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1st and 40

Featured Photo from 1st and 40

As the UCF football team celebrates its 40th season, we meet some of the inaugural players who call Seminole County home

Rick Mann wanted to play college football after graduating from Seminole High School in 1977, but it didn’t seem like it was in the cards for him. No one in his family had ever gone to college, so there was no money saved up, and the only scholarship offers he had were partial scholarships to out-of-state schools, making that option too expensive.

So Rick opted to attend community college, and then in the middle of his sophomore year, he enrolled at the University of Central Florida. The school had recently changed its name from Florida Technological University in an effort to expand its academic offerings, and new president Trevor Colbourn decided the school should have a football team.

“I don’t remember how I heard the news,” Rick says, “but I knew I was going out for the team. I called my high-school coach, Jerry Posey, and asked if I could practice with his team to get in shape. It was so exciting.”

Like most of his teammates who celebrated the 40th anniversary of UCF’s first football team this fall, Rick recalls the joys and challenges of starting a program from scratch.

“It was us against the world,” says Rick, who lives in Longwood with his wife of 33 years, Walk on Water boutique owner Roxane Mann. “We all came for the same reason, and we had an attitude. We were just as mean and tough as anyone else, and we were going to prove it.”

Led by Coach Don Jonas, a longtime Winter Springs resident who was a star quarterback for the semi-pro Orlando Panthers and three teams in the Canadian Football League, the Knights posted a 6-2 record that first season in 1979, including a 21-0 victory against Saint Leo College in their first game. Former Seminole High football coach Mike Cullison was the starting quarterback, and he threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Bobby Joe Plain for the school’s first score.

UCF recently hosted a special 40th anniversary weekend of activities for members of the inaugural team, honoring them at halftime of the Knights’ 56-21 win over Connecticut on   September 28 at Spectrum Stadium. More than 50 members of the 1979 squad attended a luncheon and UCF practice the day before the game, then participated in a social gathering on game day before being recognized on the field.

“It was unbelievable,” says Oviedo resident Mike Stapp, who played running back for UCF. “We hadn’t seen some of the guys in years. Thank goodness we had name tags!”

In the summer of 1979, when about 100 prospective players and 15 unpaid volunteer coaches gathered for that first UCF practice, it was not a pretty sight. The practice field was a dusty cow pasture (which doubled as the school’s golf driving range), and there was no equipment, no locker room, and no place for players to shower or lift weights.

“We had no idea how good we were going to be,” says defensive end Joe Workman. “It was kind of scary, but it was also exciting.”

Some of the guys were not big enough or fast enough to play college football elsewhere; some were highly recruited athletes who had stopped playing football due to injuries or other reasons.

“We were a bunch of outlaws,” says Mark Whigham, an All-State quarterback at Seminole High School who started his college career at FSU before getting injured and returning home after his sophomore year. “But we were really good, and we had a great time. It puts a smile on my face every time I think about it.”

Former fullback Chris Hall, now a teacher at Lawton Chiles Middle School in Oviedo, remembers how all the players showed up in different shirts, and most of them were wearing their old high-school football cleats, some with tape holding their shoes together.

“We looked like a bunch of ragamuffins,” Chris says, “but all of those ragamuffins came together in ’79, and we came together again [at the reunion]. It was so cool.”

Heathrow resident Charles “Chip” Holcomb joined the team after serving in the United States Air Force. Unfortunately, he became the first Knight to suffer a season-ending knee injury – at the last practice before the first game.

“It was fun playing football again, and I am proud to be a very, very small part of that first team,” Chip says. “I don’t think we realized the magnitude of being the first team at UCF, but there was a lot of excitement.”

Oviedo resident Millard Long had the distinction of being the oldest player on the team at 23. He went on to earn both a bachelor’s and master’s degree at UCF.

“It was quite a fun ride from 1979 to now,” says Millard, a 1974 graduate of Oviedo High School. “What I remember the most is the bond that formed between each and every one of us. We worked, laughed, and cried together, forming the greatest Knight team ever.”

The bonds that formed during that first season have continued over the years. For more than 35 years, Mike Stapp has been attending home games with former teammate Bill Giovanetti, a UCF Hall of Fame linebacker who played high-school football at Lyman and Lake Howell. Mark Whigham stays in touch with teammate Mike O’Shaughnessy, who has played a big part in keeping the former Knights connected over the years.

But it was Coach Jonas who molded this motley crew of former high-school football players into a close-knit college football team that set the stage for future greatness at UCF. And he is forever grateful to have been given that chance. Don remembers those days fondly and still goes to every UCF home game with his wife of 54 years, Rosemary, and their daughters Jennifer and Jaudon.

“That was one of the finest groups of young men I have ever coached,” says Don, now 80, who had a 14-12-1 record in three seasons at UCF. “They were so excited to be part of a new program. We never had any problems with them. They were just a great bunch of guys, and they loved each other. Even now, they’re so close. The camaraderie they had was just fantastic.”

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