Kicking off the season in Imperial Polk County

This is the first in a series of reports (People and Clubs of the Gator Nation) that will focus on some aspect of the University of Florida’s well-established network of Gator Clubs; if you know of a local Gator Club personality, activity, event, or speaker series, etc., that you believe is noteworthy please let us know and we will add it to the list for possible inclusion in this series of reports.

It is once again football time in F.L.A. and on Wednesday night one of the flagship university’s iconic Gator Clubs celebrated as only it knows how: for the 28th straight year they hosted Larry Vettel as their keynote speaker.

Polk County Florida Gators' Club Granger Noles & Crew @ Kickoff 2014
Polk County Florida Gators’ Club Granger Noles & Crew @ Kickoff 2014

That’s right, 28 straight seasons with the same keynote speaker.

Earlier in August I interviewed Roi Cornish, club President, for future inclusion in this “People and Clubs of the Gator Nation” series that will periodically be published on Cornish lauded Vettel’s ability to engage an audience while dropping some knowledge and humor along the way. He was especially fond of Vettel’s former bits that skewered Bobby Bowden. With that in mind, Larry didn’t disappoint Wednesday night; more on that a bit later.

I often tell people the one thing that makes the University of Florida so incredibly special is that UF is the one place, the singular place, where the State comes to meet itself. Other universities may make a similar claim, none as accurately as UF. Many folks will also tell you, myself included, that if you really want to know this great state, you must first start in Imperial Polk County. A similar assertion may also be appropriate when discussing Gator Clubs. There is a very real pride of place and history throughout Polk County that feels ancient by most Florida standards.

For Gator purposes, that pride of place is reflected in the Polk County Gator Club’s Billy Chase Jr. Memorial Captain’s Award. This annual award is named in honor of a revered local athlete, soldier, businessman, and patriarch to his family. Some of his highlighted achievements are as follows:

  • 1929 State Champions, basketball, Lakeland High School Dreadnaughts
  • 1930 State Champions, football (12-0 record)
  • 1930 All-State halfback
  • 1931, 8-time letterwinner in football, basketball, baseball and swimming
  • 1935, Captain of the UF football team
  • 1935, All-SEC in football
  • 1936, Set two SEC swimming records
  • 1936, 5-time Letterwinner at UF in football and swimming
  • 1936, Graduated from the University of Florida
  • 1944, World War II; Purple Heart recipient, Sicily; retired as a Colonel, United States Army, Infantry
  • 1974, Retired from Prudential Insurance Company as a Division Manager
  • Married for 62 years to Josephine King Chase; 3 children, 6 grandchildren, 5 great-grandchildren

That’s quite a legacy. The awardee this year was Keith Albritton, a 1987 graduate of Lakeland High, a 1991 graduate of UF, and a 4-year-letterwinner on the golf team. Actively involved in his community and church, Albritton is currently the President and Chief Executive Officer for Allen & Company. That firm is marketed, in part, as the oldest investment firm headquartered in Florida.

Again, pride of place and history.

At my table was a guy who grew up in Melrose who never fails to attend the Florida-Georgia game, his son the UF graduate, a couple who moved down to Lakeland from Michigan who fell in love with the Gators, and a woman originally from Annapolis who did the same. Fairly representative of Gator Nation, I’d say. With the award concluded, and with the socializing, drinks and meal well underway or completed, it was now time for Larry Vettel.

He opened with a joke about two local Gator Club members he saw at the first open practice this year. I was then pleased that he noted the significance of this year for me and a bunch of Gators. This is the 30th anniversary of our first SEC championship year. Few who experienced it will ever forget, nor allow the vagaries of official recognition mean much to them at all. As Larry noted, “I know it’s not on certain record books because of certain prima donnas and certain hypocrites. In fact, that covers most of the SEC! To me 1984 was a really big deal. It showed it could happen.”

So true.

He talked about the day the championship game. Although he didn’t specifically mention it, I remember (and newer Gators fans aren’t aware of this) that the trip to Kentucky was always our last conference game and it seemed as if it was always cold as heck up there. On that Saturday, November 17, 1984 the high temperature in Lexington was 41 degrees. The low was 19 degrees – okay? Brutally cold; their normal was 55 and 37. That day in Gainesville? 75 and 55. But this made the accomplishment all the more memorable. As remembered by Pat Dooley on the occasion of the 25th anniversary:

 Women screamed and grown men wept. A coach was hired full-time in the delirious locker room. Fans piled into the stands at Florida Field to welcome their boys back from the dead grass of Kentucky on the night of Nov. 17, 1984. The pilot dipped the plane low over the stadium so the champions could take in the scene.

Those were wild times. Charley Pell fired a few games into the season, Galen Hall assumed command, Kerwin Bell calling the signals, the Great Wall of Florida obliterating D-lines, the incomparable John L. Williams, Neal Anderson and Lorenzo Hampton running the rock magnificently, Frankie Neal and Ricky Nattiel were dangerous on the outside plus a strong front 7 on defense, along with Jarvis Williams in the secondary with my homeboy, the incredibly ferocious Adrian White.

