Vero Beach football tradition endures with win or loss| Opinion
My alma mater’s winningest football coach coined a wonderful term when he arrived on campus in 2006:
“Tradition never graduates,” said Andy Coen, who won 85 games in 13 seasons at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, before leaving to battle a disease that took his life at age 57. “The great tradition of Lehigh will go on and on forever and ever … the faces will change, the guys wearing the uniforms will change, but the tradition … will continue.”
The tradition involved winning football and a wonderful game day atmosphere, including the university’s Marching 97 band. Coen left, attendance waned, and the team won only two games this year, leading to a head coaching vacancy.
None of the above challenges are faced by one local institution. The other night I went to the Citrus Bowl to watch Vero Beach High School try to become one of the final four football teams in its class playing for the Florida championship.
The school’s team had not been to a state semifinal game since 1998, and won its only state title in 1981. I wasn’t here at the time, but that 10-7 final victory over Mosley (near Panama City) is part of Vero Beach football lore.
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Vero Beach has produced numerous NFL players. But the story of that 1981 team — labeled the “Little Rascals” because they were pint-sized compared to their competitors — is inspirational.
“‘The only thing that’s missing is you don’t believe in yourselves’,” coach Billy Livings told that team, according to David Carter, a local lawyer, then a 6-foot, 198-pound defensive lineman.
The final game, played in the Citrus Bowl packed with 7,632 people, was unforgettable to those in attendance.
“In all my life I have never heard anything that loud,” Carter, who attended football games at the University of Florida, said of soda cans full of pebbles fans used as noisemakers Dec. 18, 1981.
The large, noisy home crowd — what Livings coined the 12th man — has become a Vero Beach staple.
Never more than the team’s perennial playoff runs over the past four decades.
So this year when I heard the Citrus Bowl would sell out and Osceola High School would bring a large crowd — like Vero Beach often rallies for big away games — I figured I’d head to the game and maybe, just maybe, experience magic the team hasn’t seen in decades.
I wasn’t the only believer. Others, but nowhere near that 1981 crowd, were all over the Citrus Bowl, cheering on their team — loudly and positively — for most of the game.
The band, though far smaller than I remember from my trips to games over the decades, remained loud and supportive. Two, not just one, train horns sometimes went off inside the stadium when Vero Beach made big plays.
Osceola tried to sap the energy out of the 12th Man with the first play of the game, a long pass. The Kowboys scored a play later, capping a 73-yard drive.
Vero Beach went three and out before Osceola drove down the field again, before settling for a field goal attempt. It was missed.
But Vero Beach’s shorthanded offense, which sputtered all night with three key starters out, went three and out again.
In the second quarter, Vero Beach was boosted by a partially blocked punt. It led to a touchdown, tying the game. But Osceola, with a band of only about 40 members — less than half the size of Vero Beach’s — drove down the field before having to settle for a field goal and a 10-7 halftime lead.
In the second half, the larger Kowboys dominated the Fighting Indians, without their leading rusher and top quarterback.
John Walker, listed as a 6-4, 310-pound defensive lineman for Osceola, looked almost as nimble as a soccer player. He’s headed to the University of Central Florida next year.
Derrick Leblanc, 6-5, 270, another Osceola defensive lineman, is headed to Oklahoma. Meantime, University of Florida commit Ja’Keem Jackson recovered a Vero Beach fumble, then sealed the win with a 64-yard interception return for a touchdown in the third quarter.
On offense, Osceola relied on one of the top sophomore running backs in the nation. Taevion Swint had 25 carries for 189 yards and a touchdown. The Kowboys offensive line featured some huge players, including Marcus Ferrer, a 6-5, 270-pound freshman.
Although Lenny Jankowski’s 2022 team had been 11-1 before the quarterfinal matchup, there would be no Little Rascals storyline.
“Credit to them, they have great players who are really well coached, and I think that was the difference,” Jankowski told TCPalm’s Jon Santucci.
The tough thing about winning seasons, especially with records as gaudy as 11-1, is it builds hope in the fan base.
The great thing is it provides players with incredible opportunities and memories.
It was clear, amid the late-game hugs between coaches and players, those memories were sealed. And a 31-7 loss is a lot less heartbreaking than one in overtime.
I can’t help but think, though, that the Little Rascals’ underdog 1981 state title will always give VBHS fans hope so long as the team wins during the regular season.
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For 40-plus years at least one thing remains constant at Vero Beach High School: its football tradition, complete with playoff games, a loyal crowd and a band that performs at a high level and plays “Amazing Grace” and the school’s fight song and alma mater after games.
Regardless of a season’s final outcome, the football tradition at Vero Beach High School may never graduate.
This column reflects the opinion of Laurence Reisman. Support his work by subscribing to TCPalm. Contact him via email at [email protected], phone at 772-978-2223, Facebook.com/larryreisman or Twitter @LaurenceReisman