Friday Nights are sacred to high school football fans and part of that reason is because of the “event” that going to a game means to the community. The football team and its stadium are the star attractions during the Fall, and the people that cannot wait to pack-up and head down to see their boys play whether they’re in town or not. Specifically when the team is at home, it’s a chance for folks to catchup after a long week and share stories about their time on campus playing under the lights perhaps. One thing’s for certain, even if the team and the venue are the stars, it’s bigger than just a football game if you have grown up in situations such as these.
That experience is mostly felt throughout by small towns, but the “big-city” boys know a little something about that experience, too. You don’t have to be living in the middle of nowhere in order to build a sense of community. It takes a lot of effort and commitment–and money, let’s be honest–to build an atmosphere that people want to flock to on Fridays. It takes winning most importantly, but there are cases where the team isn’t exactly competing for rings and the stadium is STILL packed every single home game. That’s when you know you’ve built something special.
We try and hit the weekend with a full head of steam as we identify five places within the BCP coverage area that are “must-see’s” when it comes to taking-in the FULL Florida Friday Night Lights experience. Of course–just like the uniforms and the helmets–everyone thinks they’ve got the number-one atmosphere on their home turf. Of course–not everyone is dealing with reality and some are simply doing it better than others.
The criteria DOES have some wiggle room and there are places that will be mentioned at the end of this piece that will be highlighted as atmospheres with “great” potential to join this list in the future, but once you read through our five selections, you’ll begin to understand that it’s not meant to be exclusionary, but to merely point out that these are five environments that teams should look at when it comes to providing what we feel is an authentic Friday Night Light’s experience–something that no amount of money can replace once you’ve felt it.
FORT MEADE‘s Frank S. Battle Field at Emory C. Lamb Stadium. The Miners have been playing football since 1912 and the community is the quintessential throwback to the old-Florida lifestyle. The school has just under 400 students in grades 9-12, but the football program is one of the most historic programs in terms of performance in the state. Fort Meade’s atmosphere is a representation of a multitude of other small schools and towns up-and-down the peninsula that conjures some of the best “old-school” memories you can have. It’s not an easy place to find, but once you get within a couple of miles the glow of those stadium lights guide you into the spot like a lighthouse guiding a ship into port. It’s simply beautiful. Once you’re there, the smell of the grill smoke beckons you to grab a burger and sit back and watch the show take place. ALSO OF NOTE–you can’t go wrong heading down the road to Frostproof, either. Let that be made abundantly clear. You really should attend their annual game with each other at either place or when Bartow comes to Fort Meade. You’ll thank us for the recommendation.
LAKELAND‘s Bryant Stadium. This one was pretty easy and predictable, but the list (quite frankly) would be useless if this place was not on it. The Dreadnaughts play away from their actual campus in downtown Lakeland, and they’ve given their fans and alumni plenty of excitement through the decades. The stadium was named for a prominent legislator and alumnus Thomas W. Bryant and was dedicated all the way back in 1941. (You can insert Bill Castle’s first season on the job-joke here, right?) The ‘Naughts and Head Coach Bill Castle have established Bryant as a house of horrors for opposing teams throughout the years aside from the occasional slip-up and the home crowd is largely responsible. They’re loud, they’re fanatical, and they LOOOOOVE their Dreadnaughts. From the moment that helmet cart with its smokescreen leads the team out on the field to the nonstop horns and sirens and bells and whatever the fans can get their hands on, it’s a complete sensory overload. It also has the feel of a small-college atmosphere, much like the next place on our list.
MANATEE‘s Joe Kinnan Field at Hawkins Stadium. An absolutely beautiful place to catch a Bradenton sunset–while watching one of the state’s most-historic programs take the field. The home stands are actually on the opposite side of the press box which definitely adds some flair as the Manatee fans are not bashful at sitting on the visitors side and let their feelings be known. The ‘Canes and their folks provide all of the necessary accoutrements to make your Friday Night a special one–even if you’re a member of the opposing fan base–and they’ve got one of the better marching bands you’ll around if you’re into that aspect as well. They’ve added a huge video board to the mix in one of the end zones to give that small-college feel as well as consistently pack the house to watch their boys play. Although the ‘Canes have absolutely dominated their city rivals Southeast and Palmetto, whenever they play those two teams or whenever they host a big-time out-of-district opponent, this is a must-see place to watch a game.
PLANT‘s Dad’s Stadium. If you’ve ever been to Europe or the United Kingdom in particular, going to Dad’s is like going to a Rotherham vs. Huddersfield soccer match–that’s not a bad thing. The reason why? When it rains, you’re dry. That’s also important in Florida. Plant’s home side is completely covered which multiplies the noise tenfold once the chants of “PLANT!,PLANT!,PLANT!” get started. Their band plays a better variety of music than Wild 94.1 and the stadium itself is set in one of the oldest and most-picturesque sections of Tampa encompassed with oaks and brick streets. The press box is “intimate” to say the least and is set on a perch in such a way it feels like you’re covering a game in Cameron Indoor Stadium. The overall experience is one that if you were to head into the middle of Nowheresville–you’d still feel like you were in a community that was isolated a la Fort Meade or Frostproof–not a place that’s surrounded by concrete.
ZEPHYRHILLS’ Bulldog Stadium. The slightly bigger version of Fort Meade and Frostproof in terms of city size and school size. The Bulldogs have consistently worked their way into this list by virtue of the atmosphere that consistently surrounds the team at home on Friday Nights. It’s an atmosphere that’s friendly–but when the whistle gets blown and the action starts on the field, all bets are off. This past season, they hosted BHSN’s Game of the Week and by all accounts got the highest marks in terms of hospitality and environment from the fans and alumni. The city shuts down on Friday afternoons and regardless of the wins and losses, they show-up and show-out for their ‘Dogs. Their 9-mile war rivalry game with Pasco is something that everyone should take-in at least once.
Other places you’ll want to visit:
Blake – Beautiful location on the Hillsborough River, plus fantastic band and food. Jackets have to start winning.
Braden River – Pirates have something special down there, and the support they get should be noticed.
Clearwater – HSFB is better when this historic program is relevant. Their crowds were at or near capacity all last season.
Hudson – Could be the next Zephyrhills-type atmosphere in west Pasco. Coach Mahler’s building something out there.
Plant City – One of the better experiences around, just need to consistently pack the house.
River Ridge – One of the best student sections in Pasco County and strongest support from the community as well.
Robinson – Food is better than most carnivals, and pre-game entrance is classic. Love driving down through Port Tampa and see their lights from the distance.