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Old Panther hearts are pounding

Sandy Freedman went on to become mayor of Tampa, but on Saturday she'll be a cheerleader all over again.

So will 80 years' worth of her fellow H.B. Plant High School Panthers as their football team travels to Miami to play in its first-ever state championship game.

The students have gone on to become politicians, pro athletes and prominent businesspeople in Tampa and nationwide, but there's something about the school on Dale Mabry Highway that always draws them back. At games, they chant it: "One heartbeat."

"The bonds that are built - they don't just end at the time of graduation," Freedman said. "They remain forever."

Sam Gibbons was too skinny to play on the football team in 1938, but that didn't stop him from keeping track of the team 68 years after he graduated.

"They didn't do that good when we were there," Gibbons said. "They were just so-so in those years."

Gibbons, who was a congressman from Tampa for 34 years, and all his fellow Plant alums who live at the Canterbury Tower on Bayshore Boulevard have spent the past week talking about Plant's chances of winning a state title.

His old friend Mary Ellen Germany heard the news first from her daughter Jan. "We're on our way to Miami!" Jan yelled into her cell phone.

Germany heard cheers in the background. They reminded her of the Thanksgiving night games Plant would play against archrival Hillsborough High School when she was a student. In those days, families finished their dinners early so they could go to the games.

Thirty years later, her daughter Jan sat in the same stands to watch the team practice after school. She traveled down to Miami in 1976 when they played in the semifinals, and when they lost, she still loved them. She even married Plant football player Mark Gruetzmacher.

Thirty years later, Jan Gruetzmacher will travel to Miami again. This time, her husband and sophomore son will join her in a caravan of alumni and students leaving Friday night to tailgate over barbecue ribs and coleslaw.

"Every single person I talk to seems to be going," Gruetzmacher said - even her pastor at Holy Trinity Presbyterian Church. "I live a block from the school and we've been taking our kids to football games since they were little. It's kind of a little community tradition, and it seems like everyone in South Tampa has caught the fever."

Doug Shields caught the fever as a 5-year-old water boy for the Plant team. His dad played for Plant in the 1950s, and Shields went on to play as a quarterback in 1980. His mom was a Plant principal.

"She used to say, 'You show me a good sports program and I'll show you a good school,' " Shields said. "You walk through the halls at Plant, the electricity - kids are walking on their toes."

So is Shields. He, his wife, their 8-year-old twins, his dad and his sister will drive down to Miami on Saturday. They don't want to miss history.

"If they win, we'll be there," Shields said.

Alexandra Zayas can be reached at 226-3354 or azayas@sptimes.com.

FAST FACTS

Watch the game

H.B. Plant High School will play Ponte Vedra Beach Nease in the FHSAA Championship at 1 p.m. Saturday at Dolphin Stadium in Miami. The game will be broadcast on Sun Sports television. To watch the game with fellow Panthers, go to Beef O'Brady's, 2819 MacDill Ave., or Cherry's Bar & Grill, 3114 W Bay to Bay Blvd., in South Tampa.

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