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Love in the swamp

It's just a coincidence that one University of Florida mascot proposed to the other during alligator mating season.

By JEFF KLINKENBERG
Published June 11, 2006


GAINESVILLE -- Gators are falling for each other all over Florida right now. Raging hormones have them on edge.

Males are bellowing. Females are grunting. Boy gators wander out of lakes and creep over terra firma, looking for a pond that might contain an interested girl gator.

If she is interested, he’ll bellow some more, she’ll grunt and he might stick his noggin out of the water and vibrate until droplets fly off his throat like a dragon’s smoke.

If another interested male is around, the two bulls will fight, which involves lots of splashing, roaring and unpleasant biting.

The winning suitor will swim up to the female and thump his snout on the top of the water a couple of times as if to say, “Hey, sweetheart, want to come up to my place?’’

Then Lothario will plop his enormous head on top of her smaller head and hold her under the water.

Here in north-central Florida, a more romantic version of gator love is happening.

***

Albert and Alberta are the mascots at the University of Florida. At sporting events on the Gainesville campus, they are usually seen cavorting on the sidelines in gator costumes. Albert for years was played by Brian LaPlant,  23. Kourtney  Long, 25, hid inside of Alberta.

Albert is the bigger of the two. The head part of his costume alone weighs 12 pounds. Alberta is more petite. At football games, they do a lot of flirting. Sometimes Alberta busses Albert or grabs him by the claw. Albert skips with excitement. Sometimes, when it appears she is chewing him out for some boy gator infraction, he muzzles her muzzle with an inverted megaphone.

They act like an old married couple.

***

For Albert, it was love at first sight. Not so for Alberta.

They met in 1998, when they were plain Brian and Kourtney at Lemon Bay High School in Englewood. They were both in the jazz band. She played alto sax. He played standup bass. She was a junior, and he was a sophomore.

He didn’t have a license and asked for a lift home. They didn’t know each other, but when she found out he lived in her neighborhood, she said yes.

The next day at school, Brian handed Kourtney a gushy, complicated note asking her out. They had to double, since Brian was too young to drive. The boys treated the lucky girls to Steak n Shake  and to a movie, Great Expectations.

“A little rocky,’’ is how Kourtney remembers their debut as a couple, though maybe she doesn’t like Dickens.

Emboldened, he asked her to a Valentine’s Day dance. She said yes, then changed her mind at the last minute.

“I wasn’t cool enough,’’ Brian bitterly informed his friends.

Feeling guilty, she invited him to the prom. He did nothing stupid and avoided saying something altogether dumb. They dated steadily after that.

In 2000, Kourtney graduated and headed for Gainesville. The following year, Brian moved to Jacksonville to study music at the University of North Florida. They saw each other on weekends.

When she was a sophomore, Kourtney saw an ad in the student paper, the Independent Florida Alligator, about tryouts for the Florida mascot job. She became Alberta. Brian transferred to UF the next year, auditioned for the part of Albert, and got it.

Tracy and Hepburn!  Bogie and Bacall! Brad and Angelina!

Albert and Alberta!

For four years they were quite the gator couple at football games.

***

The eighth anniversary of their first official date was April 28. They couldn’t go out that night, so they planned a dinner at Bonefish Grill the following night.

Brian is a burly man with a big appetite. But he was so nervous he picked at his favorite dish, