Lakeland lights up Friday nights

LAKELAND, Fla. -- The guys in the pads and uniforms get the glory at Lakeland High School, and rightfully so. After all, since the start of the 2004 season, the football team is 61-2 with three Class 5A state championships and one mythical national title (2005).

Today's Dreadnaughts are the standard-bearers for 101 years of football at Lakeland, the past 32 of which were spent transforming the school into one of Florida's flagship programs under the stewardship of the state's officially anointed Coach of the Century, Bill Castle.

Yet, there is more to it than blocking, tackling and scoring touchdowns on Friday nights at the city's Thomas W. Bryant Stadium.

Much more.

"It's like a state fair with a football game," said Keith Cornea, president of the Lakeland Football Booster Club. "The excitement, the energy in the air is just phenomenal. It's just an experience. It goes way beyond just a football game."

It's the procession of buses that carry the players from the campus to the stadium, a 2½-mile mini-parade led by a scaled-down black battleship bristling with faux guns and ringing its 1,200-pound bell all the way.

It's the golf cart modified to look like a giant, rolling football helmet, which spews smoke as it leads the players' charge out of the "Runway to Victory," a balloon-and-banner-festooned tunnel of lights fashioned by the cadets of the school's Army JROTC battalion.

It's the sideline cannon that rends the air with each Dreadnaughts score. It's the student section that, really, has no need for seats because the kids never sit down.

It's the pep rallies -- not one, but two -- that get the school fired up in the gymnasium hours before kickoff. Castle, who took over as head coach in 1976 and has never suffered a losing season, seemed nearly as pumped as the students as he took in the second pep rally of the day a few hours before the school's homecoming game on the final Friday of September.

Over the din of screaming students and pounding drums, he was asked whether he ever envisioned Lakeland football becoming what it has become.

"I don't think it comes overnight," said Castle, who was named the state's Coach of the Century by the Florida High School Athletic Association during a December ceremony in Orlando. "I think it comes over an accumulation of years, being consistent with what we're doing, and probably the big thing is being able to win year after year with different groups."

The game itself belongs to players like sophomore receiver Javares McRoy, whose electrifying speed and elusiveness helped the Dreadnaughts stave off an upset in a 27-22 homecoming victory against Lauderdale Lakes' Boyd Anderson.

But the show belongs to students like senior Tyler Milliken, who spends the game slumped comfortably in a low chair in front of a computer monitor inside a control truck parked behind a stand of bleachers under the stadium's towering scoreboard.

From that chair, Milliken calls the shots for the live, student-run program on the 15-by-20-foot high-definition video screen that dominates the middle of the 75-foot-high scoreboard. Speaking into his head set and systematically punching buttons on his keyboard, Milliken is gathering valuable experience in a field he hopes to make his career after he graduates from the University of Central Florida.

"It's what I want to do for the rest of my life," said Milliken, who arrives at the stadium on game days at 10 a.m. to begin preparations for that night's broadcast. "It's what I'm going to college for."

It's wild and loud in the stadium, but it's dark, quiet and cool inside the control truck. The only sounds are the hum of the air conditioner and an occasional murmur from Milliken, who never takes his eyes off the array of video images on his computer screen.

"Camera 1, I need you to zoom," he says into his headset near the end of the first half. "Right there. No, just on our players, never on their players. OK, right there."

Milliken pushes a button on the keyboard in front of him.

"Camera 2, you're live."

Milliken and about two dozen of teacher Pam Baker's video production students work with broadcast professional Mike Martin (who is a booster club board member and whose son is a linebacker on the team) to keep four cameras on-line and in synch throughout the game and during the halftime show.

The $400,000 scoreboard, which was funded by the booster club and is being paid off through advertising, gives Bryant Stadium a small-college feel. It also gives those students willing to put in the hours working with Baker and Martin the kind of hands-on job experience that will look great on their college applications.

Just as important is the experience of working without a net during a live production for the more than 5,000 fans at the stadium and the countless others who will view the DVD recording of the game later.

"I've been in production all my life, and one of my real frustrations was we're getting these kids straight out of school, but they have no real-world experience to know what media production is like," said Martin, who runs Blackwater Integrations, a Lakeland-based production company, and is considering hiring Milliken out of high school. "Now, they're putting three or four packages together during the week. Friday night's the deadline. We have a game. There's no, 'Oh, I didn't feel good today.' So, they learn the unity of how to work together as a team."

There are, in fact, many teams at work all over the stadium grounds as game time approaches.

In a shady picnic area off in a corner is the staging area for Maj. Paul McCoy's JROTC cadets, where the "Runway to Victory" comes to life.

One squad hangs advertising banners on the fences. Another group arranges the decorated pipes that form the tunnel, through which the players will run onto the field.

Yet another group lays out a pair of 75-foot strands of orange light bulbs that will mark the path of the runway along the ground. Still more cadets -- there usually are about 100 total -- are on balloon duty.

"It's just their dedication," McCoy said. "I tell them I want them here no later than 5:30, and I got here at 4:30 and there must've been at least 10 of them already here."

The band members are there early, too. They spend nearly 10 hours a week in rehearsal or class time, and Friday nights are show time.

Band director Brad Wharton musters his musicians onto the field for a final rehearsal at 5:30. Meanwhile, the cheerleaders begin to hand out advertising giveaways: mini footballs, foam discs and seat covers.

The sound system blasts a rap written and performed by junior tight end Levi Hicks. The video board shows highlights of past Dreadnaughts triumphs.

And as the last notes of "The Star-Spangled Banner" fade into the night, the cannon sounds and the band breaks into the school fight song: "Anchors Aweigh." The giant football helmet bursts through the cadets' tunnel billowing smoke, followed by the Dreadnaughts themselves.

Just another night of Lakeland High football.

"It's just a big part of our tradition and who Lakeland High School is," Castle said. "It says a lot about the community going to the effort to make Friday night special. Not only for our players, but the people in the community."

Carter Gaddis is a freelance writer in Florida.