TAMPA - The Blake and Middleton football teams met Sunday at Central Tampa Baptist Church at the request of Pastor Jeffery Singletary.
Perhaps unusual for such a high-profile rivalry, the two teams met at a morning church service, took Sunday school classes together and even ate together.
It was Singletary's idea. He wanted to emphasize to the players and coaching staffs how important their game was to the black community in Tampa.
The teams meet tonight at 7:30 at Raymond James Stadium. Middleton leads the series 4-1.
'The heart of it was to unify our approach to the game with it certainly representative of the community,' said Singletary, who is also the team chaplain for Tony Dungy's Indianapolis Colts. 'It was an incredible time. I talked about the importance of community. Yes, we're on opposite sides of the field but we're still one people, still one community.'
Middleton coach Harry Hubbard said it was the first time in four years the teams met prior to the big game.
Both Hubbard and Blake coach Sean Washington played at predominately black colleges - Hubbard at Mississippi Valley State and Washington at Bethune-Cookman. Every year, Mississippi Valley plays Jackson State while Bethune plays Florida A&M for two of the biggest black college football games of the year.
Hubbard said he was a member of the last senior class to graduate from Booker T. Washington in Texas before the school closed.
'As a little boy, I would stand at the gate to try and touch the players, waiting for the day I could play,' Hubbard said. 'It's all about tradition.'
Before moving to Tampa, Washington coached at Miami Jackson High, which plays Miami Northwestern in the annual Soul Bowl.
'It's a community game. We're brothers. I'm cheering for Middleton, but when we play today, I'm praying God is pulling for me,' Washington laughed.
Middleton running back Carlton Jones was named game MVP last year. He knows how much the game means to the community.
'Every time I go in the barbershop, my barber asks me about it.'
Romey Battle is a youth advisor for the CDC of Tampa. For years, Battle has been an after-school counselor for young minorities, many of whom are athletes. He said the game can close the age barrier in the black community.
'It's big for the people who went to the schools a long time ago,' he said. 'It's a reunion for them. We need something in the community that brings us together.'
Both high schools closed in the early 1970s as a result of desegregation. Blake reopened in 1997 and Middleton in 2002.
Battle said more should be done to promote the game, as it gives the community a chance to celebrate something positive.
'They need to do more around it, a parade or something,' he said. 'People don't understand the importance of sports and how it brings us together. It's more than a football game, it's about the community.'
Reporter Nick Williams can be reached at (813) 865-4848 or