As St. Lucie County integrated public schools in the 1970-71 school year, it went from two high schools, one for blacks and one for whites, to a single new one, Fort Pierce Central High School
Even before the school opened for classes, its football team [75 percent black and 25 percent white] was on the practice field creating what would soon be a powerhouse.
Outside of the practice field where players and coaches were aware of an abundance of talent, there was little reason to expect that the new Fort Pierce Central Fighting Cobras would be anything special.
They had returning players from nearly all-white Dan McCarty High School, which had a 7-3 record in 1969, and players from all-black Lincoln Park Academy, which won 3 and lost 6 in its last football season.
The new Fighting Cobras football team of 1970 was not alone. All over Florida, high school football teams were becoming mashups of players from single-race schools.
Some newly integrated teams fared well right away. No team began better than Fort Pierce Central.
Less than four months after Fort Pierce Central High School opened its 11-building campus on Edwards Road to nearly 1,900 10th- to 12th-graders, the Cobras made it all the way to the 1970 state championship game. Central lost to Miami Edison, a school in its 76th year. The Cobras would have fared better had they not fumbled seven times in the game played at Miami-Dade North Community College.
The 1971 team did them one better, winning all 13 games and taking the biggest prize in Florida scholastic sports: the football state championship for the largest schools. Nowadays, schools below the largest of eight size classifications can be the best in the state, but in the early 1970s, the champions of the largest of the four classifications was a cut above the rest.
Larry Lee Jr., who played on the 1971 team, said the Cobras remain the only Florida high school football team to reach the state championship in the school’s first year of existence, then win the whole thing in the second year.
At a time of great upheaval across America due to a myriad of issues in addition to race relations after the tumultuous 1960s, the success of the football team helped ease life at FPC, even though it hardly cured all ills.
“The importance of football to Fort Pierce Central and Fort Pierce cannot be overlooked,” Lee said. He was a linebacker on the 1971 team and is a successful businessman, community leader and former Florida state representative. “The Cobras helped unite not only a school but a city at a time of racial unrest. We were a catalyst to bring people together because everybody loves a winner.”
Recently, about two dozen Cobras from the 1970 and 1971 teams gathered at Lawnwood Stadium in Fort Pierce to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the state championship, which was won at the same stadium. Like Fort Pierce Central, the stadium opened in 1970.
The Cobras beat Tampa Robinson, 29-13 on Dec. 17, 1971, a score that makes the game sound closer than it was. A stifling defense held Robinson to negative yards rushing until late in the game when the result was beyond doubt.
Wide receiver, defensive back and kick returner Mike Latimer, a senior, scored three touchdowns in the championship game and his sophomore brother, defensive end Don Latimer, scored a touchdown on a fumble recovery to go with a safety, meaning the Latimer brothers scored 26 of the team’s 29 points.
In planning to honor the early Cobras at a game in late October, Fort Pierce Central Principal Mona Buchanan said she wanted to instill pride in today’s student-athletes by using the majestic history of the early Cobra teams.
“We want our players to be proud because they are wearing that Fort Pierce Central jersey,” Buchanan told Lee and Phil Farinella, an assistant coach of the early Cobra teams and FPC’s head football coach from 1973 to 1980. Farinella coached the 1975 Cobras to a 10-0 regular season before losing in the state playoffs.
Neighboring Vero Beach High School won the state football title in 1981, and celebrated a 40th anniversary in the fall. Those are the only Treasure Coast high schools to win state titles.
The 1970 Fort Pierce Central team won its first two playoff games by a combined 54 to 7, including a 26-7 drubbing of Tallahassee Leon in the semifinals. Leon came into the game heavily favored as defending state champs on a 25-game winning streak and No. 1 ranking.
The lofty finish in 1970 led to the Cobras starting the next year ranked second in the state. They reached No. 1 by the third week of the season and would remain on top until mid-November of 1972, before their 20-game win streak was snapped. The 1972 team ended with eight wins and two losses.
