THERE’S a scene in “Grease” when the school is holding a pep rally to kick off the football season. Don’t roll your eyes and act like you don’t know what I’m talking about. If you’re over the age of 10 and live in America, you’ve seen “Grease”. So just roll with me for a moment; there’s a big bonfire, the Vice Principal acts awkward and the coach gives that rousing speech about ringing the victory bell. That’s what I always picture whenever anyone says homecoming.
This past weekend was homecoming in Gainesville and even though there weren’t any 50’s cheerleader routines or John Travolta dance moves (that’s a shame) there was that sense of nostalgia and “school togetherness”, which is a phrase, albeit one I just made up.
Granted, that sense of togetherness was laced with some bitterness after the Gators embarrassing 42-13 loss to SEC East foe Missouri. But before the game there were pockets of family and friends spread out all over campus, sharing memories of the good, bad and unbelievable that has made up their time as a Florida fan.
SITTING on one of the low brick walls by the O’Connell Center is Melba. She has been coming to Gator games with her husband for 35 years. As she spouts off that number, her friend who is seated 10 feet away yells out, “Yea but you’ve been coming with me since 1970!”
“Oh that’s right”, Melba responds. “I guess I’ve seen more games than I remembered.”
And down memory lane the two go. Melba says she was born with orange and blue diapers on so she’s been one of those “extremely crazy” Florida fans her whole life and that was only intensified during her time as a student under the palms and oaks.
“I don’t remember [many games in college]. Probably because I had too much to drink”
But there are some memories that stick with these two girls, even if for the wrong reasons.
“I can remember a Florida Georgia game. We were winning and then Herschel Walker…” and from there the memories get painful. She doesn’t even finish the sentence. Just grimaces as flashes of the Heisman winning running back from Georgia go loping through her mind just as he did down the field to beat Florida so many times on that day in 1981.
There are some better memories though, including some that nearly every Gator fan knows of, but Melba here, she got to see one in person.
“I remember Spurrier too. Playing! I am a little older.”
So which Spurrier memory sticks out?
“That field goal [against Auburn]. Auburn’s been a biggie. I’m glad we’re not playing them any time soon. It was deafening. Of course the stadium wasn’t as big as it is now. We were just in shock that he was able to do that.”
As the years have gone by, so have some of the details, but the fact that she experienced the classic moment in person is something she won’t soon forget.
“Vividly? I just remember I was there. It’s been a long time hon. Long time ago.”
Through the good and the not so good, there’s one thing every memory has had in common.
“When we were going to school here, we were lucky if we won a game. We went through the 0-10-1 season [in 1979]… You’re gonna have your good seasons and you’re gonna have the seasons that aren’t so good… But we’re still here. We’re still Gators.”
STEVE and Vickie Bowen have been around Florida Field since 1973. Despite having 41 years of games to call upon, their favorite moments are much more recent and don’t surround a game so much as a person.
“Every game is a little different. Any game that Tim Tebow was in was a game that the Gators just went crazy,” Vickie says smiling.
Her husband agrees, but he pinpoints a particular game as his favorite.
“I was sitting in the north endzone in 2008 against Kentucky, one row up and Tim Tebow was going up and down the sideline getting them fired up.”
And then of course there’s the jump pass. “That was awesome”.
Like his fan counterpart Melba, Steve says he and Vickie have experienced it all after nearly half a century as Gator fans, but it won’t change their loyalties.
“I was also here when Doug Dickie was the coach. When I was in school here I’ve had some ups and downs with the Gators, but that’s just the way it is.”
AND then there’s Frank. He’s been a Gator Booster for 32 years and has seen over 300 games.
“When you see that many games, certain things just stand out. Winning at FSU one time was really special cause we were losing and it rained. They went to kick a field goal and we blocked the field goal. They were winning like 21-0 and we beat then 49-21 or something like that.
And then, against Auburn. I don’t remember who it was, it wasn’t Spurrier, but someone kicked a field goal in the last seconds to beat Auburn and I had to be home by a certain time and my son and I are standing there waiting… Got to see him kick it, win the game, we turn around, run out and go home, out of there before all the crowd. Everybody wanted to enjoy it, we were gone.”
But when it comes time to pick a favorite, that’s easy for Frank.
“You can go back and look at this game, 1960 against Georgia Tech and we win the game like 17-18 and I can still remember that the [Gator] QB was Bobby Dodd’s son. He came to Florida when [his dad] was still the coach at Georgia Tech.”
A quick Wikipedia search shows that in fact while Bobby Dodd was building his Hall of Fame career at Georgia Tech, he wanted his son, Bobby Dodd Jr., to attend somewhere else so as not to risk showing favoritism. Junior brought his talents to The Swamp where he backed up Larry Libertore.
In that 1960 matchup against his dad, he completed a pass just when the Gators needed it to break into the red zone. Frank remembers that as well.
“He threw a pass [to Don Deal]. Then, ran the option. Dumped the pass off to a guy by the name of Lindy Infante, that gave us the touchdown, that put us 17-17.”
This was all during Ray Graves first year at Florida, after years at Georgia Tech as an assistant.
“I was there at that game. Great game because it was father against son and it was a coach against a former coach. Great game.”
This may be one of Frank’s favorite to recall, but ultimately it’s in an ever-expanding line of memories for the long time booster.
“You see so many games, you see a lot of moments that are just classic.”
BACK in the 2013 offseason, tight end Tevin Westbrook let it slip to the media one day that Coach Muschamp’s favorite way to start team meetings is by simply saying “Years”.
The team is then supposed to respond with a number. That number is the amount of years the Florida football program has been in existence.
As Westbrook explains, this is to remind the team that there have been a lot of guys come before them, and there will be a lot more to come after. Their job is to help provide the best memories possible for fans while here.
There will be lots of arguments as to what type of memories this 2014 team will leave fans. But as fans congregated to Gainesville for their beloved alma mater’s homecoming, they did so with the ne’er-wavering faith that has allowed them to amass so many memories thus far.
Melba said it best. Through it all, “We’re still here. We’re still Gators.”