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Boca Raton Bowl: College football players happy to be tackled by Lake Worth Beach surf

THE UNIVERSITY OF Toledo's football team visited Lake Worth Beach on Saturday afternoon and took arguably their biggest pounding since that 77-21 loss at Ohio State in September.

This time, it was the Atlantic Ocean delivering the hits.

The giddy Rockets, champions of college football's Mid-American Conference, happily hit the waves, even bodysurfed a few, in a relaxing run-up event to Tuesday’s Boca Raton Bowl.

Toledo’s Boca Bowl opponent, the Liberty University Flames, visited the same beach a few hours earlier, too, part of an annual Boca Bowl tradition at the Lake Worth Beach Casino.

The players’ post-surf scouting reports were basically unanimous.

“I ain’t never seen waves this big,’’ said linebacker Damon Ollison of Akron, Ohio, said as his teammates hit the beach just north of the Lake Worth Pier.

Players from both teams dined on burgers and hotdogs cooked up by executive chef Jeremy Hanlon and his staff at Benny’s on the Beach, the popular oceanside restaurant that set up a players-only tent on the patio outside its entrance.

“Both teams are taking a little break from practice,’’ said Hanlon, who said Benny’s grilled at least 600 hot dogs and 500 burgers for the teams and their support staff.

Toledo punter Gunnar Gibson with a new friend on the Lake Worth Beach Pier (Joe Capozzi)

Players also cast lines from the fishing pier, posed for selfies with pelicans, dodged jellyfish in the sand and ducked from the occasional screeching seagull.

“These teams are from the north, so they're not familiar with playing on the beach in the month of December,’’ said George Linley, executive director of the Palm Beach County Sports Commission, a co-host of the ninth annual Boca Raton Bowl.

In fact, many players from Ohio-based Toledo and Virginia-based Liberty were seeing the Florida ocean for the first time.

Toledo teammates watch Junior Vandeross III backflip into the surf (Joe Capozzi)

And those who’d been to the ocean before admitted there was something oddly delightful about wading in the surf a week before Christmas Eve while their families and friends shivered in the northern winter chill.

“I was at the beach this past summer in Chicago when I was home, but this is definitely a sight to see,’’ Vontrelle Chairse, an outside linebacker for Toledo, said as he stood at the shoreline.

“I can tell you this,’’ he added, “December doesn't look like this in Chicago.’’

“I don't think I've ever been in a warm place in December,’’ Toledo punter Gunnar Gibson said as he watched teammates cast lines from the pier.

Liberty University running back Dae Dae Hunter at Lake Worth Beach (Photo courtesy Liberty Athletics)

The Lake Worth Beach event was just one of several stops around Palm Beach County for both teams in the run-up to the big game. On Sunday, there will be a visit to Boca Regional Hospital.

On Monday, both teams will join each other at a luncheon at the Palm Beach County Convention Center and at a pep rally later in the day at Mizner Park in Boca Raton.

Kick-off for the game, sponsored by, is Tuesday at 7:30 p.m.

Toledo football players at Lake Worth Beach (Joe Capozzi)

“Having postseason college football in our backyard elevates our community as a sports tourist destination,’’ Linley said.

Saturday was all about racking up yards in the surf, although some players had second thoughts.

“I almost got a cramp just hoppin’ in there! I ain’t messing with that,’’ running back Peny Boone, who grew up in Detroit, said.

Toledo players in the surf at Lake Worth beach (Joe Capozzi)

What’s harder: Being brought down by an Ohio State cornerback or the waves in Lake Worth Beach?

“The waves hit you harder,’’ said Rockets wide receiver Junior Vandeross III.

Vandeross, who grew up in Tampa and is used to swimming in the Gulf of Mexico, was first in the water for Toledo. It wasn’t long before about 25 of his teammates joined him.

Then came a dare that Vandeross eagerly accepted: Go jump into the ocean from the pier.

But before he could make it onto the pier, the wide receiver was intercepted by a stern-faced pier master.

“She said, ‘You jump off, you're going straight to jail,’’’ Vandeross said after returning to the beach.

Instead of jumping from the pier, he happily ran back into the surf and pulled off an impressive Olympics-worthy backflip.

“It doesn’t get much better than this,’’ linebacker Jackson Barrow (pictured in the photograph at the top of this story) said before ducking from a screeching seagull.

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About the author

Joe Capozzi is a 1987 graduate of Ohio University. On Dec. 3, his alma mater lost to Toledo in the Mid-American Conference 2022 championship game. He is an award-winning reporter based in Lake Worth Beach. He spent more than 30 years writing for newspapers, mostly at The Palm Beach Post, where he wrote about the opioid scourge, invasive pythons, the birth of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches and Palm Beach County government. For 15 years, he covered the Miami Marlins baseball team. Joe left The Post in December 2020. View all posts by Joe Capozzi.


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