Column: Fans lose with closed practices

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow reared back and fired a bullet toward the left sideline to wide receiver David Nelson.

The pass was too low for Nelson to haul in, skipping off the short grass near the sideline right into the arms of a young boy, not more than 10 years old.

Nelson careened toward the sideline, jumping out of the way at the last second to avoid crushing the blonde-haired youth as he weaved his way through a crowded sideline.

As Nelson untangled himself from the horde of fans on the sideline and jogged back to the practice field, he turned back to the young boy he had nearly flattened and simply said “Nice catch!”

The boy’s face lit up with an ear-to-ear smile as he tossed the football back to one of the football staffers patrolling the sideline.

Just like that a huge David Nelson fan was born.

You see, Nelson was never one of the guys whose names immediately came to mind during the Tim Tebow era, when players like Percy Harvin, Aaron Hernandez, Joe Haden, Maurkice Pouncey and Brandon Spikes roamed the field with the Heisman winner during Florida’s rise to the top of college football.

But he was one of the hardest working, most genuine players to suit up for Florida during that stretch.

And he’s the type of player Gators fans won’t get the chance to know now that spring football practice has been closed to the public.

On Wednesday, University of Florida officials cited the coaching transition and subsequent installation of new schemes as the main reason for closing practice to the fans and the media.

“With a new coaching staff here teaching our system, we feel like minimizing our distractions is important,” head coach Will Muschamp said. “We hope they understand that this decision has been made in the interest of helping our program be successful on Saturdays this fall by allowing our team to learn and develop together in this type of environment.”

In the end, closing practices might benefit the team slightly as they try to learn the new schemes. And in the end, most fans agree that it’s all about winning.

If closing the practices really does translate to better success on Saturdays, then most Gators fans will willingly sacrifice the chance to go to spring practices.

But don’t expect the father and son who had their most up-close and personal encounter with Florida football to be happy about it.

Anyone that’s ever been to a spring football practice knows it gives you a look at the team you won’t get standing in Row 40 of the Swamp on a Saturday in the fall.

You won’t hear Wondy Pierre-Louis relentlessly talking trash to the wide receiver he’s lined up across from.

You won’t hear Ahmad Black and Carl Johnson jawing back and forth, and the massive lineman chasing the small safety with a water bottle after Black pokes fun at his weight.

You won’t get to encourage Nelson for his effort working the sideline as he trots past you back to the field.

And in this economy, for some, spring football was the only chance they had to see the Gators play.

Not everyone can afford a ticket to a game at the Swamp. Not everyone has the means to make it happen.

For those people, spring practice was the chance for them to see and interact with the team and players so that when they’re watching on TV in the fall they feel emotionally invested with the team.

They’ve seen David Nelson sprint full speed toward a wall of fans on the sideline trying to make a play.

They’ve been sprayed by his sweat as he flew by.

They’ve seen the scrapes and cuts on his arms from diving to the turf trying to make a play in spring practice, when there’s nobody keeping score on a massive jumbotron.

Those are the fans that never stop talking about the Gators.

They’re the fans who will be deprived of the chance to see their Saturday stars up close and personal in the spring.

And while a lot of fans will tell you they just want the team to win, they’re the ones that lose with practices closed.

There won’t be any moments like the one that young boy experienced with his father on that sultry spring afternoon.

There won’t be those moments that turned someone from a casual fan into a die-hard supporter.

Now, that father will have to try to explain to his son in words why he loves the Gators so much, rather than Nelson doing it for him.

If that’s worth sacrificing for some marginal benefit on the field in the fall, then Florida made the right decision to close practices.

But make no mistake about it, it’s just one more step in the growing disconnect between the fans and the team.

If the team plays well in the fall, nobody will remember that spring practices were closed.

But if the team doesn’t produce on Saturdays, it’ll just be one more thing that irks the fans as the losses pile up.