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Reviving a historically black football rivalry

Rivalry renewed between Gibbs and Middleton
Posted at 5:16 PM, Feb 11, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-11 23:25:18-05

TAMPA BAY, Fla. — One of the longest rivalries in Florida high school sports was once long forgotten.

"I was nervous, because it was like my first time actually playing in a game, for real," Middleton High School Sophomore Matthew Wilson said.

The first time Wilson took the field in a Middleton Tigers jersey, history awaited him, a history he only just learned of.

"Resuming history where it left off," Wilson said.

The Tigers varsity football team traveled across the bridge into St. Petersburg for a warm August kickoff, last season. Playing an opponent outside their district is unusual, but the Gibbs Gladiators are a more familiar foe than Wilson and his teammates realized at the time.

"When we first came off the bus and you see the other team there warming up, and we’re just getting out getting ready to warm up and the energy feels different and everyone’s getting hyped up and stuff," Wilson said. "That’s when it really hit me where it’s like, ‘We’re really doing this.’”

What the Tigers and Gladiators did that night was revive a long-storied rivalry between the two football programs and historically black high schools.

"We had to be ready for those guys, because they were tough," Gibbs High School football legend Thomas "Jet" Jackson said. "We wanted the bragging rights. We wanted to beat them and beat them good.”

Jackson was a 1960s gridiron star for Gibbs. Jet scored more touchdowns than he can recall against Middleton and other black football teams across the state of Florida. They were the only teams he was allowed to line up against in his heyday.

Gibbs and Middleton played as a part of the Florida Interscholastic Athletic Association with 30 other historically black schools in the state, until 1968 when Florida schools integrated.

"We had a lot of pride when we stepped out on the field, because we were representing Gibbs High School and we wanted to make sure that Gibbs's name rang all over the state of Florida," Jackson said. "We wanted to put fear in people’s hearts.”

A battle cry the Gladiators of today resurrected nearly 60 years later on their home field against the Tigers.

"We wanted to give them a show that would remind them of the old times back them," Gibbs High Junior Marcus Calvin said. "Knowing our past history it meant a lot for bragging rights.”

Calvin and his teammates grabbed those bragging rights shutting out Middleton, 44-0.

"We did start off the rivalry, rekindled the rivalry, 1-0," Gibbs Head Football Coach Louis Murphy, Jr. said.

But the return of The Battle of the Bridge was not just about competition.

"I can remember as we walked onto the field before pregame, I kind of nodded at their head coach, and he was like, ‘Yeah, coach, we’re here to do something special tonight," Middleton Head Football Coach John Courtney said.

Reminding rivals across the bay of the bond the ones who took the field before they formed decades ago.

"I could feel the history while I was playing on the field," Calvin said.

Soon enough, the rivalry won’t be referenced in the past tense as the opposing head coaches work to set the series up for years to come.

"Keep building, keep building, you know rivalries only grow greater with age, so the more we play this game the bigger it’s going to get and the more exciting it is for the kids," Middleton Assistant Football Coach Jose Morales said.

And recapture the spirit the schools once shared.

"Playing in unity," Jackson said. "Playing together."