For the first time in 20 years, alumni of the Plant City Recreation and Parks Department’s soccer program and Plant City High’s soccer teams gathered for a friendly match at the Otis M. Andrews Sports Complex.
Two teams comprised of faces many hadn’t seen in 20 years faced off early Saturday morning in a long-overdue soccer match.
Goals were scored, hugs were given and memories came flooding back to the alumni of the Plant City Recreation and Parks Department’s soccer program and Plant City High’s soccer teams as they gathered again for the first time in decades.
The idea had been batted around for years, but it took Jason Venning, a former player for PCHS and the Recreation Department, biting the bullet and throwing an impromptu reunion to make the event happen.
“I grew up with all these guys and I haven’t seen them in 20 years,” Venning said. “I just picked the lowest hanging fruit I could. I just said let's all meet at this day, at this time, at this place and if you can make it, make it. We’ll shake hands, we’ll hug each other’s necks, we’ll make fun of each other for getting old and run each other ragged.”
Despite the last-minute nature of the meeting, 15 former players, their families, a former referee and even a parent of a child who wasn’t there showed up. Many brought their workout clothes and cleats and took to the field, while others chatted under the gazebo at the Otis M. Andrews Sports Complex.
Laughter filled the air but no one wore a smile quite as large as Jack Holland, the director of the Recreation and Parks Department. He created the soccer league in 1977 and, despite the concept being new to the area, approximately 170 kids signed up. Now the program has an average of 1,300 players annually.
“From a Recreation and Parks standpoint it’s great to see these people getting back together,” Holland said. “All of these kids grew up in the program. It sparked a desire and love for the game. To see the passion that these guys have for the game that was developed right here in town and from a brand new program is great to see.”
He said the program introduced the sport to many children in Plant City and allowed the passion to grow and follow them into adulthood. Many of the former players now coach, referee or still play. Though soccer is currently one of the largest sports in the country, it was far from widely accepted when the program first began in Plant City.
Years ago, when Venning told his friends and classmates he was playing soccer for the Recreation Department, he was met with teasing and questions from people who didn’t even know what the sport was. He said it was the closest to bullying he ever got while in school.
Now he lives in Orlando and said watching the sport take off across the country and living in a town that had a professional team like Orlando City, has been an amazing experience. Whenever he logs onto Facebook he sees everyone’s kids playing soccer, and up until six months ago, he was still playing the sport himself.
The Recreation and Parks Department sparked his interest years ago and allowed him to build relationships that have lasted for decades. After seeing each other again, the group unanimously agreed they needed to make this an annual event and plan to expand it next year to include even more alumni from the city.
“These are the kinds of ties that will bind us together for the next 20 years if we get off Facebook and get in front of each other,” Venning said. “Maybe next time we do this, everybody will get their kids together and then our kids can grow up knowing each other.”