TAMPA — For Kenya Sykes, the Florida Classic wasn't just a football game; it was a family tradition. Every Thanksgiving weekend as she grew up, her extended family — cousins, aunts and uncles, all with ties to Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University — would drive in from Plant City and pack Tampa Stadium to root on the Rattlers in their annual matchup against Bethune-Cookman. It was a reunion, of sorts, cleverly disguised as a football game.
In 1995, Sykes graduated from FAMU. After the 1996 game, Tampa lost the Classic to Orlando, where it has been played every season since. In the past two decades, Sykes has moved to Queens in New York, where she's started a tax accounting business and people aren't so familiar with her alma mater and its traditions.
But Saturday at Raymond James Stadium, her Rattlers were back, and Sykes wasn't going to miss it for anything.
"This is like coming home," said Sykes, sporting a FAMU flag as a cape and a khaki Rattlers bucket hat. "I can't even explain the feeling."
Sykes was one of 17,101 who attended the FAMU Tampa Classic, a variation of the old event that pitted FAMU against Tennessee State, another historically black college. The Tigers took the lead on a first-quarter field goal and never let up, beating the Rattlers 24-13. FAMU fans overwhelmingly outnumbered those of their out-of-state rival, and the postgame atmosphere was as lively after the loss as it was before it. For many in attendance, the value of the rejuvenated Classic wasn't reliant on a score.
FAMU athletic director Milton Overton knew this would be the case when he got the idea to bring the game back to Tampa last January, a move made easier by the support of Hillsborough County Commissioner Les Miller.
"He reached out about the opportunity for the county to help out, because frankly if that didn't happen, we wouldn't have had enough dollars to do it," Overton said.
The weekend kicked off with a luncheon Friday at the Hilton Tampa Downtown, where FAMU alumni turned the ballroom into a sea of green sports coats and orange pantsuits. When the game began, fans visited with each other, many waving across sections to old friends and acquaintances.
"That's what I like. I enjoy that," said Bridgette Bowles, a 1993 FAMU alumnus who came to the game with four friends, all of them wearing matching orange bandanas. "You see people you haven't seen in awhile, people who you work with. I see some of the kids I taught. It's awesome."
In the halftime performance, dubbed the Battle of the Bands, FAMU's Marching 100 and TSU's Aristocrat of Bands put on a show, complete with high kicks and splits from students wearing hats as large as the instruments they held.
The Rattlers drove for a go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter, but nearby, bass drummer Jaylin Jacobs hardly noticed. The second-year percussionist was barking orders to the six drummers lined up in front of him, wincing under the weight of his large instrument. It made for an exhausting evening, and long after the game the Marching 100 continued to serenade an almost-empty stadium.
For Jacobs, it was more than worth it.
"You've got to get used to the weight of the drum. It's very physical, very taxing," Jacobs said between sets. "It's a great blessing to be here, because we don't always get to perform in a big stadium."
Just a week earlier, the fate of the Classic was as unpredictable as the hurricane barrelling towards the city. Tampa Bay Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins said he was in constant communication with local and FAMU officials, unsure how the weather would affect the Classic.
Six days later, though, Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn stood below sunny skies on the Raymond James Stadium turf, reflecting on a week of worries and an ensuing event that wiped those all away.
"Now, this is a time to celebrate," Buckhorn said. "I love college football, I love the classics, and I love getting this one back.