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Lightning strike still painful

In 1970, lightning struck the Gibbs High football practice field, killing two players and changing lives.

Jim Lawson is a tough man. He was in the 82nd Airborne, served as a Green Beret and survived the death of his wife, Ronella, who was killed in a car accident 15 years ago.

Despite all he's been through, remembering the morning of Sept. 7, 1970 still brings him to tears.

That Labor Day he was on the football practice field at Gibbs High when lightning struck and killed two of his teammates, Vincent Williams and Lawson's cousin, Robert Newton.

"What does Labor Day mean?" Lawson said last week as he paused to lower his glasses and wipe his eyes. "Whew. That's tough."

The tragedy left a lasting imprint on Lawson. He has dark burn marks across his body outlining the shape of his shoulder pads.

The emotional scars are worse.

Whenever a thunderstorm approaches, Lawson unplugs all electrical outlets in his house and huddles in a dark corner of a room away from mirrors until it passes.

"Let me put it to you like this," said Lawson, who has worked for the St. Petersburg Times since 1989. "In my lifetime I'll never forget this. It stays with you. I have had a lot of tough times, but that day ranks right up there in dealing with pain and hurt."

The players would normally have been long gone before the lightning hit.

In August of '70, integration plans by the Pinellas County School Board forced the closing of the formerly all-black school. Weeks later, the school was reopened as a comprehensive school, which delayed the start of practice.

So coach Al Campbell still was trying to catch up and stuck with his normal routine, scheduling a morning scrimmage on the holiday. He said last week that he was using the time to work in a promising sophomore at quarterback, Vincent Williams.

Practice was about to end about 11:30 a.m., but the team was playing well. Campbell had just called a running play that the offense had worked on all summer and Earl Harris executed it perfectly, gaining 35 yards.

Though there were dark clouds in the distance toward the west, Campbell said he felt it wasn't much of a threat. After all, it was sunny on the practice field. He decided the team could practice for another half hour.

After the long gain, Campbell ordered Lawson to sub for Newton. Campbell would have joined Lawson in the huddle to talk to the players, but he was distracted by his two sons, Kenneth and Al Jr., who were holding the down markers and chain.

Herb Dixon, an assistant coach, walked onto the practice field to take Campbell's place.

"I veered away," Campbell said. "My two sons and another coach's son were laughing and goofing off and not keeping up with us. I didn't want that to happen during a game, so I went there to talk to them and set them straight."

Campbell looked away momentarily when he heard a sound that was unmistakable.

"It was like a whip going off right beside your ear," he said.

Crack!

A bolt of lightning struck the huddle and knocked everyone on the field to the ground.

"I just remember it being like a large tub of water that had been dropped several stories," said Campbell, who was knocked unconscious. "It was just like a big splash. That's what I remember. Then I got up and it looked like a scene from a battlefield."

Campbell woke to the scream of his players. Most of them still were lying on the field.

Among them was Lawson.

"I remember my ears ringing, my head hurting and no one standing," Lawson said. "It scared the living hell out of me."

After the initial shock, Campbell yelled at his players to stay low and crawl off the field, while he drove across 34th Street to call for an ambulance.

Lawson crawled to his cousin, Newton, who was laid out near Williams, smoke billowing from their bodies.

"Their bodies were in spasms and they were hot as a rock," Lawson said.

Lawson, along with another teammate, began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

"We kept pressing against their chests," Lawson said. "We were hoping to give them life, but it wasn't working. Their eyes were glassy. We had to wait for the paramedics."

Lawson's attempts to revive them were unsuccessful. Newton and Williams were pronounced dead at the hospital.

The bolt that struck at Gibbs was visible 24 blocks away at Boca Ciega High where the football team also was practicing.

"We ran off the field after seeing lightning," said Pinellas County athletic director Bob Hosack, then an assistant coach at Boca Ciega. "It came out of nowhere. We were scared. We got out of there pretty quickly. I remember feeling very lucky because we were awfully close to where it struck."

Word spread quickly. Al Davis, a '66 graduate of Gibbs who now is the school's football coach, was on break from Bethune-Cookman College and spent the day at Maximo Beach with some friends. A passerby told him the news.

"I remember someone saying, "Hey did you hear about what happened at Gibbs? Lightning hit the practice field,' " Davis said. "It was sunny, not a drop of rain where I was, but once I heard that, I started to panic."

His reason was personal. Davis' brother, Larry, was a member of the team.

"I called to make sure he was okay," Davis said.

Larry wasn't injured, but 23 teammates and coaches were. Sixteen players and coaches were treated and released. Five others were hospitalized.

Then there were Newton and Williams.

Dorris Newton, Robert's sister, was at the coin laundry when the lightning hit. She was washing clothes for Robert to wear to school the next day. When she came home, cars parked around the house blocked the driveway. She knew something was wrong.

Dorris went with her mother, Martha, to the emergency room.

