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Back To The Bay

October 4, 2012

This past weekend I returned to Florida for the first time in more than four years. The last time I was there? It was to attend a wedding for a marriage that sadly didn't last and included a Friday night where my then-girlfriend morphed into a drunken banshee who nearly ruined the rehearsal wedding dinner -- an evening that cascaded into me nearly getting arrested by the Sanford Police Department because of her outlandish behavior (and I've never been arrested for anything). I left that part out of the recap at the time; I figured I had done enough damage to the weekend with my poor choice of a +1 guest without re-living the bad parts on here.

Fortunately for me, this year's trip to the Sunshine State went much smoother than my 2008 visit.

Last Friday morning I found myself at Huntington Tri-State Airport (HTS), which humorously isn't actually in Huntington; it's kind of like how the Huntington Mall is actually in Barboursville. You might be surprised to learn that Allegiant Airlines runs a direct Huntington-to-St. Petersburg route, and while it doesn't run daily, I was able to fly down on a Friday and return on a Monday, which worked perfectly for me.

It was a colder-than-normal morning for late September by Huntington standards, with heavy rain dropping the temperature considerably. As is the case with most smaller airports, HTS has passengers board their flight from the outside as opposed to one of those enclosed walkways that you see mid-to-large sized airports. It was amusing to see people exiting the plane that we were about to fly in running in the pouring rain toward the door.

Well, I should say it was amusing to me. Shortly before we were to start boarding, a police officer walked into the waiting area and very firmly told everyone that running toward the plane was not allowed. It was like grade school, only he had a gun and a badge. In a related note, nobody sprinted down the tarmac to minimize their time in the downpour, even people like me who had to board via the rear of the aircraft for some unexplained reason.

Once on the plane, I had a lucky break and landed a window seat with Allegiant's Royal Rumble style random assignments (unless you pay for a specific seat). In a moment I found humorous, I reached my row, but a guy who looked remarkably like Good Guy Greg one row up thought I was looking to get into his row. And, fittingly enough with the GGG meme, he started to get up before I waved him off. I took that as a good omen.

Once in St. Petersburg at PIE (not to be confused with Tampa International Airport: TIA), I had a few hours to kill while I waited for my friend Gary to pick me up. He's a high school teacher down in Manatee County, and he couldn't leave to give me a ride until after his work day was over. Luckily I brought along the last book in the Harry Potter series that I borrowed from my friend Velvet and read that to kill time until he was able to make the trip over the Sunshine Skyway Bridge to the airport.

Since the small airport in St. Petersburg has almost no food options, my lunch consisted of a bag of miniature chocolate chip cookies from the vending machine. Luckily we were able to grab an early dinner at Woody's River Roo Pub and Grill, a restaurant right by the water down in Manatee County. Keep in mind that I was adjusting from cold and rainy in Huntington to 88 degrees and sunny when I got off the plane in St. Petersburg, so I wasn't exactly thrilled with the notion of eating outside. But between the umbrella at the table and the breeze off the water, it turned out fine.

I ordered chicken strips, which I regretted about a minute later when I realized that fish would have been a smarter pick since fish options are generally much fresher in Florida. You'd think that would have been top-of-mind considering that I lived there for almost five years, but between the sleep schedule change and the Dramamine used for the flight, my mind wasn't working at its sharpest level. So it goes.

Gary's father joined us there and I had a few Samuel Adams Octoberfest beers. I'm not a total beer snob -- Coors Light can work just fine for me -- but I do appreciate a good-tasting beer. It doesn't hurt that Octoberfest is only available on a seasonal basis, with the scarcity making it an appealing choice. Drink it now: next time it might not be available. But it was fun, with a relaxed atmosphere and some guy on guitar playing cover songs for our entertainment up on a stage.

Gators colors + Seminoles logo = jarring.

After dinner and a quick stop to drop off my stuff at Gary's place, we went to the Manatee High School vs. Southeast High School football game. Gary teaches at Manatee and had been telling me about their quarterback, Cord Sandberg, who has verbally committed to Mississippi State (and I'm told wears M-State stuff around school quite often). I've seen plenty of high school football in my time, and Sandberg looked as good as any high school quarterback I've ever seen. Poised, polished, very accurate, not flinching in the pocket while throwing a pass right before getting waylaid by a defensive lineman, etc. Presuming he stays healthy and sticks on the State commit, he should be able to run the Bulldogs offense quite effectively on the next level.

