TAMPA — Walking through the parking lots at Raymond James Stadium three hours before a football game — yes, a football game — you could hear the hum of generators. But it was a hopeful sound. The bounce house in the fan area was kept inflated. TVs were powered at tailgate parties. People were laughing. There was a game.
USF returned to the football field Friday night, defeating Illinois 47-23 on national TV. The Bulls brought a lot of people along with them, including high school football teams whose games had been postponed. The teams were admitted for free, as well as first responders and their families.
It was a wonderful thing for USF and coach Charlie Strong to do. And the mere fact that the game was on made things feel a little more normal after the anxiety over Irma, when "Is your power back?" became the overarching question.
But there was the power of caring, and it was all around our communities and our state. First responders from various branches were to have led Strong and his team onto the field, but a weather delay canceled that — but our first responders always lead the charge anyway.
"Everybody looks at us, but we're only doing our jobs," Hillsborough County Sheriff's Cpl. Shawn Morley said. "This is just about people helping people. The whole community. Everyone."
When USF ran onto the field, the Bulls were led by junior linebacker Anthony Beko of Tampa and senior tight end Spencer Adkinson of Seminole. Beko carried the U.S. flag. Adkinson carried the state of Florida flag. It was no ordinary night at the stadium.
Okay, we're not quite back to normal yet. There are parts of our state that have been devastated. But a football game, even the idea of it as a distraction, was encouraging.
Eighty-seven high school football teams accepted USF's offer to the game, including some from Orlando and Lakeland and one from as far away as Vero Beach. If you had polled those 87 teams, 87 would have rather been playing a game rather than watching one.
"But it's nice just to go see football," said Tampa Catholic coach Mike Gregory, who attended the game with many of his players. "People can get their minds off of some of the stress. I think the consensus is we dodged a major bullet, but for some people it has still been a very harrowing week, people without power, Just the mental stress. 'Exhausting' is the word."
Armwood coach Evan Davis, who graduated from USF in 2007, attended the game with his team and saluted his alma mater.
"It's phenomenal," Davis said. "You couldn't think of a better thing for South Florida to do. I couldn't be prouder of them to have stepped up for our community."
"It's a great thing," said Carrollwood Day School offensive and defensive lineman Blake Ridley. "It shows how much they care."
Truth be told, USF's head coach would have invited everyone in town to the game, and not just because there were thousands of empty seats. Charlie Strong meant it. I don't think season-ticket holders would have objected.
"Let them all in," said Bulls fan Chuck Rogers. "It would have been in the right spirit."
Rogers, 69, a building contractor who owns eight USF season tickets, stood near his pickup and tailgate tent before the game. In the bed of the truck, hard at work, was a 15,000-watt generator, the same generator that powered his camper after he lost electricity in his Plant City-area home for three days. Now the generator ran a few circular fans and the air conditioning in a tailgate trailer.
"We were so lucky here," Rogers said. "We're so blessed, thank God."
Tampa Police Department rookie officer Christina Mitchell graduated from USF in 2007. She was waiting to run on the field with the Bulls. That never happened, but Mitchell had already been part of something special.
"Just the way everyone came together in this community," she said. "You'd be patrolling and you'd watch neighbors helping neighbors. It made you feel good inside."
So did Friday night.
Contact Martin Fennelly at email@example.com or (813) 731-8029