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Inaugural tailgate event boosts school spirit while raising money

Organizers kept a keen eye on the sky during the Sept. 20 inaugural tailgate event for Plant City High School's highly anticipated game against arch-rival Durant. But the sky remained bright and sunny with only a few clouds drifting by.

Tents popped up, grills were lit and lawn chairs came out. Football coach Byron Jones made a big splash in the dunk tank and the bounce house was so popular that, at one point, it was bounced over onto its side. The JROTC Pride Club was there, along with the girls' softball team and the JV and Varsity cheerleading squads. Teenagers bought Hawaiian Shaved Ice, played cornhole and tossed footballs.

The scenario two weeks earlier was quite the opposite, when tailgate organizers saw their first efforts fizzle under a torrent of rain and lightning. By 5:30, the bounce house had been deflated, the DJ departed and organizers called it quits.

“It's a pretty day versus what it was last time. That should help a lot,” said Ben Dawson, 50, chairman of the tailgate committee. The festivities are intended to raise funds for school programs and encourage community camaraderie and pride at PCHS, Dawson said. During a trip through rural Georgia, he noticed a high school ablaze with lights and packed with people during a game. “They basically shut the town down for the game.

“We need to get the word out. We want an actual tailgate on the practice field,” said Dawson.

The committee plans to have a tailgate party from 5 to 7 p.m. at each of the Raiders' home games. Although parking costs $2 and there is a $7 admission charge, the tailgate portion is free.

Rebecca Buttram, cheerleading coach for the varsity and junior varsity teams, oversaw the tent selling sweet tea, megaphones and pompoms. “Our kids look forward to this all year. They get to come out and have fun. It's going to be a huge game.”

Meanwhile, Jennifer Hancock, 35, mom to 17-year-old PCHS sophomore Austin, helped set up the JROTC Pride Club tent, selling dog tags and T-shirts.

“We raise money for all their events,” she said.

The JROTC has three teams, Drill, Rifle and Adventure, which includes 160 cadets, she said. “This year it's a big group. This year growth is good.”

At the girls' softball tent, teens waited to have their faces painted to show off their school spirit. Some in the crowd danced to the music.

DJ John Foss of Jammin' with John came from St. Petersburg with 30,000 CDs and 20,000 digital tunes to spin. He was lured across the bay by tailgate committee member Steve Falkenstein, 45. Falkenstein's wife, Beth, was pals with Foss in high school.

“I like to do a lot for the kids, and I get to see my friends, too,” Foss said of his trek to Plant City. “The kids enjoy it most, they just want to have fun.”

Foss said he used one of the most powerful of his systems for the outside venue. “I like to start out from the movie 'Drumline' and head into something like 'Let's Get This Party Started.' ”

Dawson, his wife, Diane, 45, and daughter Mackenzie, 25, planned to up the party ante. Son Sawyer is a Raider linebacker and his daughter, Kendall, celebrated her 24th birthday with cake before the game.

A PCHS graduate, Kendall spent four stand-out seasons with the University of Alabama softball team, winning the Southeast Conference three times and the National Championship in 2012. She is assistant softball coach at St. Leo's University, where she is earning a masters degree.

“If my brother does good, it will be an even better birthday,” she said.

While the Dawsons ate cake and the cadets chowed down on hot dogs, others savored barbecue chicken or pulled pork sandwiches from Uncle Mike's Smokehouse Grill.

David Howell, 46, partner in Uncle Mike's Plant City location brought a big grill and enough food to feed 150 people. “We got smoked chicken, pulled pork, baked beans, coleslaw, buns and soda for $8,” said Howell.

“We're not here about the money. We just want to get the word out,” said Uncle Mike employee Kayleen Krenshaw, 20. Uncle Mike opened its Plant City location Aug. 8.

Getting the word out is key to success, all participants agreed.

“Really and truly this is our first (tailgate). I think when the word gets out, it's going to grow,” said Falkenstein. “I'm pretty happy with the way it has turned out.”

Later in the evening, the Raiders were happy, too: Plant City defeated Durant 14-13.

Tailgate parties are planned for each upcoming home game. They include Oct. 11 vs. Tampa Bay Tech; Oct. 25 vs. Strawberry Crest; and Nov. 8 vs. Gaither.

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