become an assistant coach for the Pirates.

Brad, now the father of 15-month-old Grant, hopes his son will carry on the tradition. Grant already has been fitted with a miniature Pasco High jersey.

"I don't know if I'll be around then," Bill said of seeing his grandson play. "But if I'm here, I'm going to be out there to see him play."

Brad understands that his infant son must make his own choices.

"I'm not going to push him into sports, but if he chooses to play it will be something else, something special," Brad said.

The youngster has no idea of the burden he bears. It seems that each decade, a Starling has been a member of the Pasco football heritage. There have been other family names _ like the Hambricks (James, Darren and Troy) _ who have played crucial roles in the program's development. And with Darren and Troy leading the way, Pasco won its only state title, in 1992.

But the Starling name has crossed generations and defied time. When you think Pasco football, you hear the name Starling.

"It's like we always have a Starling playing or coaching," said Brad, who was an assistant under coaches Perry Brown and Ricky Thomas, before taking the 1997 season off to raise his family. Brad Starling, a teacher at Centennial Elementary School in Dade City, plans to return to the Pasco High sidelines as an assistant coach next season.

"We are proud of that tradition," Brad said.

Part of that tradition is waging war against their neighbors from Brooksville. It's not clear when the first Pasco-Hernando game was played, though newspaper accounts detail a scoreless tie in 1932. The rivalry later took a hiatus from roughly 1949 into the 1960s.

During that time, the Pirates left the Tampa Bay Conference to play in the Southwestern Football Conference (with schools such as Bartow and Lake Wales), but the rivalry picked right up upon their return.

Since then, there have been classic battles on bloodied fields. The war has made heroes of teenagers and brought grown men to tears. "It's really hard to understand," said "It's really hard to understand," said Bill Starling, who was born in Lakeland and moved to Dade City in 1932. "I think we hated them, because over the years they were beating us so bad because we had not gotten established. There was just something there."

Said Brad Starling: "I don't think anyone outside the community can have a sense of what it was like to play those guys. It seemed that every time we took the field there was something critical on the line."

And the Starlings seldom missed a down.

"To me," Bill said, "it was exciting because they were all very good athletes. It was something to make you proud of. They were like me, they were players. I know when we went into the dressing room you would wet your pants two or three times before the game. It was always so special to play them. You wanted to beat their brains out so bad because they had done the same to you."

Those feelings all came back when the rivalry resumed in 1967.

"It was the same, nothing changed," Bill said. "The older fans, like me, went to those same games and got their ears knocked off, too."

Dade City Mayor Charles McIntosh, who played with Starling on the 1933 team, said there might have been another reason for the ill feelings.

"I know the boys from Brooksville used to come over here and date the girls from Dade City, and the boys from Dade City would go over there and do the same," McIntosh said. "When you're young, those were things that caused problems."

McIntosh says he does not remember much about those days. He does not remember playing on the same team with Starling. But what he does remember is the emotion surrounding certain games.

"There was an intense rivalry even back then," said McIntosh, who is also 79. "I do remember that when we played, there would be people standing around the sidelines right on the field. It was crowded. There were no stands, just lots of people."

Lots of people indeed. In the years that followed, the Pasco-Hernando rivalry grew in intensity. Often they played with a district title on the line. Every time they played with pride on the line.

"Everything is already in place," Bill said. "Everybody was disappointed when they took them off of our schedule. It's such a heated rivalry. If you want to play, you want to play competition, and we have great respect for them.

"On Friday I want Pasco to win bad. Bad, bad, bad. But to do that, we're going to have to play, play, play."