BRADENTON — It was a chilly December night in Daytona Beach and football filled the air. It was 1989, and the Manatee Hurricanes were on their quest for their third state title of the decade the following evening against Miami Carol City for the Class 5A state championship.
Both teams were in attendance to watch other title games in other classifications and soak up the electric atmosphere.
As the Carol City Chiefs filed into Municipal Stadium, they spotted a few of Manatee’s younger players perched on the lower tier of the stadium.
The trash talk started, but the Chiefs never saw the actual Hurricanes who would send them back to Dade County with their heads hung low in defeat.
“They said, ‘Ah, we are going to beat them’,” said Patrick McNeil, a former first-team all-state offensive guard. “They didn’t see the seniors (sitting) up top away from everybody. But came game time, it was a whole different story. We brought that Hurricane thunder to them, and they couldn’t handle it.”
The Chiefs entered the game 13-0 and ranked 10th in the nation by USA Today.
The final score: Manatee 21, Carol City 8.
The state title, one of four in Manatee’s storied football history, will be celebrated Friday at Hawkins Stadium when the ’89 team is honored prior to Manatee’s Class 5A-District 10 tilt against Sarasota Riverview at 7:30 p.m.
“It’s going to be fun to see everybody,” said Jimmie Stratton, a senior middle linebacker for the Canes that season. “A lot of us are still really great friends. That brotherhood just doesn’t go away. We’ve been together for so long, and we really do love each other. We experienced something at a young age that was all of our dreams.”
Canes coach Joe Kinnan was more than coach of the team.
He was a father to one player, an uncle to another and a father figure to the rest.
Kinnan’s son, JoJo, was a senior linebacker, and his nephew, Chris, was a fourth-year offensive lineman.
That December night wasn’t about a coach instructing his players. It was more of a father guiding his sons.
“I saw a lot of these kids when they were 11 and 12 years old, and watched them grow up to be men,” Kinnan said. “A critical component is to have the team mesh together. It’s not necessarily the best players, it’s the people that played together the best, and I think we had the best of both worlds.”
There’s no doubt about that.
The Canes had at least 10 players go on to play college ball, including running back Kevin Freeman and fullback Chris Bilkie, who went to Florida, McNeil, who was a four-year starter at Florida State and a member of the Seminoles’ 1993 national championship squad, and Stratton, who went to Murray State.
The championship season wasn’t perfect, though.
Manatee had a hiccup along the way, losing 28-6 at district-foe Lakeland Lake Gibson.
Still, Manatee rebounded to win its final four regular-season games and beat Lake Gibson and Lakeland in a Kansas Tiebreaker to claim the District 7 title.
The Canes thrashed their three playoff opponents en route to the state game, including a 40-12 shellacking of Pensacola Washington, another USA Today top 10 team, led by former Tampa Bay Buccaneers Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks.
“We were extremely physical,” Jo Jo Kinnan said. “We had a great strength program, and we used to gang tackle. But we had a strong cohesiveness. We would play sandlot football. We would wrestle in pools. We were always together. And we prided ourselves on looking out for one another. We had spectacular players, but we didn’t have any superstars, and that was very important.”
The Canes, who finished 13-1 that season, captured the school’s third state championship in seven years and capped the decade with a 98-25 record.
About 30 players are expected to return to their field of glory Friday. The 1989 players will give a pep talk to the 2009 Canes before the game, then form a tunnel for the current Canes to run through as they take the field to play Riverview.
Earlier this week, a few players returned to Hawkins Stadium.
Those who could wore their high school jerseys. Others wore their state jackets. A few had their state title rings.
There was McNeil, now the owner of McNeil Bail Bonds, Stratton, a personal trainer, JoJo, who’s headed to the Army, and Brown, a financial planner with Morgan Stanley.
They thumbed through their senior yearbook.
“This is some good stuff,” said Brown, who anchored the defensive line with his brother, David. “There are a lot of guys wishing they were 20 years younger, ready to strap those helmets on. When we see the intensity of the crowd, the fans, and when we get the whole team back together, there will be a lot of electricity, and we will be fired up just to see everybody. It was a memorable, magical season.”