I was fascinated with the fact that Southeast has University of Florida colors (blue and orange) but the nickname/markings of Florida State University (Seminoles). I did a double take seeing the FSU spear on what would otherwise look like a doppelganger of Florida's football uniforms. Gary told me that Southeast has received some static from FSU over the Seminoles name and markings, though high schools repurposing college and pro nicknames/logos is a time-honored tradition.

On Saturday we made our way to the Hard Rock Casino just outside of Tampa, located about five miles east of where I had a lifetime's worth of adventures during my time living down in Ybor City. Just being back in that area brought back a lot of great memories. The casino only took me for $20, and I was able to play "Jacks or Better" video poker while watching the NC State/Miami game at the bar for about an hour and a half. Gary had hoped to reprise some of his recent past success with the table game Three Card Poker, but unfortunately he wasn't able to replicate his luck.

From there we headed to Raymond James Stadium, where we attended the Florida State/South Florida (aka USF) game. Traffic was brutal even with our early arrival, as the game was sold out and the tailgating area was packed with fans of both teams. There are plenty of FSU fans who live in the Tampa area, and with this being FSU's first game in the city since 1979, it was a rare chance for alumni in the city to see their alma mater without having to make a road trip.

Florida State at USF

Yes, they have palm trees in front of Raymond James Stadium. Tampa is a wonderful city.

Gary had asked me to wear a USF shirt to the game to help counter-act the FSU crowd, which I gladly agreed to do. Unfortunately for me, the shirt he picked had an anti-Florida State comment on the back, and I expected things to take a Seinfeld-style twist where it would set someone off and put a series of unexpected events into motion. That never happened, but it really limited my options as far as chatting up Florida State women went.

The volume of gorgeous, scantily clad women at the game was unreal. Maybe it's because I was out of the mix for so long and have been sleeping all day and working all night in a newsroom for the past four months, but it was nearly sensory overload. Just one beautiful woman after another... I mean, it's not a surprise since it was Tampa and Florida State, a "When Worlds Collide" scenario of gorgeous chicks, but wow I really wasn't ready for that. Not that I'm complaining. But I'm not sure that I've ever lost my train of thought so many times in a two hour span before. I'd be mid-thought and another girl would walk by in a barely-covering-the-goods top and I'd lock up, trailing off with whatever I was saying and then forgetting what I was talking about, like Leonard Shelby in Memento.

In many ways, that wasn't a bad thing. At all.

This was my view of the Florida State/USF game.

The game itself was competitive, and the two players I especially wanted to see play (Florida State QB E.J. Manuel and CB Xavier Rhodes) both impressed me. USF kept it close, which kept the intensity level in the crowd high, and overall it was a very enjoyable game to watch as a neutral observer, even with Florida State ultimately winning. And, while we had to park extremely far away, which made for a long walk to/from the stadium, it was well worth the effort for many reasons.

On Sunday afternoon we returned to Raymond James Stadium, as I had tickets for the Redskins/Buccaneers NFL game. Yep, two games in the same stadium in a 24 hour span. Our seats were up in the nosebleeds, nowhere near as close as we were with Gary's USF season tickets, but the upside to football games is that up-high seats offer an unobstructed view of the action. I had been looking forward to seeing Washington rookie QB Robert Griffin III (aka RG3) play and he didn't disappoint. Griffin did a great job of reading Tampa Bay's defense, he didn't force things, and in the clutch late in the game after the Bucs had rallied to take the lead, he played with the calm poise of a veteran and led Washington on a game-winning drive.

I clown on Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan quite a bit over on Draft King, but he and his staff deserve credit for the all-in move they made early this year to trade up to #2 in the NFL Draft to be in position to select Griffin: so far it looks like they made the right move. $20.5 million guaranteed for free agent WR Pierre Garçon might have been excessive, though it wouldn't have been fair to expect great things from RG3 and not give him weapons to throw to: see Sam Bradford in St. Louis as an example of how problematic that can be.

The morning flight home on Monday was an early one, but that worked out fine since Gary had to be at his school rather early, plus I had the challenge of trying to flip back to an overnight sleep schedule. It's not an easy thing to pull off, particularly after sleep-shifting on Thursday to try to sleep at night like a normal person would do. The "double switch" takes planning and discipline to pull off, and in many ways it's the days off that are the hardest about working overnights as opposed to the days spent working.

Speaking of that, I'm loving life back in the TV news business. I work with some great people and have enjoyed my second run at WSAZ tremendously so far. Don't misunderstand: it's hard work, and those firm deadlines are as imposing and foreboding as ever, but I like what I do. My life here has been rather low-key so far, though that has been by design. When your entire life gets flipped upside-down and sends you into a free-fall, you have to simplify the playbook for awhile.

Up next: a quick weekend trip to Lexington, Kentucky.

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