The 1971 Cobras survived a few close calls, including a memorable win over an unbeaten and sixth-ranked Merritt Island, 27-25, in the season’s ninth game. Attendance at Lawnwood Stadium was 10,000. Merritt Island, which would win the state title in 1972, had the ball five times in the game’s final five minutes and failed to score, but sure came close.
A pass interference penalty against the Cobras was called as the scoreboard showed no time remaining. As a game cannot end on a defensive penalty, the Mustangs were given one more play and attempted a 30-yard field goal. The kick was straight but hit the goal post crossbar and bounced away for no points.
“I dropped to my knees when that happened,” said Mike Latimer, who played every down of the game on offense and defense. “That was the toughest game I played in my life.”
At the time, it was called by some sportswriters as the greatest game in state football history.
Lee did not play football until his senior year at Fort Pierce Central, lured onto the team by his buddy and classmate Mike Latimer.
Lee became a key part of the Cobra’s mighty defense that included Mike Latimer, an All-State and a high school All-American who went on to play for the University of Miami, signing as a free agent with the Atlanta Falcons. Lee played football for historically black Livingstone College in North Carolina, captained the team his senior year and is in the school’s athletic Hall of Fame. He signed as a free agent with the Denver Broncos.
Twenty-five players from the 1970 and 1971 Cobra teams were offered college scholarships, and 21 played college football. Remarkably, eight of them made it to the National Football League. Two of them, defensive linemen Don Latimer and Eddie Edwards, who both played on the 1971 team, had long NFL careers.
One would think that a team that won a state championship after coming close the year before would have lots of returning starters. Not so at Central. Only five starting players on the championship team in 1971 started regularly for the 1970 squad: Mike Latimer at split end on offense and as a defensive back; Paul Zinter, linebacker; John Cobb, who started at defensive end as a junior and offensive tackle the following year; Lloyd Cobbs, center; and running back Willie Smith.
The 1970 team was known for its explosive offense, led by running backs Randy “Sweetback” Walker, Harrison Freeman and Chappel Branch, and an offensive line that included Cobbs, Mark Goodwin, Van Anderson and Justin Ritchie, who was named Florida Lineman of the Year by the Orlando Sentinel.
The 1971 defense was stocked with outstanding players, including sophomore linemen Don Latimer and Edwards, a 6 foot 4 inch, 220-lb. junior. Joining them on the line were end Phillip Jenkins and tackle Earl Richardson. Zinter was the leading tackler and was named All-State.
Zinter, a retired Realtor living in Port St. Lucie, is humble about his high school football honors.
“When you have Eddie Edwards and Don Latimer in front of you taking players out, you get to make a lot of tackles,” Zinter, who stood 5 feet 11 inches and weighed 175 pounds, said. His 6 foot 6 inch, 320-pound grandson started in the recent season at offensive guard for the University of Michigan Wolverines, one of the top teams in the country.
In 2007, Edwards and Don Latimer were named two of the top 100 high school football players in state history by the Florida High School Athletic Association. Both are in the University of Miami Athletics Hall of Fame. Edwards was the third player picked in the entire 1977 NFL draft and was a key member of the Cincinnati Bengals Super Bowl team after the 1981 season. He retired as the Bengals’ all-time sack leader. Latimer was picked in the first round in 1978 by the Denver Broncos.
Robbie Jenkins started on offense, as tight end, and was part of a robust linebacking corps that included Zinter, Lee and Greg Pressley.
Before the 1969 season, St. Lucie County school leaders were able to entice Calvin Triplett, a 46-year-old Winter Haven High School football coach, to come to Fort Pierce and take over the head coaching job at Dan McCarty. The World War II veteran whose feet froze in the Battle of the Bulge knew that he was going to a place where two schools would combine to make one large integrated one with a lot of talented players.
Triplett turned Dan McCarty around immediately. The Eagles had been 3-7 in 1968 and in Triplett’s first year were 7-3 including the first victory in a decade over archrival Vero Beach.