That was a hellafied team. Another unforgotten historical factoid; we always had to play Auburn and Georgia back-to-back, then every other year deal with the cold of Kentucky, and then close with FSU. No one in the country had to deal with that kind of stuff every damn year. The 1984 team crushed 11th ranked Auburn 24-3, 8th ranked Georgia 27-zip, survived against the cold and Kentucky (and I mean survived!) 25-17, and then went up to Tallahassee and smashed the 12th ranked Noles 27-17. No one in the country had to close against a schedule like that and we had to do it every single year.

Florida Gators Fans Paul & brother Ray Dimbath at Polk County Gator Club Kickoff 2014
Florida Gators Fans Paul & brother Ray Dimbath at Polk County Gator Club Kickoff 2014

These memories were all floating in my head just minutes into Vettel’s keynote. That’s how strong of an emotional connection those of us who were on campus when the title was won have for that 1984 team.

Because I think this is shaping up to be a very special year for the Gators, I think I just might have that kind of emotional connection to this 2014 team. As I drifted back to conscious recognition of Vettel’s keynote, he was describing his flight back with the team (rather than the drive back with the work crew if the Gators had lost) and the pilot flying over the wild scene at Florida Field, as students and Gator fans filled one side waiting for the team to arrive.

Great night, great memories.

Vettel’s take on the Gators 2014 season, however? Cautious. To me, extremely cautious.

Before that, though, he did a quick riff on Johnny Manziel and on Jameis Winston. He killed Jameis on FSU’s disastrous twitter campaign “#AskJameis” – except, Larry had somehow got his hands on the notoriously hardheaded and insecure Noles second attempt at a twitter campaign for the QB; this time (Plan B) it was a student-centered #DearJameis effort. Ask him anything (but, like a newspaper column, the Noles would this time publicly control the questions submitted). An example:

Dear Jameis:                  I have trouble making ends meet and often can only afford a sandwich at my local fast food place. But I get so thirsty sometimes. What can I do? Signed “Parched Down Pensacola Avenue”

Jameis’ response

 Dear Parched:                  Since when do ya have to pay for soda at fast food places ??? Just bring a cup from home, fill ‘er up and have a good time !!!

And so it went, playing off of some of Jameis’ well-known transgressions that have been completely overlooked in Tallahassee.

Jameis Famous Crab Shack Emporium_Eat Em Like You Stole Em

As for the team, he stated the obvious we all know – everything starts with Jeff Driskel. With the backups, like many he seemed to give short shrift to Treon Harris. He highlighted the importance of our offensive tackles, saying the two of them are the most important players on the team next to Driskel. He likes the starting five up front but worries about our depth. He said without a doubt the most improved unit on the team are the wide receivers. Jacksonville’s Ahmad Fulwood excites him the most. He’s impressed by Jake McGee and thinks he will be essential to the success of the offense. He also said keep an eye out for tight end / h-back DeAndre Goolsby. He thinks our RBs will be really good, with Matt Jones and Kelvin Taylor the clear top two.

Defensively, Dante Fowler looks the part. Bullard looks the part. Leon Orr is in his best shape. Can he and his mates on the D-line stuff the middle?

We have four or five guys at linebacker, and this might have been a problem with a 4-3 base defense but the scheme we play most often is a 4-2-5 so the problem at LB is mitigated. Jarrad Davis is going to be really good and Antonio Morrison is our best athlete there. He simply has to play with more discipline.

In the secondary we have a great player and a bunch of question marks. Vernon Hargreaves. I think Vettel was most off here. We have playmakers and physical specimens back there; those question marks aren’t real question marks to me. To me, they’re inexperienced in the same way that Kenny Hill was inexperienced coming into the Carolina game.

But this was his most curious comment of the night for me. Defensively he thinks we’re going to be deeper . . . but he doesn’t think we’ll be better.

Wait. What?

I’m sorry, but that makes absolutely no sense to me. A deeper defense with a better operating offense is categorically a better defense.


That comment, however, is very representative of Gator Nation at this particular moment in time. Cautious. Too cautious. We have a tremendously talented football team, better than the 11-2 team of two years ago. This is a team that has had its pride wounded, a team that suffered a spate of injuries last year that has skewed everyone’s comprehension of who we are and what we’re likely to do.

There’s a reason why Will Muschamp is so spry and confident these days. He’s got one hell of a football team that is about to hit the field.

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J.B. White
J.B. White is a native Floridian who describes himself as a Florida-Georgia boy; both parents were born and raised in Georgia, but he is 100% Floridian. After graduating from Orange Park High School, he served a tour in the United States Army and in the Active Reserves while a student at U.F., graduating with a Political Science degree in 1985. He then graduated from the FSU College of Law. With two siblings who are practicing attorneys, he laughs off his abject failure on the Florida Bar Exam as a painful gift from God. He is currently on the Board of Directors for CREOLE, Inc., a nonprofit heavily influenced by the University of Florida.