FAMU’s re­turn puts re­unions first, game se­condary.

Tampa Bay Times - - Sports - BY KELLY PAR­SONS Times Cor­re­spon­dent

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.


The Florida A&M band, the March­ing

100, per­forms dur­ing half­time at Ray­mond James Sta­dium, and would con­tinue en­ter­tain­ing after the game. The re­turn of a Tampa tra­di­tion, now called the Tampa Clas­sic, drew 17,101 who were mostly FAMU fans.

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