BRADENTON -- Gene Brown never missed a Manatee football game while he was in high school, a fact that doesn't put him in exclusive company with the exception of one thing: Brown went to Bayshore.
He played football at Bayshore, too. But the Bruins played their games on Thursdays, allowing Brown, whose father, brothers and son all played at Manatee, to spend his Friday nights at Hawkins Stadium. When Manatee played for the 1983 state championship in Miami, Brown, some teammates and a Bayshore coach all made the trip to watch the Hurricanes win the Class 4A title, the program's first of five official championships.
"It's all about the history and tradition," Brown said, "of our community."
Brown has been the president of Manatee's football
boosters for 15 years and is one of the organizers of Friday night's celebration of 100 years of Manatee football at Hawkins Stadium.
A tailgate party is planned from 5 to 7 p.m., and an estimated 200 former Manatee football players are expected to line the field prior to the Hurricanes' 7:30 p.m. kickoff against Palmetto.
"It's a celebration," said Brown, whose brothers, Chuck and David, played on Manatee's 1989 state title team, and whose son, Ryan, was the starting center on the 2009 team that reached the Class 5A championship game.
"Some of the guys who are coming back have never been back."
Manatee football has undergone a host of site and name changes since Julian Howard brought the sport to Manatee County High in 1914. It also spawned its share of great moments, including five state titles and seven trips to the state championship game.
When the Florida High School Athletic Association unveiled its All-Century Team in 2007, it included former Hurricanes Tommie Frazier and Henry Lawrence. Joe Kinnan, a Manatee alum who posted 284 of his 290 career coaching victories with the Hurricanes, was one of 12 named to the FHSAA's All-Century coaching staff.
Four former Hurricanes have won Super Bowl rings, including Lawrence, who won three with the Los Angeles/Oakland Raiders, and a half dozen were starters on collegiate national champions. Frazier, who quarterbacked Nebraska to national titles in 1994 and '95, was enshrined Tuesday in the College Football Hall of Fame.
"I'm very proud that I got to play for Manatee," said Chris Bilkie, a running back on the '89 team who scored three touchdowns during the state title game. "The further I get away from it, the prouder I am. The state of Florida is considered one of the best, if not the best, states for high school football. And that I got a chance to play on one of what is considered one of the best teams in '89 is a source of pride for me."
Bilkie went on to play football at the Unviersity of Florida and moved to Michigan in 1996. But he checks the Internet every Saturday morning to see how the Canes fared on Friday and wears a Manatee football T-shirt during workouts.
Only four schools in Manatee County played football during Bilkie's time as a Hurricane, and he remembers 9,000 filling Hawkins Stadium each Friday. One game that sticks out in his mind: a triple-overtime win over Riverview, after which the crowd stormed the field.
"You don't see that here in Michigan. ... It was pure passion. You were on the front page of the newspaper," Bilkie said. "It was small-town high school football in a football-crazed state."
Battling health problems, Kinnan stepped away after the 2000 season but returned in 2005. Manatee, in a sense, returned, too, reaching the state final four for the first time in 11 years that season and doing so again in 2006. Five years later, the Hurricanes won the Class 7A state championship, its first title in 19 years.
A key member on the 2005-06 teams was offensive linemen Spencer Hodges. Too big to play pee-wee football, Hodges, who moved into the area from Orlando in 1991, planned on attending Bradenton Christian and playing on its perennially competitive basketball team.
But he decided he wanted to give football a try and went to Manatee. The decision paid off: Hodges was an all-state selection as a Hurricane and a three-year stater at Jacksonville University. He is in his first season as IMG Academy's offensive line coach.
"We had a great group of guys," Hodges said. "Everyone bought in to what Coach Kinnan was saying. ... I remember being in eighth grade and going to the Southeast-Manatee game and thinking, 'This is awesome.'"
Friday night also serves as Manatee's homecoming. And the game with the Tigers, who have emerged as one of the Canes' biggest rivals, is the true centerpiece.
But it will be a birthday party, too.
"I'm getting more excited the closer it gets," said Brown, whose dad, Chuck, was a Hurricane from 1963-64. "It's going to be fun. It's about Friday nights."