Do you remember your best Christmas gift ever?
More than 50 years later, it’s still the #11 orange Florida football jersey with the blue and white UCLA stripes on the shoulders that my grandfather bought for me at Jimmy Hughes Sporting Goods on University Avenue, just a three minute walk from his home on NW 11th Street. It had sewn on numbers, not the cheapo iron-on kind. It looked and felt authentic. It became my prized possession immediately.
My grandfather had the foresight to buy it a few sizes bigger in anticipation of a growth spurt that would take me from 5-7 to 6-0 tall and add 40 pounds to my very skinny frame. It lasted through my 10th grade year in McComb, Mississippi, where I was the only Florida fan not just in McComb but in all of Pike County. Most folks in McComb were Ole Miss fans although there were very large contingents of Mississippi State and LSU fans. There was the occasional Alabama fan to deal with. A lot of folks went to Southern Miss, but even though their school home was in Hattiesburg, most of them were died in the wool Ole Miss or Mississippi State fans. Twenty miles up the road in Brookhaven, a lot of folks wore Arkansas T-shirts because hometown hero Lance Alworth went out of state to play for Frank Broyles with that newfangled NFL offense he was running.
There were even a few Tulane fans. Tulane fans tended to be a little bit snooty, claiming anyone could go to school at Ole Miss, Mississippi State or LSU but only a real scholar could go to Tulane. That explained their football team. There was one Aggie fan in our class. A lot of my friends had two favorite teams and one of them was whoever the Aggies were playing.
My best friend Tommy Daughdrill introduced me to Lynn Cantrell, the only Auburn fan in town. She was exceedingly pretty, particularly when decked out in Auburn gear. We connected because she was the only Auburn fan in town and I was the only Gator and we both thought we looked best in orange and blue.
My Florida jersey was a thorn in the side of Mrs. Anne Crosby. Her husband Bob was my dad’s boss at American Box Company. Mr. Crosby turned down a football scholarship to Ole Miss to go to LSU where he met Mrs. Crosby, a died in the wool Tiger whose family traced their Louisiana roots to The Great Upheaval in Canada when the British expelled the Acadians from Nova Scotia. During the Steve Spurrier years (1964-66) I had a standing bet with Mrs. Crosby. If Florida beat LSU, she had to pin a Florida pennant and poster on her front door for a week. If LSU won, I had to pin the LSU poster to my front door. Stevie Wonder came through for me all three years and the Crosbys front door was a Gator advertisement. I was in Baton Rouge for the Florida-LSU games in 1964 and 1966. I wanted to extend the bet to the 1967 season but three years of losing to Spurrier convinced her LSU would never again beat Florida. She ground her teeth for a week after that 1967 game in Gainesville that LSU won, 37-6.
My growth spurt began in August of my sophomore year and by the time we got to June, I had grown from 5-8 to 6-0. June was also when the #11 Florida jersey gave up the ghost. It was threadbare and the numbers were coming unstitched. One day I came home and Willistine, the lady who cleaned our home and took particularly good care of my clothes, held up the jersey and didn’t say a word. The right sleeve had finally fallen off and it was time to say good-bye to the best Christmas gift ever. I remembered when I was a 7th-grader at Westwood and we got a new flag. Our principal, Mr. Simmons, burned the old flag. So I burned the tattered remains of my jersey. I might have cried because that Florida jersey was part of who I was.
There was, is and always will be only one team that matters to me and that is the Florida Gators. There was a time when the Orioles mattered but Frank got traded, Brooks retired and one day Jim Palmer’s fast ball didn’t pop anymore. From the time my uncle moved to Cincinnati and sent me Reds ball caps and paraphernalia, I loved the Reds. But Tony Perez and Joe Morgan got old, Johnny Bench retired and Pete Rose not only played for the Expos and Phillies, but he gambled on baseball and became a disgrace by lying about it for years.
So much for the Reds. I loved the Colts but they traded Johnny Unitas to the Chargers and then they moved to Indianapolis. One day I woke up and Larry Bird had retired so I couldn’t cheer for the Celtics anymore.
