It was 1985 and, even though I was just a little boy in fourth grade, I lived in a constant fear of nuclear war. What can I say? Even at ten years old I read the newspaper and watched the news. I didn’t really understand the finer points of nuclear brinksmanship and the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. Consequently, I convinced myself that human annihilation was imminent.
But that year I met one of the great loves of my live and it saved me from this morbid childhood fixation on nuclear catastrophe.
On December 2, 1985, my Mom and Dad let me stay up late to watch Monday Night Football. On that night the Miami Dolphins played the Chicago Bears to defend the perfect record of the 1972 Dolphins. Dan Marino squared off against the ferocious Bears defense and Walter Payton to defend Miami’s place in history. The drama of the moment enveloped me. Miami’s victory in that game suddenly replaced my fears of a nuclear holocaust worries with a new focus – football.
Growing up, I watched game after game. I played football in middle school and high school. I was pretty good at it, too. However, football for me remained in the friend zone; I stayed close to it and appreciated it like any good friend but that’s as far as it went.
What I came to discover, it wasn’t football. It was me. My path in life simply hadn’t led me to “the one”.
Of course I dabbled in a relationship with this other team from Miami and that relationship looked pretty good for a while; now, I realize how childish and vapid that courtship was.
It lacked substance. I based it all on looks, on the success of the team at the time and how popular it was with the other kids at school. While a youthful fling, I regret that it detained me too long from getting to my one and only. However, the day that would change my life slowly approached.
October 15, 1994 was a cold and overcast day. We usually don’t equate falling in love with chilly, gray and cloudy days. Floridians fall in love in the sunshine in the warmth of spring on a sandy beach surrounded by palm trees.
Still, on that most auspicious day, shivering and wishing the sun would peek out from the gray clouds, I walked into the Swamp for the first time to watch Florida play the Florida Gators play the Auburn Tigers. Now, I’d kept time with other stadiums before. I had seen the Dolphins play on Monday Night Football at Joe Robbie Stadium. I had seen Georgia Tech beat Nebraska to win a share of a National Championship in 1991 at the Citrus Bowl. I had seen several games in the Orange Bowl with that “other” team.
The Gators were ranked No. 1 in the country and 16-point favorites over 6th ranked Auburn. However, Auburn was riding the country’s longest active winning streak. Terry Dean, the senior signal caller was having a career year and there was talk that he might be Florida’s second Heisman Trophy winner behind his coach Steve Spurrier. How good was the Gators’ defense? Could the prodigal son Spurrier take this program to the next level? Could the Gators win a National Championship? The storylines and dramatic arcs were all out there to follow. I simply went to watch a football game I never expected to fall in love.
At the moment I emerged out from under the stadium and took in the field and frenzy of our fans I knew this stadium was different. If you have ever been in love, you know what came next. Time slowed down. My eyes took in the enormous sea of orange and blue that wrapped around the stadium and reached towards the sky. As the clock ticked down before the game, energy built and surged through the Gator fans building them into a frenzy.
Then the Gators took the field and the stadium exploded into an envelope of sound. That primal roar of pent-up emotion filled every nook and cranny of the Swamp with noise. A raw and foreign atmosphere infused with emotion; unlike anything I had ever seen. The crowd felt like a living and breathing monster that would devour that team clad in white pacing the sideline below me. People who talk about passion don’t know it like I know it. Like a Gator fan knows it.
In those seconds the cold melted away and I suddenly I felt warm with passion. How could I be cold? I was falling in love.
Unfortunately, all the best love stories include heartbreak that must be overcome – if only to prove to the Universe that the love is true.
Auburn running back Stephen Davis ran through our defense all day like he had a jet pack surgically implanted in his back. Terry Dean’s Heisman Trophy hopes evaporated on four first half interceptions and a second half benching in favor of Danny Wuerffel. The Gators undefeated season and No. 1 ranking disappeared with 30 seconds left on the clock as Frank Sanders leaped up with Michael Gilmore wrapped around his legs and caught a ball from Patrick Nix for a touchdown.
As Sanders came down with the football, I can only remember hearing the din of the Tigers below me shaking their navy and orange pom-poms in victory. The 85,562 strong Gator contingent in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium went deathly silent as the reality set in that the monster we created failed to devour that team clad in white.
For a second, it felt like nobody even drew a breath. It was as if we all agreed that breathing would make that awful moment real.
I shared that moment of heartbreak with everyone in the stands and watching that day. As we finally drew in that breath, we all said good-bye to the best chance many Gators had seen at a mythical National Championship and those chances don’t come around very often; none of us knew if we would ever get that chance again.
Far more eloquent people than I have spoken on the madness of love. But on that day, I knew true love. I had an unspoken connection to that moment, those fans and the Florida Gators. For better or worse, I knew that the Gators and the University of Florida would be my “one”.
After almost 20 years, the memories of that feel so real that sometimes when I reflect on them I feel like I’m living it all over again. I can almost reach out and touch them.
As the masses flooded out of the stadium that day I heard thousands chanting that it was “Great to be a Florida Gator.” Somehow, inside that moment of despair, I smiled and knew that the future held many rewarding chapters to come. I knew that this story, this marriage, would never end. I knew new memories would heal the disappointment of that day and the others that would inevitably come just as they do in any relationship.
There would always be new storylines, new players to follow and coaches to dissect.
On January 2, 1997, my faith was rewarded as I watched the final seconds tick off as the Gators played against Florida State at the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans. We won our first National Championship. However, even during that moment, I recalled the disappointment of that cloudy and chilly day in October 1994. It made that triumph so much more meaningful. Last season I held on to the memories of all those good times in the midst of my most challenging season with my love.
For better or for worse, right? That was my vow. That is my vow.
See, no matter the previous season’s record, each autumn brings an opportunity to fall in love all over again. Now I wait impatiently for a date with my true love. Soon I’ll see the latest incarnation of the Florida Gators take the field in the Swamp against the Idaho Vandals. The anticipation builds with each day, as it has with every previous season. It’s a chance to feel again like the boy I was in October 1994, even if that spirit is now housed in the body of a paunchy, middle-aged man.
And somewhere out there in the future is an old man that will share the memories I’ll gain this season.
One day, that old man will reflect back on how silly he was to be worried about our offensive transition under Coach Roper. By the time he’s an old man he won’t spend his days ruminating on wins or losses or why Michael Gilmore was in man coverage on Frank Sanders at the goal line. He’ll know his time is better spent reflecting on how lucky he’s been to experience the passion of a true love that’s spanned a lifetime.