Were Sanford High School’s “Celery-Fed” the First Soccer Team in Central Florida?
There is a research question I wrote years ago now on the inside front cover of my research notebook, “Who kicked the first ball in anger?” This is shorthand for a question that has plagued me for quite awhile as I research the history of soccer in the South. It summarizes all the of the how, when and if soccer was played in the communities of the Southeastern part of the United States, and more specifically Florida.
American soccer history is traditionally rooted in the larger urban industrial centers of places like New Jersey, St. Louis, Chicago, or New England. Places where immigrants from the British Isles and mainland Europe came in droves in the late 19th and early 20th century. The South’s history is, well, a whole different story. Rural and insular, the sport of soccer never found the fertile ground in the South that it did elsewhere. Yet, when you dive into the archives, you’ll find mentions of the game being played in the South’s urban rail centers and rural agricultural towns. The real question behind “Who kicked the first ball in anger?” is when and where were the first games in the South organized? How did the sport arrive in the South? What happened once it got here?
This article looks at the organization of the game in the city of Sanford, Florida. Modern-day Sanford is considered part of the metro-Orlando area, but in the late 19th century the city was significant in its own right. Incorporated in 1877 by General Henry Shelton Sanford on the shores of Lake Monroe, the city used its geographic advantage to become a major center for citrus and early Florida tourism; using the St. John’s River to deliver tourists and ship out citrus on steamboats. President Chester A. Arthur famously spent a week in April of 1883 in the city. The cities agricultural industry was hit with major freezes in 1894 and 1895, which ruined the city’s citrus industry, leading to a switch to celery. It would be this agricultural product that helped define the city, and lent its name to the town’s high school sports teams, the “Celery Fed.”
Central Florida’s First Soccer Team?
Sanford High School may have played the first organized soccer in what is now the Orlando area. The column “Amateur Sport Talk,” dated September 25, 1926, first mentions the organization of a team for the high school. The Sanford Today column explains soccer as “comparatively a new game in Florida” adding that “until last year there were very few teams in the state” (1). Despite being a new sport, the students of Sanford High were reported to have shown a great deal of enthusiasm for the establishment of a team.
The Florida State Athletic Board scheduled eight games for Sanford High in their first season, four at home and four away. The Celery Fed began their first soccer practice on Monday, September 27. Reportedly after a week of practices, the players were still “pretty green” (2). The group was coached by two “experts at the game,” T.W. Jones and Joseph Graham (3). A later article suggests that Jones and Graham were “two of the best coaches in the state” and were leading a squad of thirty young men. Sanford Today also lists a man by the name of Allan Entz as “in charge of the team.” Entz is listed elsewhere as the coach of the basketball team and formerly of the University of Florida. That could suggest Entz worked as an early athletic director for the high school or simply operated as a liaison between the two coaches and the high school.
Sanford High played their first game on October 9, 1926, away to Leesburg. On that Friday afternoon, the teams tied 1-1. DuBose of Sanford Today remarked at how significant this result was for four reasons, citing the Sanford team had only one week of practice, no experienced players, the newness of the sport in Sanford, and the fact that this wasn’t Leesburg’s first year playing. DuBose described the game as a “snappy affair” (4). Three days later, under the “High School Days” weekly column by Helen Marentette in the periodical This Week in Sanford the game was described as having gone into a ten-minute overtime where Leesburg scored twice more to make the score 3-to-1.
It is difficult to deduct which account is most accurate or why there are two different versions of the final score. Dubose could not have understood the rules, or simply reported a more positive version of events in an effort to support the team. What can’t be debated is the pride both accounts show for the effort the boys put in during their first game.
There is no mention of the result of their second game, away to Mt. Dora. In Sanford High’s third game and first home game, the soccer team was “rather badly defeated” by an evidently powerful Groveland team, who were the Florida state champions in 1925.
This game played on Wednesday, October 13, does represent one of the earliest organized soccer games in Central Florida and perhaps the first one in Seminole County. No score is given for the win by Groveland over Sanford High School, but the local boys were said to have “put up a good fight” (5).
That is the last mention of the Sanford High School boys’ soccer team in the newspaper archive. The sports and high school columns continue to monitor the end of the American football season and the start of high school basketball season. This leaves the conclusion of Central Florida’s first soccer team as an unintentional mystery.
Good research should leave you with both questions and new routes of inquiry. Did the team continue the season after the loss to Groveland, or did the newspapers simply lose interest in what might have become a losing season? What other towns in the area had high school teams besides Groveland, Leesburg, and Mt. Dora? Was there a team in 1927 and how did they do? When did Orlando High School and other schools in the area organize teams?
Additionally, I’d like to revisit this topic if I’m able to find out more about the boys who joined this team and their background. Soccer season corresponded with American football season, how many boys played for both teams? Finally, was soccer played in Sanford before it came to the high school?
Those are the questions that I will keep looking to answer as I continue with this research question. For now, this realization that Sanford, Florida; the celery capital of the world in the 1920s, may have been a birthplace for soccer in Central Florida is an interesting thought.
Featured Image from “Sanford High School Class of 1925.” RICHES of Central Florida accessed January 24, 2018, https://richesmi.cah.ucf.edu/omeka/items/show/3097.
- DuBose, “Amateur Sport Talk,” Sanford Today, September 25, 1926, 2.
- Ibid., October 2, 1926, 9.
- I can’t find much on either Jones or Graham. T.W. Jones could be Thomas William Jones who was born February 17, 1887, and died in Sanford, FL on June 4, 1964. As of now I’m unable to ascertain what kind of qualifications these two men had to coach soccer, where they were from, or what connection (if any) they had to Sanford High School beyond coaching the boy’s soccer team.
- Ibid., October 9, 11.
- Ibid., October 16, 1926, 11