A few thoughts to jump start your Christmas morning.
Do you remember that moment when you knew in your heart of hearts that the only team that would ever matter to you was the Florida Gators? Do you remember that moment when you understood that teams could come and go but the Gators were part of the air that you breathe and the blood that flowed through your veins? Do you remember the moment when you came to the conclusion that only one team was capable of breaking your heart but no matter how many times the Gators broke your heart you would be back for more?
My moment was December 25, 1964. I can say with all honesty that I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t a Gator, but it wasn’t until that day that it became crystal clear to me this was not some here today and gone tomorrow obsession. On that day I knew I would never outgrow my love for the Gators.
Just a couple of months earlier, my near perfect world had been shattered into a thousand pieces by the Altamil Corporation, which bought my dad’s company and exiled us from Gainesville to McComb, Mississippi. Now, I made a lot of wonderful friends in McComb and it’s where I got my start as a sports writer working for Charlie Dunagin and Charlie Gordon at the Enterprise-Journal, but it was truly an exile because I was separated from the Gators. There was a 50,000 watt radio station in the Florida Panhandle whose signal reached McComb on clear days so I was able to follow the Gators on the radio, but it wasn’t the same as being there.
Before we were sent packing to live among heathens whose loyalties were Ole Miss, Mississippi State, LSU and Alabama, nobody had it better than I. I was an eighth-grader at Westwood Junior High. I played football for Red Dulaney and the year before we were Alachua County champions. I had the run of the Florida campus and downtown and any time I was thirsty I could stop in at Wise’s Drug Store, get a cherry Coke and they would put it on my grandfather’s tab. We lived a two-minute walk from Gainesville High School. Coach Jim Niblack knew me by name and let me shag footballs for the kickers. Two UF students who went to church with us at Parkview Baptist took me to all the Gator basketball games.
I had a thriving business on football Saturdays. I sold Cokes at Florida field and a group of Jacksonville lawyers were my “clients.” They arrived 90 minutes before the game and sat over in section 35 of the west stands. They needed the Cokes to mix with their bourbon and by the time the game began, they had gone through enough trays that I could find a spot and watch the Gators. I pocketed around $6-8 and that was a rather hefty sum for a 13-year-old in those days.
All that came to an end when my family was exiled to Mississippi. We moved in late October. I did get to see the Gators beat LSU, 20-6, in Baton Rouge, a game that had originally been scheduled for October 3 but was postponed by Hurricane Carla. That night in Tiger Stadium I watched Steve Spurrier beat LSU for the first time. He finished his college career 3-0 against LSU. My dad’s boss was an LSU grad. His wife had a standing bet with me all three years – if the Gators won she had to pin a Florida pennant to her front door for a week. If LSU won, I had to do the same thing to our door. No LSU pennant ever darkened our door.
On Christmas Eve, my mom and dad and I got in the car and made the 564-mile trip from McComb to Gainesville. This was pre-interstate and we drove all night, arriving at my grandparent’s home at 313 NW 11th Street just after dawn. My sister, who was a freshman at Florida and living at my grandparents’ home, was the first one out the door to greet us followed by my grandparents. I must have hugged the three of them for 15 minutes.
I slept awhile and woke to the smell of bacon. Nobody has ever done bacon like my grandmother. I can close my eyes and still smell it. After breakfast we opened our gifts — my sister gave me a pair of very cool white Levis, something no one in McComb had — and when we were finished, my grandfather walked over with one more package and explained that this one must have been hidden away behind the tree somewhere. I ripped it open and found a white University of Florida football jersey with the orange and blue UCLA stripes on the shoulders and #11 on the front and back. Spurrier’s number!
What a gift!
I put on the jersey and wanted to walk over to the UF campus, just three blocks away. I headed west on Third Avenue and turned left at Louie’s Seafood. At the corner of 13th and University was the SAE house. The lion had a fresh coat of paint poured on it. When I was a seventh grader at Westwood legend had it that Coleman Stipanovich had once poured a can of paint on the lion. Coleman was one of my heroes after that.
I stopped walking and ran down University Avenue, turned left at the handball courts and made my way to the north end zone of Florida Field. It was locked, but I remembered how they rarely locked the gate down at the southeast end zone so I ran down there and sure enough, it was open.
I ran out on the field and for the next 20-30 minutes I morphed into Steve Spurrier. I called plays. I threw passes. I ran for touchdowns. I punted twice. The Gators beat Alabama something like 30-0 and Texas was even worse. Florida beat Southern Cal to win the national championship in football that day as I made play after play. I was Spurrier and Spurrier was unstoppable.
Having won the national championship and the Heisman Trophy all in less than 30 minutes, I stood at midfield and heard the imaginary roar of 55,000 Gator fans (that’s all the stadium held in those days). I stood there, my heart pounding and my imagination winding its way back to reality. It was at that moment I knew that I could never be anything but a Gator. Suddenly, I knew that no other team under any circumstance could ever take the place of the Florida Gators.
I walked back to my grandparents’ home slowly. I wanted to savor the experience. University Avenue was like a ghost town. The only person I saw was Dirty Dan the Bicycle Man whose shop was where The Swamp Restaurant stands today. Dirty Dan always had greasy hands, dirty fingernails and a vise-like grip on his handshake. He treated everyone like a long lost brother or sister and he never turned away someone who needed a bike fixed or didn’t have enough money. There were stories that he paid the tuition for hundreds of students during his lifetime but you would never know it because he never bragged about anything because he was too busy trying to help people. When he died, it was rumored that he left an enormous sum of money to charity.
When I got back to 313 NW 11th Street, the first person I saw was my grandfather. I hugged him a long, long time and thanked him for my greatest Christmas present ever. I wore that jersey for two more years until it fell apart and couldn’t be worn again but its memory, just like that day, has never departed.
That was 49 years ago but I remember it like it was yesterday because it was the day that I knew I was a Gator lifer. Here I am 49 years later and I write about the Gators, the only team that has ever mattered, the only team that will ever matter.
That was my best Christmas memory. Thanks for allowing me to share it with you.
From all of us at Gator Country, have a most Merry Christmas and may this be the most blessed New Year ever.
MUSIC FOR TODAY
This is the greatest Christmas song ever sung by the guy who wrote it, the Velvet Fog — Mel Torme.