In its last season in 1969, the Lincoln Park Academy Greyhounds went 3-6, coached by future St. Lucie County Commissioner Havert L. Fenn.
Surely, the Greyhounds record would have been better if some of their best players had not transferred to Dan McCarty. In 1969, students could choose where to go to high school. Several talented Lincoln Park players including future Cobras Mike Latimer, Wonder Monds, Cobbs and Freeman made the switch.
Dan McCarty’s most valuable player that season was another LPA transfer, senior running back Henry Green, who later was all-conference at historically black Southern University and was drafted by the Minnesota Vikings.
Mike Latimer and Cobbs said they were drawn by the better football equipment at Dan McCarty and the better educational gear.
“At Lincoln Park, our textbooks came used from Dan McCarty,” Mike Latimer said. “Dan McCarty got the new textbooks.
“It was separate, but it wasn’t equal. I’ll say that.”
To a man, each of the players holds Triplett in high regard. He knew how to lead, they all said, and he knew how and when to deploy his best players. There is a reason he won two state titles in his native Mississippi, one 15 years before the 1971 Cobras state champions team, and one 15 years after. He died in 2001, 15 years after his last state title.
At Lawnwood Stadium, the games are played on the Calvin R. Triplett Field.
Drilling on football fundamentals and repetition of key plays during practice sessions until they were done right were hallmarks of Triplett’s coaching, Cobbs said.
“It stinks. Run it again,” were Triplett’s favorite sentences, he said.
From the start, there was racial tension at Fort Pierce Central. Most confrontations were minor, but the tensions were always present, sometimes below the surface, sometimes not so much.
Monds, as a defensive back, was the only All-State member of the 1970 team. He was named All-American at the University of Nebraska. He said that even from the field he could sense the uneasiness of the home crowds at Lawnwood Stadium.
“After the first two or three games, the whites and the blacks in the crowd got a lot more comfortable with each other,” Monds said. “We were winning, and there’s nothing like a winning team to pull people together.”
Hank Melton, a sophomore running back on the 1971 team, also noticed the tension. Melton later played at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas where he became a professor of hotel administration.
“It wasn’t deliberate, but there was a white section and a black section,” Melton said. “We were winning and creating excitement. Eventually, what happened was the students started to sit mixed-race, and you gradually saw the parents sit together.”
By February 1971, racial tensions at Fort Pierce Central boiled over and campus unrest was pronounced for more than a week. On the days in which multiple fistfights broke out, Triplett had football players steer clear of trouble by going to the gym. He ordered football players to fetch others on the team who were tardy getting to the gym.
On the first day of racial unrest, numerous fights occurred in the hallways and when classes were canceled more than 300 students converged in the school’s parking lot, where some pushing incidents occurred until law officers were brought in, but no one was seriously hurt, The News Tribune reported.
More than a week after the first disruptions, several hundred students refused to go to class, and 32 of them, mostly blacks, were arrested as police, who by then were stationed every day on campus, used tear gas to disperse the crowd. Again, no one was seriously hurt. There were rumors of full-scale riots at Central, but those never happened.
David Sowerby, the placekicker on the 1971 team who is credited with kicks that salvaged victory in two close games and who kicked for points after touchdowns in the championship game, is an attorney in St. Lucie County. He says an announcement over the school’s intercom system helped calm matters.
“The principal [John Perdue] made an announcement that if this [unrest] continued, he would cancel the next football season,” Sowerby said. “Everybody loved the football games. After that, things calmed down.”
Thus, the students of Fort Pierce Central gave the Cobras a huge win seven months before the championship season even started.
When football players from the first two Fort Pierce Central Fighting Cobras get together, a war of words is easily predictable over which team would win if the 1970 state champion runners-up played the 1971 undefeated state champions.
At the 25th reunion of the championship team, Edwards made his choice known, with emphasis, Lee said.
