It’s Great to be a Florida Gator.
No, really, after starting the season 5-0 with a demanding win over 3rd ranked Ole Miss, it really does feel GREAT to be a Florida Gator. Turning on the TV to see Florida put up 38 points against Mississippi was an amazing feeling, I’m sure, but being there… being the 12th man (sorry, Texas A&M) in the students’ section of the Swamp screaming at the top of your lungs as you watch your Florida Gators return to national relevance was something surreal. I’ve been to quite a lot of Gator football games in my life, but there was something different about this one. There was something in the muggy, thick air of Gainesville, Florida that truly turned Ben Hill Griffin Stadium into The Swamp… where as Steve Spurrier said, only Gators get out alive.
And so after five years of mostly frustration, the feeling of getting to watch my favorite football team take a major step back toward national prominence from the front row seat I was privileged to have is something that I felt should be documented to be looked back upon years down the road, so here goes.
It all began around noon, as I was awoken from my deep slumber by the sweet sound of “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” blaring over the speakers in my living room. (Yes, I sleep until noon…) As I rolled out of bed and walked to the shower, I passed my roommates and their families, all adorned in their gameday best, singing along to the sweet country tune. I finally completed my preparation for the long day of tailgating until the 7 pm kickoff, looked at my roommates and, like it was scripted out of a movie, we all said in unison, “It’s gameday, boys.”
We walked out the front door and quickly got our first glimpse of the night at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium (looking oh, so beautiful, I might add) as we begin our journey to my fraternity house (ATO). Just walking down University Avenue, you could feel the excitement of the Gator faithful. We couldn’t walk a few feet without someone, young or old, screaming everything between “Go Gators” and “Beat Ole Piss”. The atmosphere was electric, yet there were still six hours until kickoff. After wading through the thousands of eager tailgaters, we finally arrived at our tailgate.
As I walked through the front doors of ATO, I was astonished by the sheer number of people in the house getting ready for the game. Alumni, actives, and their families were all congregating around this mass in the courtyard as they listened to the JB Crockett band play some country tunes. As I made my way through the crowd, I see it. I see what has caused such a commotion. I see… the mechanical bull. That’s something you don’t see very often at just an average tailgate. The next few hours were something out of a satirical movie about college life, as we all congregated on the sundeck-watching victim after victim take a shot at the mechanical bull with Led Zepplin playing in the background. It was incredible. I can’t count the times I heard someone justifying our chances against the third ranked team in the nation. Whether it was because of our lockdown defense lead by Vernon Hargreaves III, our new offense led by Will Grier, or the attitude implemented by Coach Mac, everyone in Gainesville seemed to think we had a shot while the rest of the world had already counted us out.
(And yes, I did take a twirl on the mechanical bull)
As the day went on and kickoff approached, you could just sense the nerves of the fan base growing until after what seemed like an eternity long wait, when it was time to head over to the stadium. Upon arriving at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, I pulled out my student ticket and made my way to the gate to see the massive crowd of people ahead of me, and thought to myself, “Damn, I’m going to miss kickoff… oh well, I’m sure I won’t miss anything too crazy anyway.” Right? Wrong.
That’s when the stadium erupted in celebration as orange and blue fireworks exploded over the South End Zone. The Gators had scored on a bomb from Grier to DeMarcus Robinson. I grew tired of waiting, and fearing that I might miss some more cheer-eliciting plays, began to force my way through the crowd and finally make it to my section, only to find it overflowing out into the concession area. I managed to finesse my way into the section and grab the only seat remaining as I saw the two ball boys jumping up and down on the Gator sideline with the “$ DOWN” signs. (It’s the money down, a new tradition here in Gainesville on third down where the student section goes wild, everyone with their hands up in the money gesture as the Gators pull off a stop.) It felt… like I imagine heaven is like.
We are all aware how the rest of the game went, as I’m sure most of you watched the replays and highlight videos just as many times as I have. The game was absolutely incredible, and to be totally honest, not easy to describe in words. I mean, this was THE best game I have ever seen. No exaggeration. From start to finish, the stadium was at full intensity. Not one time during the game did anyone sit down to catch their breath; the fans were going all out for the full 60 minutes. I saw the game with my own eyes, yet I still can’t believe the magic that happened in the Swamp that night.
Now again, as a sophomore here at the University of Florida, I haven’t seen many big wins like that as a student… Exactly zero, actually. I had no idea what was in store for the rest of the night. As the fans left the stadium, all I could hear is the iconic chant… say it with me, so that maybe you can recapture the moment… “It’s Great… to be… a FLORIDA GATOR!” As I walked out of the North Endzone and onto University Avenue, I looked to my right and saw the latest smile-inducing sight of the evening: a massive crowd of thousands of rowdy Gator fans had completely taken over Midtown (the strip of bars on University). The postgame partying had begun before the game was even over (that’s what a 25-0 halftime lead will do, I suppose).
Still somewhat in awe, I slowly made my way down the street, where the Gator chants and cheers only intensified. Occasionally, the monotony of the cheering was interrupted by an Ole Miss fan’s rebuttal, which was responded to with a snide comment from a (probably inebriated) Gator fan about their lack of teeth, or their love for their cousin, and then “It’s GREAT… to be… a FLORIDA GATOR” returned to pound my eardrums. If you can’t paint a picture yourself from anything I’ve said so far, let me put it this way: Gainesville was a mad house. The streets were packed with students, fans, and alumni, all celebrating the incredible win and our return to the national stage.
The rest of the night was filled with fun, laughter, cheers, and love for the Orange and Blue, but as the night (finally) came to a close and all the bars shut their doors to the college students still trying to party off the big win, something happened. Something happened last Saturday that changed Gainesville. Something was different.
After a win, Gainesville usually goes back to normal, a top-tier university with students dedicated to their studies, but the feeling and the intensity and the sheer excitement from winning that game was still in the air. It was still looming around the day after the game as we all crowded around the TV, watching the ESPN reporters talk about the return of the Florida Gators. That energy wasn’t gone the day after the game, and it still isn’t gone today (Thursday) as the Missouri game looms near. Something changed after we crushed Mississippi 38-10.
That something is this: Gainesville got its swagger back, and returned the status of a proud college town with a powerhouse football program that it enjoyed only a few short years ago, but what feels like forever ago. And now, if the Gators keep playing the type of fast, physical and fundamentally sound football they played on that magical Saturday night, I don’t see that swagger leaving any time soon.