College football, Gator football, has always been part of my life. On the night that my mother went into labor with me, my father was with my Uncle Lenny in Jacksonville for the Florida-Duke football game. The story goes that my dad and Uncle Lenny made it home to Clearwater in 3-1/2 hours and, as soon as he arrived, I was born at 7:16am. That was in 1970.
By the 1971 season, my dad and mom had season tickets - three to be exact - and our Saturday afternoons were spent in Section 15, Row 71, Seats 10, 11 and 12 at Florida Field. That was well before Ben Hill Griffin gave the UAA a boatload of cash for upgrades and naming rights. It was also well before the first Glory Years of Gator Football (1983-1985), before Emmitt Smith, before the second coming of Steve Spurrier, and before most everything that now defines Gator Football.
Back then, we sat through day games, in dress clothes, and suffered 0-10-1 and 0-11 seasons. We ate Original Recipe Kentucky Fried Chicken with mashed potatoes, cole slaw and rolls for lunch before the games; parked on campus, no pricey parking permits required. The north and south endzones were not built high, the stadium was not closed in, and fans were invited to exit the stadium across the playing field after each game. We often got to meet cheerleaders and football players as they joined their families after the games, which was really cool. We listened to "Dial-a-Score" as we sat in traffic on our way out of town.
I went to my first football game at 11 months old. My sister, having been born in May, attended her first game at 4 months old. Even when our family of three became four, there was no need to purchase another season ticket. Back then, children did not require a ticket for admission; and there were plenty of empty seats in the stadium. My dad would always carry Ashley through the gate - Gate 4 - and the same ticket collector (he was an old, old man and I think his name was Charlie...) took our tickets at every game. Even when the UAA changed the rules to require tickets for admitting children, our ticket collector never questioned my dad carrying Ashley into the stadium. We did it that way until she was at least 10 years old, maybe even older.
Once inside the stadium, we sat next to Betty & Gordon Grant of Ocala, and behind their friends Evelyn & Ruel, also of Ocala. Betty and Evelyn smoked those super-skinny ladies' cigarettes and always left fascinating lipstick marks on the butts. Dressed to the nines, they also spiked their water with bourbon they had brought into the stadium in a small, round cooler festooned with the Fightin' Gator logo. It mattered not how much they drank during the game...the entire Ocala crew rode "Lolly the Trolley" to and from the games.
Betty & Gordon sort of adopted Ashley and me as "grandchildren." At halftime in the games, Betty would take us downstairs to the concession stand for treats - usually M&Ms or Cracker Jacks.
Also in front of us sat Bill & Ronna Davis of Gainesville. And behind us sat Keith Gilles, and eventually his wife Leslie, a converted Seminole. And next to our left were Ken & Martha Eilermann of Jacksonville.
So much about Gainesville and Gator Football has changed in the last 38 years: the Gators have won two national football championships; UF now boasts three Heisman Trophy winners; winning seasons are the norm; the stadium is massive and "fans are reminded to stay off the playing field following [the] game"; parking on campus is nil, unless you own a pricey parking permit; halftime pass-outs for re-entry (the coolest tradition we ever had...) are a thing of past, as is the halftime Kamikaze Party at the Purple Porpoise (R.I.P.)
But, probably the biggest change in my Gator world is that my dad is not there. After he died in 1997, it took a while to regain the zeal for anything, much less a silly game. But as I took Zane to his first Gator game last weekend, all of those childhood memories came flooding back to me and I realized that my dad was there. He was the foundation of all those memories, and the reason I have such a wonderful family tradition to share with my son.
I also realized that so much about Gator Football is still the same, all these years later. For one, Gator fan loyalty is unmatched. Say what you will about Alabama, Michigan, Penn State and others with legions of loyal fans; I submit Gator Nation is the most loyal of all, simply based on the fact that we really didn't start winning - at least not with any frequency or consistency - until the early 1990s. That's a long time to adore a team without a strong winning record. I think that's why Gator Nation is so strong.
Also, we still sit in the same seats my dad bought all those years ago; and our seat mates have passed their tickets down through their families, too. We now sit next to Betty & Gordon's daughter, Henrietta, and her husband, Mike. And, Keith & Leslie still sit behind us, and Miss Martha (her dear husband Ken died shortly after my dad...) still sits to our left. In many ways, a Gator game is like a family reunion, and I was so proud to introduce Zane to so many "extended family" last Saturday.
And the traditions, Oh! the traditions..."HEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRE Come the Gators..."; "We Are the Boys..." after the third quarter; the "orange & blue" cheer; Gator jaws; baby Gator jaws; and so many others. Mostly, though, it's another Saturday spent as a family in Section 15, Row 71, Seats 10, 11 and 12.