Friday Night Lights in Tampa: Something Familiar in a World of Different

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September 28, 2020

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Kick-off for high school football features empty stands but the game plays on. [Photo credit: CK Smith]

[TAMPA, Fla.] – After a months-long shut down due to COVID-19, school is back, more or less, nationwide, and student athletes are anxious to suit up under the Friday Night Lights. Both, however, look quite different, a new normal in academia where online learning meets traditional brick-and-mortar education. Online students Zoom into classes, while their classmates resume studies on campus and model the latest in mask fashion, from the blue medical masks to luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Chanel. Often students in person and students online learn simultaneously from a single teacher.

In Tampa, the place students find the most normalcy is also the place they feel the most different. High school football kicked off this month, with the Middleton High School Tigers taking on rival Blake High School Yellow Jackets in the Heritage Classic on Friday, Sept. 11. Football to many students, staff, and alumni is a quintessential part of their high school experience and memories. These two historically Black high schools traditionally use this annual game to showcase their athletic prowess, flashy halftime shows, and an alumni reunion.

But the game this year was tempered by health and safety restrictions, like limiting fan tickets to four guests per student athlete, mandatory face coverings, and limiting bands, cheerleaders, and dancers to home games. This produced a subdued atmosphere that fell flat with some fans, especially those cheering for the visiting team.

“To me, it’s strange because you don’t have the same feeling as a normal game,” Middleton senior Marva Caton-Rhem said. “The players look up and see empty stands, no cheerleaders, no band. It’s just weird.”

Student proudly shows off the game trophy

Now a “Morehouse Man”, Joshua McDonald holds the Heritage Classic trophy on a recent visit to his alma mater, Middleton High School. The Middleton Tigers won the rights to the trophy with their victory, 30-12, on Friday, Sept. 11. [Photo credit: CK Smith]

“If nobody else gets anybody hyped, the band would always get people hyped,” said Middleton alumnus Joshua McDonald. McDonald attended the game to watch his former teammates and his father who serves as one of the Tigers’ coaches. 

McDonald, now a Morehouse College freshman and football team walk-on, is stuck in Tampa due to COVID-19 concerns forcing Morehouse into online learning and a canceled fall sports season. “I’m looking on the bright side. I think what came with making that big decision [to play or not] is the contingency plan with what to do when [an outbreak] happens.”

“The football players are all out there trying to get the trophy,” said Jermaya Brown, a junior at Middleton. “But [fans are] just trying to have fun. People cared more when football was getting canceled because people aren’t thinking of taking care of each other, just about getting out there and playing again.”

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