By Matt Mauney | Staff Writer
In 1966, on a stop in New Jersey during his route as a trucker, Clarence “Junior” Clifton was unloading his truck when his attention was turned to a nearby football practice.
“I remember making a comment to one of the other men there of how small they looked to be high school players,” Clifton said.
The man explained to Clifton they weren’t high school players but rather a youth football team.
“I was not aware at the time that they had that,” he said. “I knew that they had Little League baseball but didn’t know about youth football. It just kind of stuck with me.”
Two years later, back at home in the Sydney/Dover area, Clifton got in contact with the Police Athletic League in Tampa, which governed a youth football program. He wanted to create a team that served the area where he called home, but the PAL board had reservations about “starting a team out in the country.”
After some convincing, Clifton got his wish, and soon, the first rendition of the Turkey Creek Trojans formed.
Clifton could not have guessed then that he would be involved with the Trojans for the next 12 years and that they would forever become a part of his life. He also could not have known the program would still be thriving today. The Trojans prepare to face the rival Plant City Dolphins at noon Saturday, at Turkey Creek Stadium off Connell Road in Plant City.
Clifton’s youngest grandson, Ben, will be playing for the Dolphins. Saturday also will be special for Clifton: He will be honored during a ceremony before kickoff. He will be receiving a framed Trojans jersey along with naming the press box after him.
Clifton always has loved the game of football and said he enjoyed coaching young players of the sport. When Clifton was growing up, the only football to be played was in junior high and high school. Clifton played in high school as well as a year while serving in the U.S. Army. Later, as a coach, he used football to teach life lessons and instill discipline.
“Give me 15 minutes with them, and I could have them crying,” he said. “I had a way to really get them whipped up and ready to play football. I think with a lot of the teams we played early on were better caliber, but because we got them so pumped up, they would go out there and just really get after it.”
Clifton also noted winning was appreciated but not necessary.
“I loved to win and hated to lose, but I didn’t preach winning to the kids,” he said. “I always told them that there was two games to play: the game of football and the game of life.”
Clifton’s daughter, Kim, remembers going to games and sitting in her dad’s truck as he drove all over town to pick up players who didn’t have a ride.
“I remember always wanting to sit in the back with everyone,” she said.
Kim also was involved with the Trojans program as she was a member of the Trojanettes, a cheer team that performed dances, cheers and stunt routines during halftime.
“Growing up, the Trojans were my dad’s life,” she said. “His eyes light up when he talks about it.”
The love for the sport carried over. Kim has been involved on the board of the Plant City Dolphins, another area youth squad, and her husband, Steve, has coached the Dolphins for 11 years.
“We wanted to go neutral,” said Kim, explaining that her husband grew up in Antioch, home of the Redskins.
The aspect of youth football Clifton cherished the most was the chance for all players of varying sizes and abilities to compete.
“Nowadays, the focus is too much on winning,” he said. “Back then, it was about giving young boys the chance to play football when they might not ever be able to play again after that.”
Only three of his players on the original 1968 team went on to play in high school.
“One of the boys I always think of is Tony Proctor,” Clifton said. “He was a linebacker and wasn’t more than 118 pounds, but he would explode and hit you harder than anything. It’s kids like Tony that defined what the program was all about.”
After joining the National Youth Football Federation in 1970, the Turkey Creek program quickly grew and peaked at more than 500 kids, separated into several teams depending on age and size. Clifton coached the varsity Trojans until 1980 and served as the athletic director of the Turkey Creek program until 1982, when his job as a truck driver transferred him to Tennessee.
“I didn’t have any desire to coach up there and was approached several times even when I got back and retired to coach again,” he said. “There are a lot a younger guys now, and I don’t think I can keep up with them as good anymore.”
Clifton turns 80 in September.
The impact Clifton had on his players is clear. Many of the players on the original Trojans team still keep in contact with him.
“It’s amazing looking back now and these guys are grandparents and will still tell me how they appreciated what I stood for and the honesty I always gave them,” he said. “It’s so good to work with people like that.”
Contact Matt Mauney at firstname.lastname@example.org.