It’s an appropriate accident of history that the college football season culminates the week of Thanksgiving.
This is the same time that the Christmas season ramps up, at least from a business perspective. The commercialization of the holiday is so complete that media specifically created to protest that aspect of it is available for purchase along with its soundtrack and a full complement of merchandise.
So too has the business of college football come to consume all aspects of it. If an item exists, any college with an athletic department employs someone to ensure that an officially licensed version of it is for sale. If people are already going to be buying golf bags, phone cases, and dog sweaters, there might as well be an option with logos and the appropriate Pantone color values.
And yet, when done right, it is possible to drill through the accumulated marketing cruft and find the good parts within. Christmas can truly be the Most Wonderful Time of Year. This week — Rivalry Week — can bring communities together and into conflict with each other in all the best ways.
Depending on when you became a Gator, your top rival might be Georgia, Auburn, or Tennessee. For me, like so many born in the 1980s, it will always be Florida State. It was the final boss of the regular season, waiting at the end to test whether Florida really had it this year or not.
I was fortunate that my parents had season tickets since before I was born. To my recollection, the FSU game was the only one I was ever deemed too young to attend. It was the ’90s, the height of the series to date, and the environment was too intense for an elementary schooler in my parents’ reckoning. As a result, the Florida State game took on a certain mystique for me. It wasn’t until I reached an older age in the latter half of the decade that I was finally able to attend my first one.
We are a far cry from that now, with two teams under .500 playing out the string of disappointing seasons. Almost no one, if anyone, coaching on the home sideline will make the trip to Tallahassee next year. Some number on the opposite sideline are in their last game of the series as well.
Even so, rivalry games are the milestones in our college football journeys. We remember them by numbers like 52-20, or special names like the Choke at Doak or The Greatest Game Ever Played in the Swamp. They etch indelible images in our brains, like a rain-soaked Tim Tebow splattered in garnet field paint appearing as a mythical warrior in the midst of an epic battle.
A rivalry game will always mean more than a mere annual series, whether with an ancient foe like Kentucky or a new one like Missouri. They not only make the atmosphere in Gainesville electric but ignite passions in Gator clubs in every far-flung corner of the world.
My wife and I met while attending UF, and we’ve bought all the merchandise right down to one of those dog sweaters. We’ve lived in Italy for nearly three years now because she joined the Navy and Uncle Sam sent us out here. Despite being an ocean and six time zones away, we still have our connection to home in no small part due to Florida football. And, a couple of her coworkers being partial to FSU has kept the rivalry alive in a land that couldn’t possibly care less.
I don’t know when I’ll next see a Florida-FSU game in person. It will be soon if the Navy sends us to Jacksonville in a year. It’ll be longer if it sends us to San Diego or Hawaii or Japan instead.
If you are able to be in the Swamp or even the state of Florida for this one, don’t let the records of the teams make you take the game for granted. One of my fondest memories in the series was being in Doak Campbell with the Gator Band in 2004 when the already-fired Ron Zook ruined Bobby Bowden’s field naming celebration. This one could be when an interim coach ends FSU’s bowl 35-year bowl streak.
Saturday’s contest may ultimately be forgotten in time like so many games in any long-running series, but also remember that it’s one of only four or five that the players will be around for. As special as it is to be in the stands, it’s even more so to be down on the field in uniform. Those guys deserve to get the full rivalry game experience because they only have so many chances.
This game doesn’t require national stakes to be special. It doesn’t need the tacky “Sunshine Showdown” brand that the state’s department of agriculture slapped on it. This pits coworkers against coworkers, neighbors against neighbors, us against them in a battle for bragging rights that, if kept in proper perspective, reaches something deep inside our human natures in a wonderful way.
It’s Rivalry Week. It’s FSU week. Let’s do this, Gators.