Entering Ben Hill Griffin Stadium for the first time, I had no idea what awaited me inside. I was a high school senior, only 16 at the time, and this was my first trip to Gainesville and of course my first Gators football game. As excited as I was, there was just no way I could have known how much the experience would impact me and change the course of my life.
My buddy Joel was a student already and invited us for Homecoming. My friend Ski and I drove five hours from Lake Worth taking the long way up I-95 and across on State Road 40. The leisurely route mostly through the less populated portion of the state made it seem like I was a lot farther from home than 300 miles. Compared to South Florida, the stretch from north of Jupiter to Ormand Beach and then across through the Ocala National Forest seemed as desolute as the moon. I remember passing Micanopy along 441 and seeing Paynes Prairie for the first time and wondering if Gainesville was a city or an outpost in the African savanna.
It was shocking how quickly the University sprung up as we made our way up 13th Street. Within minutes, we pulled onto campus and circled the parking lot in front of Broward Hall (which apparently doesn’t exist anymore). We spent a few minutes trying to reach our buddy via the call box outside Broward and when he didn’t answer, we had no choice but to settle down on the curb and wait for him (love you pre-cell era). This was a great decision because it allowed me my first glimpse of college students in their natural habitat. People came and went as I watched in awe. Pizza deliveries at 10pm, beautiful girls everywhere, no adults anywhere, complete and total freedom.
Friday was my first glimpse of campus in the daylight. Century Tower seemed to punctuate my giddiness like a giant exclamation point rising overhead. I soaked it all in, blown away by the contrast between the hustle and bustle of the masses headed to and from class with the serenity of the trees and expanses of open space around the Reitz Union and the Plaza of the Americas. Later that night was my first college party experience at Regency Oaks. I was nervous as hell, assuming people would stare and wonder why such a young kid was hanging around. But in fact, it was just the opposite. No one cared, everyone was cool and the beer flowed well into the wee hours.
As game time approached on Saturday, I was drunk on the enormity of the entire experience (and a couple Natural Lights). All that I had seen and experienced didn’t seem real. And maybe it wasn’t, maybe I had imagined and dreamed most of it. And there was still the final experience, the reason we were there in the first place. The Game. We must have passed a thousand RVs parked along Archer Road. People seemed to multiply the closer we got, every square inch of campus seemingly filled with tailgaters. As we made our way up North-South Drive from Museum Road, the stadium grew, filling the sky. Flesh pressed flesh as I waited at Gate 14 to enter.
When I stepped into the stands for the first time, the first thing I noticed were the angular orange walls rising up with slogans declaring “This is Gator Country” and “Home of the Florida Gators”. The newly installed Sunshine Seats, which had just opened that season, loomed to the right and the press box was straight ahead, creating an enormous enclosed space that literally sucked my breath away. The band was playing, people were clapping along and the players… my God, the players. I played football my whole life until I was 15 and was friends with most of the guys on our high school team. But those kids on the field were giants. Our seats were so close, I could smell the grass and taste the Gatorade. As kickoff neared, the Orange and Blue chant began. I had attended many Dolphins games as a kid so organized chants in a huge stadium were new to me. Sure we did them at our high school games but it was with one side of the bleachers. “Blue” shot from our side, only to be eclipsed by the roar of “Orange” from the alumni side crashing over us like a ten-foot wave.
Then the band began a familiar refrain, one I had heard on television but never before experienced. Biology is a wonderful thing. Instincts kick in and young birds can fly, baby spiders spin webs and just hatched turtles crawl for the ocean. For Gators fans, when the tubas and trombones begin to play, the body just naturally knows what to do – arms outstretch, right over left, up and down to the beat. I had no control, nature was in charge.
The game eventually began. Florida clobbered a Northern Illinois squad that was years away from becoming the MAC juggernaut we know today. Harrison Houston was one of my favorite players and he caught a touchdown in the corner of the end zone in front of us. Willie Jackson and Errict Rhett scored as well. At the end of the third quarter, I had no idea what was happening but my friends talked me through my first “We are the Boys” and the spectacle of everybody in the stadium, swaying arm-in-arm was overwhelming. Being a part of that, with 85,000 friends I’d never met and never would, was exhilarating.
The Gators won in a rout 41-10. Afterward because of 13 penalties in the game, the Head Ball Coach said, “We looked stupid out there. I told our coaches we must have looked like the worst-coached team in America. I was embarrassed to be coach of this bunch.” Spurrier was the greatest even back then in only his second season in Gainesville.
When I got back home, I knew I was a Gator. I knew all my other college applications were pointless and that acceptance to UF was all that mattered. A month or two later, I received the letter in the mail and the transformation was complete.
