Two Plant City football coaches were inducted into a hall of fame Friday, Dec. 12, but their recognition was not because of athletic excellence alone. The Tampa-Hillsborough County Human Rights Council honored Kelly Williams and Hank Sytsma for their efforts 45 years ago to break down barriers of discrimination and segregation.
In 1969, predominantly black Marshall High School and predominantly white Plant City High School merged at a new campus that is currently PCHS. During the summer, Williams, who had coached football at Marshall, and Sytsma, who had coached it at PCHS, met to discuss plans and coaching philosophies. They soon had to break the news to their players that the schools and teams would be merging.
Both teams were summoned to PCHS’ old stadium. As players arrived, they were confused as to why teams from both schools were present. Marshall players might have been upset to discover they would graduate as PCHS Planters, not Marshall Dragons, but the monumental season that was about to ensue would later ease some of that disappointment.
As the players got to know one another throughout the season, it was clear that both teams had brought different strengths to the game.
Though a different high school from the area went on to the state championship, the school board allowed PCHS and Robinson High School to compete in their first-ever district bowl game, as both schools’ records were nine wins and one loss. Though Robinson was favored to win, Plant City ended up defeating the Knights, 21-14.
The coaches and players from that first season’s team are still close today. Each spring since 2010, they have gathered for a reunion at Sytsma’s house.
Just last year, Mark Nash, president of the Human Rights Council, found out about Sytsma and Williams’ historic accomplishment. He and other leaders of the organization decided to induct both men into the council’s hall of fame, at its 41st annual awards breakfast.
“The leadership they showed in 1969, and the example they set at the time, was above and beyond what people might have expected during that era,” Nash said. “Because of the example they showed, there was an easier transition into integrating the high schools in Plant City. We thought that was pretty monumental.”
For Williams and Sytsma, the award was an unexpected honor.
“To realize, after thinking about it, what an impact it had on the community — I was pleasantly surprised and very pleased,” Williams said.
“When you’re involved in it, you just do it, and don’t think much of it,” Sytsma said. “Some people thought it was an impactful piece of Plant City history.”
With Williams and Sytsma, four other residents of Hillsborough County were inducted into the Human Rights Council’s hall of fame this year. There are also awards to honor recent activists for youth leadership and basic human rights, and one special award is given to an elected official.
John and Nancy Desmond were two additional Plant City residents recognized at the ceremony. Mark Nash honored them with the first President’s Community Hero Award, for their work with Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and the Hillsborough Board of County Commissioners, with the goal of adopting the domestic registry program and expanding the non-discrimination ordinance of the county to include sexual orientation.
Contact Catherine Sinclair at firstname.lastname@example.org.