Several people asked me to reprint my Thanksgiving column from 2014 so here it is:
As we did every year during my family’s exile to Mississippi during my formative years, Thanksgiving meant an all-night drive from McComb to Florida where we split the time between my dad’s parents, who lived on Kingsley Lake, and my mom’s, who lived three blocks from the University of Florida in Gainesville. We arrived at Kingsley Lake at the crack of dawn in 1965, did Thanksgiving and half a day on Friday, then we packed up and headed to Gainesville.
When we arrived in Gainesville, I did what I always did and headed straight down University Avenue to Florida Field. It wasn’t yet The Swamp and Ben Hill Griffin Jr. hadn’t donated enough money at that point in time to get his name on the side of the stadium. Expansion had taken the stadium to capacity of 48,000. There were no decks in the north or south end zone and no sky boxes. The north end zone was only about 20-25 rows and there were these signature palm trees at street level. The south end zone was all bleacher seating.
Prior to our exile, I was one of these guys Mr. Squires, the concessions manager, could count on. When the Gators played football, I sold Cokes and I was a hustler. I got there earlier than most of the kids who hoped to clear $3 or $4 (you paid $2.40 for a tray of 12 Cokes, and if you sold them all you cleared 60 cents). My typical haul was something closer to $6 but that was because I had established a regular clientele, a group of attorneys from Jacksonville, who brought their flasks of sour mash whiskey and rum and sat about 15 rows up on the west side, close to about the 12-yard line. My job was to keep the Cokes flowing until the end of the first quarter, at which time they had exhausted all their alcohol. A couple of the lawyers only wanted the ice and they would ask me to drink the Coke for them, which I always did.
When the Florida freshmen played (there was a freshman team until 1973 when the NCAA ruled them eligible), I was sometimes the only kid working the stands. In the fall of 1963, Steve Spurrier’s freshman year, nearly 12,000 showed up for the Florida-FSU freshman game and I was the only kid to show up to sell. That night I hustled Cokes and Copeland hot dogs well into the fourth quarter and made nearly $15. The Gators stomped the Seminoles behind Spurrier, who was dazzling, but the play I remember the most was Bobby Downs scrambling for a loss of more than 70 yards in the fourth quarter. He kept reversing his field and trying to outrun the Seminole defenders. He gave out of gas and fell down, leaving the Gators second and goal from their own 20. I think that had everything to do with him becoming a safety when he was a sophomore.
For a young kid who dreamed of playing for the Gators someday, nothing could have been as cruel as coming home from Westwood Junior High School in September of 1964 to discover that American Box Company had bought Adkins Manufacturing, where my dad was the general manager, lock, stock and barrel and that we were being exiled to Mississippi. I say exile because McComb, Mississippi was everything that Gainesville wasn’t. Gainesville was sophisticated.
Why there was a Chinese restaurant on University Avenue and if you hung around the College Inn, which later became the Purple Porpoise, you could hear all sorts of languages spoken. On Saturday’s in the fall the Gators played at Florida Field and in the winter, Florida Gym was the place to be. I was in school at Westwood with Coach Sloan’s daughter and I taught his son Mike how to long snap so he could play center for Mr. Dulaney’s 12-year-old team when I took over as the center on the 13-year-old team.
Gainesville was paradise and while McComb became a daily adventure the longer I lived there, it was never going to replace Gainesville, largely because there was no Florida Field. The only thing that saved me was a 50,000-watt AM station out of Pensacola that was on the Florida football network. Otis Boggs was my lifeline.
On that Friday afternoon in 1965, the day before the Gators played FSU, I watched the Gators do their walk through at the stadium. What I remember most about that afternoon was watching Steve Spurrier punt. He stood at the 50, aimed for the coffin corner and dropped one punt after another inside the 10. He kicked these perfect spirals – Otis would call them “a high, lazy spiral” on his radio broadcasts – almost effortlessly, but just about everything Steve did seemed effortless.
I remember walking back down University Avenue wondering if Mr. Squires would remember me and let me sell Cokes Saturday afternoon. Little did I know there was a surprise waiting for me back at 313 NW 11th Street. When I got back to my grandparents house, my grandfather asked me where I had been. I thought it was strange that he would ask. Everybody knew the first place I was going when I got to Gainesville was Florida Field. So I told him where I had been and about watching the Gators do their walk through. I asked if he could call Mr. Squires (my grandfather had Mr. Squires car and home owners insurance) to see if I could sell Cokes Saturday afternoon.
My grandfather had his funny grin on his face and said, “No, you can’t sell Cokes.” I was crushed and began resigning myself to listening to Otis call the game on WRUF.
