Fifty years ago this week, history was made at Jesuit High School.
On Feb. 26, 1966, during the height of the civil rights movement, Jesuit and its Dads’ Club teamed up to host an extraordinary event -- the first-ever athletic competition between the state’s oldest and largest historically black university, Florida A&M, and the University of Florida, Florida State University, and the University of Miami.
And supporting the event as honorary referee was the greatest track & field athlete of all-time, 1936 Olympic icon Jesse Owens.
That such a historically impactful occasion involving major universities and legendary figures, during a time of great transformation in American culture, would occur at a high school in Tampa is remarkable. It is a testament to the vision and spirit of those at Jesuit who made it happen.
The Jesuit Invitational Track Meet and Florida Intercollegiate Championships was televised live by WFLA Ch. 8, and promoted heavily and covered thoroughly in the media, including by famed Tampa Tribune columnist Tom McEwen. View the photo slideshow below for images of stories and photos from newspapers, from The Tiger Yearbook, and from the track meet program. (Most of the items in the slideshow were provided to Jesuit by former principal Joe Sabin ’66.)
The Tampa Bay Times recently documented the 50th anniversary of the landmark event in a front-page story, quoting two instrumental figures in the planning and staging, Frank Massari ’41 and Leo Diaz ’59. Click here to read the Times’ story by Philip Morgan.
The meet was exceptionally well-organized and received high praise. The Times quoted FAMU’s star runner, Major Hazelton, who, looking back 50 years later, said, “Sports had always been a thing that brought people of different races together. It was a joyful event."
FAMU’s Hall of Fame track coach, Ken Gibson, told the Times he met Owens for the first time at Jesuit, and they remained friends until Owens' death in 1980. Gibson recalled that Owens praised Jesuit at a banquet the night before the meet "for taking leadership in terms of diversity. That was one of the things he basically pointed out. They were, in essence — the way things were at the time — sticking their necks out."
The meet was so successful that it continued for six years. It is perhaps the only major college championship event ever hosted annually by a high school. In year two (1967), the 1964 Olympic 100 meter champion and then-NFL All Pro “Bullet” Bob Hayes, who had starred at Florida A&M, served as honorary referee.
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