It has been 32 years, but Raul Rivero can still close his eyes and picture Mike Shula connecting with Dwayne Ganzy for the first touchdown of the 1982 Class 4A state championship game.
Rivero, who started at linebacker for Columbus alongside Marc Buoniconti that night, vividly remembers how cold it was at Pensacola Woodham, how big the Titans were and how much it stunk to fly home after a 23-14 loss.
More than anything, though, Rivero remembers the brotherhood he built at Columbus. That’s what has stuck with him all these years.
And it’s why he and most of his teammates from that 1982 team made the drive up from South Florida on Saturday night to watch this year’s Explorers take on Apopka in the Class 8A state championship game.
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They had to be there to show their brothers love — win or lose. It’s why they stuck around and gave the players a standing ovation even as they shed tears following a 30-23 loss.
“We bleed blue around here,” Rivero said as he partied next to thousands of Columbus fans who turned the parking lot outside of the Citrus Bowl before the game into a small version of Calle Ocho with salsa music, lechon and cigars.
“It’s a brotherhood that I can’t find replicated anywhere else in the real world, either in business, college or my fraternity. It’s a brotherhood that is forged in tears, sweat, spirit and love.”
Columbus’ fans let all of those emotions flow freely Saturday night. After all, they waited 32 years.
The student section sang the national anthem loud and proud. Like a collection of Cameron Crazies, they jumped up and down throughout the game. The ones that painted their chests with a big “C” on it didn’t seem to mind the chilly 50-degree weather. One even brought a sign that read: “I took the SAT for Ivey,” a shot at touted Apopka offensive tackle Martez Ivey.
“People have to realize, win or lose, we win with all the brothers out here,” said defensive coordinator Alex Trujillo, who graduated from Columbus in 1996 and never had a team finish better than 7-3 during his time as a player.
“We have over 14,000 Columbus brothers who have graduated. It was inspiring to have the ’82 team come out and talk to us on Friday at the pep rally, to read those letters. We’ve been chasing them for years. Even when I played,, it was always the ’82 team. I think we feel like we achieved something because they looked at us almost as their equal.”
Alberto Leonard, a defensive lineman on the ’82 team, has a son who is a freshman at Columbus. He has watched the team all season and said he saw many similarities between those Explorers and the ones he played alongside.
“This team plays for each other and we played for each other in 1982,” Leonard said. “We were a bunch of undersized football players and if we didn’t play for each other, we would’ve gotten trounced every time.
“These guys are the same way.”
Rivero coached some of the seniors at Columbus in 2011 on a youth football team.
“They were special, have an attitude, a grit and resolve to win,” Rivero said. “They know the concept of team mentality. They don’t play selfish football. Nobody wants to be a hero out there.”
Scott DiMare, who was a sophomore receiver on that Columbus team and went on to play at Florida State, had been following this Explorers team since the playoffs started. It reminded him a lot of ’82.
“We had had a challenging season,” DiMare said. “We had issues internally and the team rallied around it to be honest with you. It seemed like we were the underdog every week and we rallied around that. Killian had beaten us in the regular season and we ended up beating them in the playoffs. The Vero Beach game [31-24 overtime state semifinal win], which was one of the best ever in the state, was just unbelievable. I think Woodham was No.3 in the country or something when we played them.”
DiMare made the drive to Orlando on Saturday because he felt “a sense of unfinished business.”
That will remain at Columbus after this season.
On Saturday, the Explorers fell behind 14-0 and could never catch up to Apopka. But as coach Chris Merritt pointed out to his players as they were crying, “Hang your heads high, fellas. This is still the best season in school history. Nobody has won 13 games before.”
It could take a while to get over this loss, but in 32 years, chances are they will still be talking about these Explorers much the same way they did the 1982 team.
“We were coming in to win the game, not any moral victories,” Trujillo said. “It ended up on the wrong end, but like I said, breaking through that door and getting here is big for our program. Hopefully we can build on that.”