I don’t know what came over me – in those days you didn’t ask your dad or grandfather why when they said you couldn’t do something – but I asked why not? My grandfather reached into his shirt pocket, laughed out loud and pulled out a ticket.
“Because if you’re selling Cokes you’ll miss the game,” he said.
My gosh! I was going to the game and wouldn’t have to miss the first quarter while hustling Cokes.
I don’t remember how much sleep I got that night because I was so excited. I wolfed down breakfast on Saturday morning and headed down to Florida Field. I wanted to be there when the first players walked out on the field to warm up. I wanted to be there when the bands marched into the stadium. I wasn’t going to miss a thing.
I can’t tell you too much about what happened before the game or for the first three quarters. I don’t know if that is a case of selective memory or just that I was so excited about being there that it’s been blocked out. I do remember the fourth quarter, however.
The Gators led 16-10 when FSU’s passing game caught fire. Suddenly, Ed Pritchett couldn’t miss and nobody seemed capable of covering Max Wettstein in the middle of the field. With a little more than two minutes to go, Pritchett threw a touchdown pass to cap a drive of more than 80 yards and former GHS star Pete Roberts kicked the extra point to take the lead.
I was in a mild state of panic but the man sitting next to me calmly said, “They got the lead, we got Spurrier.”
And yes, the Gators did have Spurrier. I watched Stevie Wonder work the clock like he had been born for this moment. With around 1:20 left in the game, the Gators had a first down at the FSU 25. Too far for a field goal but even if the Gators got closer nothing was certain. Wayne “Shade Tree” Barfield had already missed an extra point and a 31-yard field goal.
No need for a field goal, though. Spurrier rolled right looking for Charlie Casey running an out route near the FSU 12 but instead of throwing, Spurrier used waved Casey to the end zone. Casey broke his route, headed for the end zone and left the Seminole defender in his tracks. Spurrier lofted the ball perfectly and Casey ran under it for a touchdown.
There was still more than a minute to go, plenty of time for FSU to rally and it looked like the Seminoles were going to answer Spurrier’s miracle with one of their own until Pritchett overshot an open receiver. Allen Trammell intercepted and ran the ball 46 yards down the west sideline for the touchdown that sealed a 30-17 win and one of the two greatest Thanksgivings in my life.
When the game ended, I ran down on the field – you could do that in those days – hoping one of the players would give me a chin strap or sweat bands, real prizes in those days. Spurrier and Casey, as you might imagine, were mobbed. As much as I would have loved to say I patted Steve Spurrier on the back or shook Charlie Casey’s hand, I needed something to remember the day.
I saw Allen Trammell and sprinted up to him, patted him on the shoulder pad, told him what a great game he played and before I could even ask, he unsnapped his chin strap and gave it to me. I still have it today, my ultimate Florida game day souvenir that I proudly showed off to all my friends back in McComb a couple of days later.
The chin strap sealed that game as one of those moments when I knew beyond a shadow of doubt that the Florida Gators would always be the only team that really mattered in my life. That game was, is and always will be one of my ultimate Thanksgiving memories.
These are highlights of the game … final drive starts about 18:10.
* * *
Thanks for indulging and allowing me to tell about a moment that still remains clear in my mind as one of the great moments in Gator history. On this Thanksgiving Day, I hope there will be memories that you will cherish for a lifetime. May this day and the upcoming year be one filled with blessings for you and your family.
Indulge me one more time. Take a moment today to tell the people who mean the most to you that you love them and appreciate the value they bring to your life. I am convinced we don’t do that nearly enough.
COUNTDOWN TO FIRING DAY UPDATES
On Monday there was a report that South Carolina had an agreement in principle with Houston coach Tom Herman. Now it is being reported that Herman has withdrawn his name from consideration. There was a Wednesday report via Bruce Feldman of Fox Sports that Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart is now the lead dog in this pack.
Maryland would love to hire Bill O’Brien of the Houston Texans, but the odds are very long that will happen. Meanwhile, Pat Forde of Yahoo Sports is reporting that former Florida and now Michigan defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin has already interviewed for the job.
There are reports that Virginia Tech defensive coordinator Bud Foster is a serious candidate at Illinois. In the event that Foster doesn’t land this or another HBC job, whoever replaces Frank Beamer at Virginia Tech would be smart to keep him as the DC.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
For years there have been some folks who think Florida-FSU should be played first game of the season. Would you be happy to see the game played earlier in the year or are you happy that it’s always played Thanksgiving weekend?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
For a guy who has 21 albums to his credit, most people have no clue who John Hiatt is. It’s a good thing most of the blues and rock musicians know Hiatt, however. He’s written a ton of music for them and he’s opened for most of marquee acts on tour. Today’s music is his 2011 release “Dirty Blue Jeans and Mudslide Hymns.”