This Labor Day weekend was also the season opener for college football. The Gators had a home game and I was once again blown away by the entire Game Day experience. For those of you who haven't experienced a proper Game Day in the Swamp, I would like to impart just a teensy bit of the magic to you. Hopefully one day you'll be able to see for yourself why the Gators have the best fans in the nation.
Game Day in Gainesville for many is almost a sacred pilgrimage. Almost every weekend in the fall, thousands of people pack up their cars and drive for hours just to see their team. RVs and caravans begin arriving Friday night to fill the parking lots, garages, fields, yards, where ever they can find a square inch. Downtown Gainesville is packed with students, alumni, families and fans from all walks of life. There are even the occasional rival fans milling around that stick out like a sore thumb in a sea of gaudy orange and blue. Don't worry, we don't let them get away with it.
Then Saturday morning rolls around and you can sense "it". Your senses are bombarded by the excitement in the air. The best way I can describe it is "tangible." The game could be starting at 12:30, 3:30 or even 7 PM but tailgates start while there's still dew on the ground. A coozy in every hand, the smell of the smoking grills fills the air, and the sound of a football being tossed around. Yep, football season is back!
The festivities continue until about an hour before game time. As tailgates begin closing up shop, hoards of people migrate towards the Swamp, as if guided by some magnetic force. The sound of voices gets louder as you approach as the 90,000 swarm to get inside in time to hear 2-bits. There's an occasional chant or refrain from the crowd, just to reinforce the fact that "it's great to be a Florida Gator."
You push your way through the lines - literally - and march your way to your seat. That is, if you're sitting in the Alumni section, you're marching to your seat where you sit down. If you're heading to the student section, you head to the spot on a bench where you will stand for the next 3 hours to fulfill your student duty to intimidate the opponent by yelling as much as humanly possible.
With a few short minutes until game time, the Pride of the Sunshine marching band storms the field. As if the crowd needed more pumping up, the band fills the stadium with their traditional pre-game show that the fans have grown to know and love. As the band serenades you with the National Anthem, the stands enter a brief moment of silence. But only for a moment as the band picks up again with few more standards before heading towards the south endzone. And that's when you know the team is about to enter.
The jumbotron flashes images of a gator lurking in the swampy Florida waters. The Gator Chomp plays in the background and the anticipation builds in the stadium, arms posed in perfect gator chomps. A booming voice shakes the stadium with the classic pre-game line: "The Swamp: Only Gators get out alive!" The sound of cheers is deafening as the team races onto the field. Football season is finally here!!!
The next few hours pass by in a whirl. Between cheering on Jeff Demps & Chris Rainey, booing the opposition and chiming in during the stands tunes (I guarantee one of them will be stuck in your head for the next 3 days), it's non-stop excitement. And it's even more fun when we win!
Crowd interactions in the Swamp is a great social phenomenon. Just being there cheering on the Gators is like instantly making 90,000 friends. When the Gators score, you seek everyone within a 10-foot radius to high-five. After the third quarter and without even thinking, you throw your arm around the stranger beside you as you sing and sway to "We are the Boys." It all adds to the atmosphere and the experience. There's absolutely nothing like it.
It's great to be a Florida Gator!