Memories inevitably become fuzzy over time. For the senior Tigers, some moments stand out more than others over the last half-century. But the special season of 1967 remains vivid and clear for most of the former Columbia football players.
For a lot of them, it's hard to believe it's been 50 years since the state title victory.
"It really doesn't feel like it," said fullback Mike Hunter. "Until we look in the mirror."
Several members of the team still reside in Lake City. Others have since relocated, trickled across the country. And about a half-dozen of which, including star running back Craig Busby, have passed away. However, 50 years ago, they were a solid tight-knit group of teenagers who went above and beyond expectations.
"They sure didn't tell us we would get old this quick," said defensive tackle Billy Dekle.
After finishing 10-1 the previous season, just short of the finals, Columbia set out on the new campaign with its sights on the hardware. In an era when one loss could eliminate your championship chances, the pressure was on the Tigers. Hall of Fame football coach Paul Quinn was just entering his third of six seasons at the program's helm. The Southern-speaking, Winston-smoking coach was as hard-nosed as they come too.
"I just loved coach Quinn," Hunter said. "He was like a father figure to me. I grew up without a father and he definitely was a father figure. He was one of those guys who did things the right way. He was a role model for us to look up to, especially for the ones who didn't have a father."
The odds were against them heading into the 1967 season. Outsiders didn't expect the Tigers to contend, especially after losing stars like Donnie Williams and Steve Chamberlain to graduation. Naysayers believed they wouldn't even win their season opener, a road bout against formidable Orange Park – one they'd never forget.
"Orange Park hadn't even scheduled their basketball season yet because they were pretty confident they were going to the state playoffs," said Dekle. "They had a good team, and had us beat until the closing minutes."
Columbia trailed Orange Park for most of the contest, but miraculously took the lead with under a minute left when quarterback Bryan Johnson found tight end Pete Giebeig in the end zone. Giebeig etched his name into Columbia football lore by catching the go-ahead touchdown on a bullet pass from Johnson.
"It takes a little luck to win a championship," said Giebeig. "And we had lucky plays from time to time… [At Orange Park] we were behind with 56 seconds left to play. And it took some luck for us to come back and win."
Robby Dobelstein's pick-six sealed the win, and Columbia never looked back that season — shutting out its next four opponents behind a fierce defense.
"From then on, it was an eye-opener," said punter Bubba Phillips. "I really didn't think anybody could beat us."
Equipped with a tenacious defense and a speedy backfield, the hometown Tigers rolled past St. Augustine, Bishop Kenny, Bolles, Santa Fe and Ocala handily. Columbia was tested though when it traveled to Rickards for the seventh game of the year. The Tigers somehow managed to hold off the Redskins for a 14-7 nail-biter victory in Tallahassee.
"It probably was the toughest game we played all year," Phillips said of Rickards. "Then we played them again the playoffs. I remember those two. Those were the toughest all year."
Columbia continued its dominance, routing Palatka, Starke and rival Suwannee to close out the campaign. Both teams entered the season finale undefeated but the Bulldogs were no match for the Tigers as Columbia cruised to a 40-13 Oaken Bucket win.
"We were a great team," said defensive lineman Douglas Tannenbaum. "We weren't great individual players, but we played as one unit. And nobody could outlast us. Everybody was in shape and we just played well together."
Tannenbaum, along with his teammates, say true friendship played a huge factor in the success that fall. Camaraderie, he says, which had been building long before they reached high school — competing alongside each other since they were all mighty mites.
"We were friends, a lot of us had played with each other since Cub Scouts," he said. "A lot of went to Melrose and the other bunch went to Central. So we knew each other. Lake City was small. We all knew each other since first grade, probably before that."
Together the boys were back in the postseason with a chip on their shoulder. And the Tigers edged Rickards once again in the opening round. Columbia went on to stomp Jesuit next, and entered the state championship after a decisive home win at Memorial Stadium.
The job was all but done as a talented and strong Auburndale team awaited the Tigers.
"All the papers in the state picked us to lose," said left guard Mike Martin. "We went down there knowing what we were going to do."
With home-field advantage, Auburndale was deemed the favorite despite Columbia being ranked No.1 in the state for most the season. The Tigers still remember the bus trip down to Polk County, where they lodged in a nearby Holiday Inn.
"When we went down there, we walked around a couple places," said Dekle. "All the people told us 'y'all are going to get smashed'…They told us were going to be very disappointed – but we had no problem with Auburndale."
Columbia's quarterback played one of his best games of the year in the title bout.
Fueled by the roar of about 2,000 traveling Columbia fans, Johnson scored three touchdowns against the Bloodhounds. Danny Greene and Busby helped the Tigers tally over 300 yards as Columbia claimed the Class A title over Auburndale.
"They were not expecting us," said Giebeig. "We were always referred to as the country group. And that Auburndale group wasn't expecting anything from us."
Columbia's ferocious defense held the Bloodhounds to just 36 yards in second half.
The 27-7 championship victory put the final touches on an unforgettable season.
"I remember almost every game and a lot of plays," said Martin. "It was a great time and one of the monumental things that happened to me in my lifetime. And it happened basically because of the fellowship our classmates had with each other."
Some of the old teammates will meet up again Friday as the state champs are scheduled to be honored as a part of Homecoming festivities. A bond that has lasted decades and still resonates with people in the community today.
"We were very close," said cheer captain Candace Hines, a member of the 1968 class. "They were your best friends. We loved each other so much and still to this day we care a lot about each other."
There's little doubt that the strong bond the '67 Tigers shared carried them to an unprecedented season. They were good friends then, and are friends good today. But even the closest of teammates agree capturing the title wouldn't have been possible without Quinn and his hands-on coaching staff (which included later head coach Bobby Simmons).
"I played and coached myself for 25 years," said Martin. "And I can say [Quinn] was Bear Bryant great. He and Bobby Simmons was an unbeatable duo. They had great leadership between them."
Quinn finished his career at Columbia with an astounding record of 81-8-2 in seven years before taking the job at Lakeland High and later Bartow High. Quinn retired with three state titles and as one of the most winningest coaches in the state. The legacy of the longtime coach, who died of cancer in 1990, remains alive today especially in Lake City.
"It was an incredible experience and he was the driving force behind it," said defensive back Jack Meeks who had a late interception in the state tittle game.
Years and years later — the praise always reverts back to the esteemed ball coach.
"He was the best," said Phillips. "He was probably the most sincere person. He made you feel like – whether you could or not – run through a wall. Even if he knew you couldn't, he made you feel that way. He got a lot out of you that many didn't think we had. He was just a wonderful person."
The Quinn-led Tigers dominated the later part of the 60s, and finally were able to string all their luck together during that memorable fall season. The aftermath was tremendous – banquets, parades, and loads of support from the Columbia faithful around town.
How sweet it was. 13-0.
"It's rare in life that everything goes as intended," Meeks said. "But it did."