And Then There Was Football
As reported by Mike Cobb of the Lakeland Ledger:
Over one hundred years ago, a group of Lakeland High students boarded a train for Bartow. They were taking up a challenge from Bartow Summerlin Institute in a relatively new sport that’s now an integral part of American culture. That was the beginning in Polk County of what is now a Friday night tradition across America – high school football.On Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 28, 1907, Summerlin routed Lakeland 53-0, though Lakeland disputed the score for years, saying it was only 47-0.
The Florida High School Activities Association this year is celebrating 100 years of high school football in the state, noting that five schools organized teams in 1907 – Bartow Summerlin, Tampa Hillsborough, Ocala High, Orlando High and Jacksonville Duval. Lakeland’s 1907 team was put together by future state Rep. Thomas W. Bryant, who was then a student, to take up Bartow’s challenge. Lakeland would officially organize its team for the 1908 season.
In 1923, Lakeland High School Principal I.G. McKay lauded the school’s football team in a student address and coined a little history. McKay (pronounced Mc-EYE) compared the team to a mighty Dreadnaught “rolling over the opponents just as a massive ship steams through stormy seas.”The team became known as “the Dreadnaught” for the next few years. The letter “s” was added by the end of the decade. It was a sign of the times.
In the roaring ’20s, high school football became an integral part of American culture, and Lakeland replaced Summerlin Institute in Bartow as the powerhouse in Polk County.
Led by quarterback Ernest “Goof” Bowyer, who would later play quarterback at the University of Florida, the team posted a 6-1 record in 1923 and was declared champion of South Florida. Its lone loss was a 7-0 setback against Gainesville.
Among their victories was a 27-0 win over traditional powerhouse Bartow. It was Lakeland’s second traight win over Bartow. A year earlier, the school’s 20-6 win was big enough to earn a full-page photo spread in the school’s yearbook, The Highlander.
Lakeland High began playing its games on Friday nights in the right field portion of Henley Field. Ralph Carter, who played for the Dreadnaughts in 1943-44, remembers watching Lakeland games as a kid at Henley Field. “We used to sneak into the games. We’d climb the fence,” said Carter, who is now retired and living in Georgia. “The field went east to west. They had four light poles and put up temporary bleachers.” Carter, who attended John Cox Elementary at Memorial Boulevard and Massachusetts Avenue, remembers the elementary schools having teams as well. That’s where Carter remembers getting to know the Dreadnaught players.
“We’d play with no pads and barefooted,” he recalled. “The Dreadnaught players would come out and coach us.” One of those teams that he watched was the 1935 Lakeland squad that finished 12-0-1 and was named state champions. The only non-victory was a 0-0 tie against Orlando in the season finale. The Dreadnaughts then added two charity postseason games to their schedule. In the first, played in Lakeland, the Dreadnaughts defeated Athens (Ga.), 19-7, in a game that drew a crowd of 1,500 and raised $200 for the Salvation Army. Among the 1,500 spectators was Florida Gov. Dave Sholtz.
A week later, the Dreadnaughts boarded the train in Auburndale for a three-day trip to Miami to play an all-star team of Miami high school stars in a fundraiser for the Miami Kiwanis Club. Among the all-stars was halfback Knute Rockne Jr., son of the famous Notre Dame head coach. Fullback John Sargent scored three touchdowns, leading Lakeland to a 26-0 win.