"I remember the doctor had said they'd done all they could do," Dorris Newton said. "They said they were real sorry."

Martha Newton went into shock. She couldn't accept that her seventh child, born on the seventh of March, had died on Sept. 7, 1970.

"Mom just kept crying," Dorris said. "She asked, "Why my baby?' "

The team had dealt with death before. Alfred Bryant, a 15-year-old junior, suffered a heart attack and died during spring practice. Now the team had to deal with another tragedy, but the season couldn't wait. Campbell met with his players the next day to decide whether to continue. The players wanted to play. They wore black wristbands to honor their dead teammates.

Gibbs won five games that season, including victories over Seminole, Largo and Dixie Hollins.

"My memories of when I played against that Gibbs team weren't the greatest," said Clearwater Central Catholic coach John Davis, who played quarterback for Dixie Hollins that season. "I threw for more than 200 yards in the first half, but broke my leg in the second half. I still hobble around walking because of that."

But it is lightning, not his leg, that constantly reminds Davis of the Gibbs team of '70.

"We can have the fastest players around, and I'll beat them to the locker room whenever I see lightning," Davis said. "I don't play around with that. When you see it up close, you know what lightning can do. Gosh 1970, that time, it was just a sad, sad day for the county when those two players died. Everyone was affected by it."

Some longer than others.

Lawson still suffers from migraines and never wears jewelry. And if he is outside when a thunderstorm approaches, he immediately hits the ground and goes into duck-and-cover mode.

"I remember being at Fort Bragg in 1974 and standing at attention while we were waiting for this senator to visit," Lawson said. "I was in the front and I saw this storm coming. Then lightning flashed not too far away. I dropped to the ground. Everyone looked at me kind of strange, including the senator. I told him what had happened to me and he understood my reaction."

Campbell also dealt with the trauma. He was supposed to be in the huddle standing next to Williams and Newton.

"I know coach Campbell was tore up about the whole situation," Al Davis said. "He was a tough guy, but he never had lost anyone on the practice field. I think it was the only time I saw tears from him."

"I think about those two kids and what happened all the time," Campbell said. "I would have been there with him. If I was in that huddle, I wouldn't be talking to you right now."

Before the tragedy, Campbell had been thinking about moving to San Francisco. Instead, he vowed to stay at Gibbs until every player who was on that practice field graduated. When Campbell did leave in '72, he had many head coaching offers but said he wanted only to be an assistant coach. He wanted to leave his head coaching legacy at Gibbs.

Campbell finally agreed to an assistant coaching job in Sam Mateo County. He did so on one condition. He would never work on Labor Day. Also, his two sons would never attend football practice on Labor Day.

"That is a day to remember those two kids," Campbell said.

In dedication to Williams and Newton, a memorial consisting of a gladiator statue, an eternal flame and a plaque surrounded by shrubbery was erected in front of the school's gymnasium the following year. The practice field also was renamed Newton-Williams Memorial Field.

Their memory, however, faded through the years. The practice field was bulldozed to make way for a parking lot where the Pinellas Technical Education Center now sits. The memorial also was vandalized. The flame had not been turned on in several years, the shrubs uprooted and the gladiator statue was stolen.

In 1978, a new Gibbs football field was built. It was named Newton-Williams Memorial field. A new monument featuring two plaques was built in the center of campus. They serve as a constant reminder to each generation of players.

"I really have a healthy fear of lightning," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Shaun King, who played at Gibbs. "You can ask Tony (Dungy). Any time it starts remotely resembling lightning, I go running from out there. I was telling him the stadium I played at in high school is named after some kids who were unfortunate enough to get struck. It's something that you learn to deal with over time, but it's always in the back of your mind. When there's lightning, that's the first thing that pops up."

"I know about what happened through stories," Gibbs senior offensive linemen Dusty Keseleski said. "I know it had to have been real bad when it happened. When I'm out here on the football field, I often think what that must have been like to go through. I think, "Man that's tough.' "

Memorials and plaques are one thing, but the most urgent reminder is a flash of lightning.

Last Thursday, Sept. 7, exactly 30 years to the day from the tragedy, Al Davis concluded practice amid darkening clouds. The players were huddled in the corner of the end zone.

He talked to his players about a key district game when he surveyed the sky and noticed a bolt of lightning. It was an eerie feeling. The flash was in the vicinity of the PTEC parking lot, the same spot where the practice field once was. The same spot where Newton and Williams were killed.

That's all Davis needed to see. His eyes widened as he looked off in the distance, then toward the locker rooms and barked out instructions.

Lightning! Head to the locker room! Now!

The players are well-versed in this routine. When the first thunderstorm occurs during summer practices, Davis pulls his team into the locker room and tells them the story of Newton and Williams.

"There is a lot of history, sad history with those two players," Davis said of Newton and Williams.

"I'm not about to let history repeat itself."

_ Staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this report.

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