I was lucky to have two present and supportive parents growing up, but you inevitably have other people who take on outsized importance when you’re young. There are those who you never meet but whose repeated presence imprints something upon your mind. It makes those people evoke memories of the blissful simplicity of youth.
In a sports-obsessed household like mine, head coaches were such figures. Steve Spurrier was on the TV at various times on Saturday for games and then again on the VCR for his coach’s show during lunch on Sunday for about a dozen weekends a year. Brian Hill of the Orlando Magic was one whose televised face visited my house with even more regularity. They were pictures of winning and authority.
Anyone on TV could be make any kind of impact, of course, like the comforting presences of Mister Rogers or Bob Ross. Bob Opsahl, former news anchor of Orlando’s ABC affiliate, was on many weekday evenings. I was too young to fully understand what he told us each day, but his steady delivery made it seem like anything going on in the world was explicable and not, as is so often the case, the product of unknowably complex systems interacting.
My first game at Florida Field, as far as I can tell, was the 1989 Kentucky game. It’s the oldest ticket stub I have in my collection from when I was a kid, and I was four-years-old at the time. My parents had season tickets, so that collection has a lot of entries, but that one is the oldest I have.
By the time I first witnessed Gator football in person, George Edmondson had been leading two bits cheers for 40 years. He was as much or more a Florida football institution as any single person was. His tenure had recently extended into his seventh head coach — interim Gary Darnell, after the sixth, Galen Hall, had been fired earlier that season — and that count would reach eleven by the time he hung up his yellow shirt, striped tie, and whistle.
The only thing that could compete with him, I suppose, was the institution of the Pride of the Sunshine marching band. I may be biased here, though, as someone who learned the words to the UF alma mater and “We Are the Boys From Old Florida” before the lyrics of the national anthem. In any event, quality play on the field certainly couldn’t vie for preeminence. Edmondson’s raison d’être for becoming Mr. Two Bits, after all, was his disgust at Gator fans booing the team during the 1949 season. Let no one tell you that the UF faithful only became fickle after 1990.
The two bits cheer became one of the primary ways I learned to gauge the rhythm of the game. The ambient crowd energy did too, but sometimes people got worked up over uncalled penalties I couldn’t see or big plays I was fully accustomed to as a child of the Spurrier era. Edmondson was the north star, the one I could rely on to know when the games were in doubt or not.
There would be times when the Gators would run up the score on some poor team like Southeastern Louisiana or New Mexico State that was just there to collect a paycheck. We’d be lucky to get five of his two bits cheers in total and any after halftime.
Then there were the big ones against Auburn, Tennessee, or FSU. When the game was tight late into the fourth quarter, Edmondson became a magical figure. I’d see him across the way conducting the two bits cheer in the upper deck of the north end zone. Then somehow, it seemed like two plays later he’d be in the lower bowl of the southwest side to lead the cheer before appearing in the dead center of the student section one play after that. How he got around the stadium so quickly is a miracle I never want to know the mechanics of.
As I got older, I began to understand football a lot better. I didn’t need Mr. Two Bits to let me know when the game was truly in a big spot or not. Even so, I never ceased getting a thrill when he’d show up in our section. It was like getting to see a president or a pope up close, but then you actually got to do something with him. Who cares that thousands of other people were also doing it? I could’ve sworn that he’d look me in the eye every time before starting up his routine to make sure I was in on it too. As much as anyone else, Edmondson was a giant figure of my youth.
There are a lot of great things about growing older and becoming an adult. One of the drawbacks is the recognition of mortality. Everyone, even the ones you love unconditionally, won’t be around forever. That’s the way of life, and it is right to be that way.
I do feel comfortable in predicting that the honorary Mr. Two Bits tradition that started up in 2013 will outlive me. Whenever I can make it back to the Swamp, I will see a recently graduated Gator great or military honoree raise the sign and lead the cheer. I can go back to being eight-years-old and watching the original Mr. Two Bits fire up the crowd. Maybe a hundred years from now, when a rivalry with Miami is no longer possible because the sea has swallowed up that city, a new tradition will take its place. I will not be there to see it, and that’s enough for me.
I hope and expect the university will put up some kind of commemorative signage for Edmondson this fall. There’s an argument that it should’ve been done while he was alive to see it, but I get the idea that he didn’t mind. He started the two bits cheers to rally the crowd behind the team, and every time Albert, or a celebrity guest, or even just your section’s most passionate fan got up to lead the cheer, he was receiving a living tribute that no inanimate sign or statue can match.
A new generation of Gators is growing up now who never saw the original Mr. Two Bits lead his signature cheer, yet they revere it no less than I did when I was that age. Edmondson, creator of Florida football’s greatest tradition, has become a true legend in that way, and true legends never die.