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As far as debuts go, it probably wasn't as bad has having Brett Favre throw four touchdowns against your defense in 1996 as a rookie cornerback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Donnie Abraham remembers that one well. A 34-3 loss.

Friday, he lost his first game as Gibbs coach, 40-6 to Lakewood.

"We'll get better here, too," he said.

The Gladiators will have to, to continue what Abraham may have started at Gibbs.

The scoreboard told one story, the stands told another. They were filled.

People lined the fence along 34th Street and peered through chain link, because they were turned away from a sold-out stadium. They lined up on the Pinellas Trail overpass and watched from there, too.

I'm assuming this wasn't just to catch a glimpse of Gibbs' Jarvis West or Lakewood's Bernard Reedy, two of the most electrifying players in Tampa Bay, but rather the former Buccaneer working to give Gibbs a winner.

Either reason works for me.

"It was very exciting to see that," Abraham said, smiling. "Nice to see that support. We need them to support us."

It could be a long season for Gibbs and Abraham, who look far too small and lethargic on the interior to hold off some of the more powerful foes on their schedule. Speed and athleticism will only take you so far, and in recent years that hasn't been far at all. This Gibbs team isn't much different, and Abraham seems to understand that. He'll need time.

He got the job after spring practice had concluded, and his hire helped salvage, somewhat, the awful decision of old administrators to essentially blow off the spring by not hiring a coach sooner or placing the team in sturdier hands.

Abraham stepped into a situation that looked ready to implode, with key players ready to leave for better schools and more stability. They stayed, mostly because of Abraham, and now he will build his team around them.

The community seems to believe, if the overflow crowd Friday was any indication. And the Gladiators certainly believe.

They played a far better Lakewood team to a scoreless first quarter. After Reedy scored twice to make it 13-0, West broke free, taking a pass over the middle at midfield and turning it into one of those sensational touchdowns for which he is renowned.

Trailing 13-6, Gibbs had the ball with less than a minute left in the first half when the referees squeezed the life out of Abraham's team, and his night.

Gibbs quarterback Josh Rembert dropped back, threw a pass that traveled at least a foot before Lakewood's Bar'ee Boyd leaped into the air and swatted it back the other way. You could hear it from the overpass. Heck, you could see it from the overpass. Unless, apparently, you were one of the five officials.

Then you saw nothing. Instead, they ruled it a backward pass and a few plays later Lakewood strolled into the end zone again.

Lakewood dominated the rest of the night. Afterward Abraham stood in the hallway and smiled through every answer in his calm, cool way.

He didn't pull out the counter-productive "It's the world-vs.-Gibbs" speech. He didn't call out a single player.

That's when I thought, this is the guy, if he sticks around, to do at Gibbs what Cory Moore is doing at Lakewood, what Joe Fabrizio is doing at St. Petersburg, what Rick Rodriguez has done at Largo.

As far as debuts go, it was a lot better than you might think.