I identify with the other teams not named Gators that I have cheered for in something my friend, the late Al McGuire, once said: “All love affairs end. Eventually the girl is going to put curlers in her hair.” With the exception of the Gators, my love affairs with every other team have eventually come to an end.
Back in the 1960s, if you loved college football you had to have one of two things – a good radio or season tickets. During the exile to Mississippi, there was a 50,000-watt radio station in Pensacola that was my lifeline to civilization. Otis Boggs saved me from insanity although I have yet to figure out what exactly is a high, lazy spiral. I understand the high part and the spiral, but what exactly makes it lazy. Does the ball lack motivation? Does it need a shot of 5 Hour Energy? What?
I’ve spent quite a few years of my life writing about the Gators and that’s enabled me to be there for all three national championships in football and both the NCAA basketball titles. I’ve also lived overseas and seen the world through American eyes in 62 different countries. Wherever I have lived or traveled, I’ve always worn my Florida shirts, jackets and caps proudly and I’ve taken particular delight chomping back when someone from across a crowded Singapore mall or the Star Ferry in Hong Kong or a beach in Trujillo, Peru shouted “Go Gators!”
I am always amazed at how those two simple words unite the Gator Nation, which I can tell you is alive, well and living out dreams in every corner of our earth. When you hear those two words, you instantly know that you are not alone and there is at least one friend, perhaps more. Back in the summer of 1997 I was in Bucharest, Romania when I heard “Go Gators!” I was wearing a Gator shirt and a straw hat with a blue band and a Gator logo. I turned and saw a young couple running toward me. They were tourists from Hong Kong and both were UF graduates. We ate dinner that night and the next day, their Gator friend who lived in Bucharest invited us to a gypsy wedding. And all because someone saw something Gator and hollered “Go Gators!”
As I look back on my greatest Christmas gift ever, I concede that the jersey didn’t make me a Gator no matter how much I loved it. I’ve learned the being a Gator isn’t what you wear – jerseys, sweatshirts, T-shirts, jackets and ball caps are merely outward expressions, sort of an identity card or beacon of hope whenever we are out among the infidels. What truly makes us Gators is that which we hold in our hearts. It’s with us wherever we go and whatever we do. It is truly a part of the fabric of our lives and it never goes away.
Forty years ago I took vows for eternity when I got married. Like most things we do in life that require an expenditure of more than $100, it seemed like a good idea at the moment. But the love affair died and eternity arrived sooner instead of later. As Al would say, I saw her in curlers. I can’t say that being a Gator ever seemed like a good idea at the moment because, unlike marriage, I never had to think about it. I was a Gator. I am a Gator. How it all began, I can’t tell you. I just know that it’s in my heart and it requires no vows. Whatever it is that makes me a Gator is there and it won’t ever go away.
So, Merry Christmas and Go Gators.
PS. Indulge me. Take time today to tell the people who matter most to you that you love them. Also, if there is someone out there with whom there has been a rift – perhaps someone you haven’t spoken to in years or someone who causes you to harbor bitter feelings or anger – erase that burden by reaching out. Prove to that person and to yourself that it really is about sticking together in all kinds of weather.
FIVE CHRISTMAS WISHES
1. FOR JIM MCELWAIN AND THE FLORIDA FOOTBALL STAFF: May the force be with you on the recruiting trail and while you’re about it, can we use the time between now and New Year’s to figure out something offensively that will work against Michigan?
2. FOR MIKE WHITE: An exorcist who can release the demons that plague the Gators at the foul line and from the 3-point stripe.
3. FOR JENNY ROWLAND AND TIM WALTON: A fourth straight NCAA gymnastics championship for Jenny and the gymnasts, a third straight softball national title for Tim and the softball team.
4. FOR KEVIN O’SULLIVAN: Great pitching, lots of 3-run homers and that elusive national championship in baseball.
5. FOR JEREMY FOLEY: Renovations of the O-Dome that will come in on time and under budget.
QUESTION OF THE DAY
When did you know, beyond a shadow of doubt, that you were a Gator for life?
MUSIC FOR TODAY
Normally, my musical selection is an entire album, but it’s Christmas and I have such fun watching Straight No Chaser that I have to give you three of their Christmas songs.