...I was blown away by the buildup of excitement and emotion leading to the first game of the season.
It is one thing to wait anxiously for the first game of any new football season but it is a wholly different experience to be completely immersed in it on campus and in Gainesville. As a player it was like waiting for New Year's Eve, Christmas, and my birthday all rolled into one. I knew I was not going to play but I would be dressed out, and would be there on the sidelines in uniform, at one of the greatest stadiums in the nation and definitely the greatest in the SEC.
Game week took on a whole new aura as now we were not just practicing we were getting ready for a game. The plays had to be perfect and everyone's technique had to be crisp. This was the freshmen's introduction and the beginning of the senior's last go around, a trend which would play out throughout my time at Florida. The cyclical nature of the young and old sharing a great experience each new season, a sort of passing of the mantle, makes each season unique and wonderful. I could almost see the bubbling and frothing anticipation beneath the skin of everyone, coaches and players alike. Would the team live up to hype? Would we go all the way? Would we be a disappointment or would we be the mighty Gators? For me, though, I was reveling in the experience. I talked to some of the guys in my class that were certainly going to play such as Lito Sheppard and I remember asking him if he was nervous. He said, "No, it's just another game, I'm not nervous just anxious." But he said it with a smile and an expression I'm sure never played over his face when he played high school ball, because here it was different.
Early in two-a-days practice Coach Spurrier tapped me to be his quarterback snapper as there isn't exactly a whole lot of longsnapping a person can do everyday. At first I was hesitant being there with the quarterbacks and the "Ole Ball Coach" himself, but as I fell into the routine I realized the unique opportunity I had. I got to be around Coach Spurrier everyday almost all practice and began to see why he was the coach. I was privy to his lessons with Doug Johnson, Jesse Palmer, and Rex Grossman among others. His technical grasp of that position must be unrivaled in college football. I listened as he talked about when to throw, what to look for, timing, and methodology. He had complete control over all the knowledge he had gained and he transferred that knowledge with such ease and swagger. I was routinely astounded at the position I found myself in, and would call my parents sometimes and tell them what Coach said or did today, and just drink up the situation for what it was. I was in a place were people would pay large sums of money to be. I even snapped to Coach sometimes when he would show the quarterbacks the steps and throws. I could not believe I was snapping to Coach Spurrier.
On a funny side note, one time Coach Spurrier stopped the drills as the practice was getting late and the sun was setting and he had everyone look at the western sky. He said "Yup, look at that. That's a Gator sunset; you know that means God's a Gator." I looked and saw the sun giving the sky an incredible orange tinge meshed with the blue of the surrounding sky and just smiled. He had a swagger and the ability to make people feel at ease, but also to coach.
I was not on the travel squad for the first game but because of my unique position as quarterback snapper I had to be at the stadium when the team showed up and get ready to snap to the quarterbacks during warm ups. I ran out on the field and caught my first glimpse from the field of people filling the stadium. I did my snapping thing and then when the team went back in after warm-ups I left too. I was wholly unprepared for when I would next run out of the tunnel.
In the locker room before a game there is a weird sensation and atmosphere, there is in inaudible buzz that you can feel as you walk around the locker room. Each person prepares in his own way. Some guys are lying on the floor listening to headphones or with towels covering their faces. Other guys are getting stretched out by the strength coaches or talking with each other. There is a whole myriad of emotions playing over the faces of everyone on the team. The guys who aren't dressed out just hang out and look around at everyone with a longing to trade places, while the starters who have been there before have an ease about themselves which is hard to describe. Each person has there own pre-game ritual, be it putting on clothes in a certain order or taking a shower before the game. I just sat and watched and then coach came in. It was what I like to call the "quickening" before the game. Where everything speeds up and the emotion almost becomes to much as people will let out a whoop or a scream, psyching themselves up.
The team goes from lounging around and quietly talking to almost snapping to military attention. The Lord's Prayer is led by either Coach or the team pastor, (I forget exactly as it changed with each game sometimes), and then it hits. It's game time, you must forgive me for not remembering the whole pre-game speech because by then my heart was racing and I was so caught up in the moment I couldn't even begin to recall what was going through my mind. We "broke it down" with the cheer for that year, which I believe was "Gators, Gators, Gators" and then marched out of the locker room, each person hitting the sign painted in orange and blue saying simply "Pride" which hung above the locker room door. Then as we passed the large gator head in the tunnel everyone gave it a tap and then we were there at the door leading out to the field.
I always likened the tunnel moments to a scene in the movie "Gladiator" where the warriors all wait before entering the coliseum to entertain the masses. There is such hype, such emotion, and such a head busting sensation at that second that I am even getting jittery right now writing about it. It is a cusp in time where everything stands still and the moment seems to last an eternity. You cannot see past those in front of you and I did not know what to expect but for that holy Gator instant I had no thoughts. I wrapped myself up in everything and began bouncing around like those next to me, full of fervor for a game I would not play in but it did not matter. Then with a thunderclap of force we broke and ran. It was a torrent of sensory overload which I will never forget. As loud as it is, you cannot hear a thing because it is one of those moments where everything is silence and you just drink up the instant. I thought I heard the announcer saying "Herrrrrre come the Gators" for a split second but it was quickly drowned out by the deafening silence of the moment.
Running out onto the field in The Swamp between the band and seeing the thousands of fans is divinely immaculate, especially to those raised in the Gator Nation. If it were a drug it would be the most addictive rush ever but there is no way that man could ever hope to capture the feeling. All I could think was "Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God! That quickly switched to "Please don't fall! Please don't fall!" As the team broke against the sidelines like a massive orange and blue wave my heart felt as if it would burst but I didn't care. This was it! This was why I wanted to be a Gator --- the sensation, the thrill, the only way to make football better. Make it a Gator game.
We played the game and it was a typical Spurrier opening day blowout,but that only made the experience better. I rode the euphoria of the day for at least a couple days, regaling my parents with the stories and calling up high school buddies to share it with them. I wore a smile for almost 48 hours straight. I wish that every true Gator fan could experience the thrill of the pre-game rituals; it washes away all doubt and baptizes one into the Gator Nation with unrivaled force. After such a day it is easy to break into the chant "It's great to be a Florida Gator" anytime I hear it.
Please forgive me for dipping into some poetic license while relaying my experiences with my first game, but it is the only way I could even try to impart the feeling of running out of the tunnel for a Florida football game. There is a reason that prospective recruits are ushered through the tunnel to a lit, open stadium at night on their visits and that is because it is a uniquely divine sensation which is hard to duplicate any where else in the nation. I hope to write down more experiences and memories to share with you the joys and hardships of Florida football, but until then "Go Gators!"