“‘Y’all on that ’70 team, y’all were pretenders.’” Lee said, quoting Edwards. “‘We were the real contenders. Y’all knocked on the door, but we kicked that m----- f----- down.’”
“Don [Latimer] jumped up and put a napkin in front of Eddie Edwards’ mouth, trying to keep Eddie from saying m----- f-----, but he didn’t get there in time,” Lee said.
While the ’71 team was state champion and the ’70 team was not, players on both squads say they were in awe of the talent of the first-year Cobras.
Farinella, who coached defense on both teams, is often begged at the reunions to say which team would win. He only dryly replies, “The Cobras would win.”
Pressed for an answer for this article, Farinella said, “Yep. The Cobras would win.”
The 1970 team had a trio of running backs [Walker, Freeman and Branch] who could have started on any team in the state, and a beefy and talented line on both sides of the ball.
But what the 1971 team had that the 1970 team could not match were two generational players in Don Latimer and Edwards.
The 1971 team’s two All-State players, Zinter and Mike Latimer, are split on the hypothetical question. Both started for both squads.
Zinter and his best friend Ritchie from the ’70 team would argue the question often before Ritchie passed away a few years ago.
“Even though the ’70 team were runners-up, the argument goes that they were still better,” Zinter said. “I think our championship team was the better one. Had to be. We won the championship. It takes a lot to go unbeaten.”
Mike Latimer, who lives near Lee in Port St. Lucie, said, “The ’70 team would win. Hands down.
“There were more athletes. Better athletes and more of them. In ’71, we were barely getting by but the ’70 team was blowing everybody out. Most of the games weren’t even close. How we lost those two games, I can’t tell ya.”
The average score for regular season games was 26-11 for the 1970 team and 21-8 for the 1971 squad.
The margin of victory in the 1970 team’s 11 wins including the playoffs was 20 points compared to the next year’s Cobras average margin of 13 points in their 13 wins.
Who would win? Of course, we’ll never know. But for the talented corps from 1970, there are the nagging issues of those two losses. And, in the end, they were not state champs.
“Yeah, we’ll never know,” Mike Latimer said. “That’s what makes it a good bar debate.”
Preseason Jamboree at Citrus Bowl in Vero Beach
Fort Pierce Central 20, Melbourne Central Catholic 0
Fort Pierce Central 12, Vero Beach 0
Regular season 9-1
Fort Pierce Central 18, Satellite Beach 0
Fort Pierce Central 20, Lake Worth 0
Fort Pierce Central 26, Riviera Beach Suncoast 24
Fort Pierce Central 14, Winter Haven 20
Fort Pierce Central 30, Martin County 8
Fort Pierce Central 22, Delray Beach Atlantic 6
Fort Pierce Central 22, WPB Twin Lakes 15
Fort Pierce Central 34, WPB Forest Hill 8
Fort Pierce Central 48, Merritt Island 6
Fort Pierce Central 28, Vero Beach 6
Fort Pierce Central 28, Orlando Oak Ridge 0
Fort Pierce Central 26, Tallahassee Leon 7
Fort Pierce Central 22, Miami Edison 44
Regular season 10-0
Fort Pierce Central 8, Delray Beach Atlantic 7
Fort Pierce Central 19, Lake Worth 0
Fort Pierce Central 21, Riviera Beach Suncoast 16
Fort Pierce Central 13, Winter Haven 6
Fort Pierce Central 26, Palm Beach Gardens 0
Fort Pierce Central 36, Lake Worth John I. Leonard 7
Fort Pierce Central 38, WPB Twin Lakes 14
Fort Pierce Central 14, WPB Forest Hill 0
Fort Pierce Central 27, Merritt Island 25
Fort Pierce Central 20, Vero Beach 6
Fort Pierce Central 8, Winter Park 0
Fort Pierce Central 14, Miami Norland 13
Fort Pierce Central 29, Tampa Robinson 13
March 05, 2022
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