I never spent much time wondering about what would have happened if I never made that first trip to Gainesville until two weeks ago when I took my sons – ages 8 and 6 – on their first trip to Gainesville for their first Gators game. We live in California and although we visit Florida once every year or two, it isn’t usually during football season because they are in school. Plus, I wanted to wait until they were older and would appreciate the experience more. I planned out the trip this year knowing that our only shot was the season opener before school started after Labor Day. And I figured why not make it a bit of a reunion with some of my old friends and their families as well.
We rolled into Gainesville on Friday afternoon. The weather forecast was sketchy for the entire weekend, but I grew up in Florida and knew rain cleared out quickly this time of year and there was really nothing to worry about. While my kids spent time with their grandmother and my wife napped in the hotel room, I strolled around campus by myself, lost in past memories and dreaming of my kids one day creating their own. The rain began to fall and I parked myself on a bench outside Library West looking out at the peaceful Plaza of the Americas. I was happy the rain came Friday, figuring we’d be in the clear the rest of the weekend because of it.
Saturday was absolutely glorious. The late game meant we had time for some tailgating, mixed in with a stroll around campus to show the boys the beauty of it. First mission was to find an alligator and we lucked out in the pond next to Graham Hall.
That little guy was the first gator the kids had ever seen that wasn’t at a zoo. We toured Turlington Plaza and the Rock (six-year-old “yeah, so, it’s a rock) and Century Tower (eight-year-old “it isn’t as tall as I thought it would be”).
We tailgated with my old friends Tom, Michelle, Jim, Jason, Kik, Bryan and their families for a few hours. It was great catching up and reliving old stories but the real joy was in watching my boys interact with the other kids. After the initial chill, my oldest son broke the ice and eventually the boys were off and running together in a pack. It was Tom and Michelle’s sons first game ever too so this was a bond they’d all share together.
Hot and sunny all day, sure enough as game time approached, the temperature dropped, the wind picked up and the sky darkened. Before we even made it inside the Swamp, the game had been delayed. Hours ticked by but I was not giving up hope. We had come too far. We wanted this too much. I needed this too much. Eventually, the tweets began that the game was going to start at 9:50 pm. We hustled back with kids in tow as fast as we could but didn’t make it in time for the kickoff. Before we entered the gates, the game was delayed once more. By now, the very real possibility that the game was going to be canceled was starting to set in.
This time we decided to wait it out inside the stadium. It was hardly the grand entrance I had experienced 23 years prior. There were still thousands of people mulling around but everyone was dazed, confused and exhausted. Every lightning strike pierced another hole in our hearts. The rain was still falling and the exhaustion weighed heavily on all of us, especially the kids. I felt like Clark Griswold. I wasn’t just going to ignore the moose telling me the park was closed, I was going to punch it in the face and get us inside if it was the last thing I ever did. I dragged the kids down to our seats and we waited for only a few minutes in the rain before the public address announcer delivered the final, crushing blow. My kids would not see their first Gators game. They would not do the Gator Chomp or sing “We are the Boys”. They wouldn’t marvel at the size of the players, the size of the crowd or the size of the stadium. The dream was over.
I’m still not over our lost trip and probably won’t ever be. The kids are just fine in the way that kids always are. They had a good time in Gainesville, had fun meeting new people, enjoyed seeing my old home. But me? Nah. Because I know that if I could have given them that first experience, that first time, they would have been Gators for life. Because we live so far away, there is a very good chance they won’t share my affection for UF, let alone attend it some day. This was my chance but it didn’t happen.
When Florida and Eastern Michigan kicked off Saturday, my wife asked my oldest son if he wanted to sit and watch some of the game with me instead of going outside to play with his friends. As if the kid could read my mind, he replied “No thanks. Maybe if I had actually seen the Gators play…” There is no maybe about it, son. You never forget your first Gators game.
If you are in Gainesville now, never take a game for granted. Live life like each and every game is your first. Enjoy it for all of us who would do anything to be there but can’t be. As for me, all is not lost. I’ll get the family back. And when those boys finally do see it, I’m going to see it through their eyes for the first time. How sweet that will be.
Editor’s note – Considering this is the week the #GatorsAlways video was launched, this post fits right in with that theme. We wish we were smart enough to time it that way but it just worked out (through procrastination mostly since I wanted to write this last week). If you haven’t seen the incredible video yet, check it out. Always share your memories of your first Gators game with us in the comments below or tweet them to us @OurTwoBits and @shawn_kopelakis using #GatorsAlways.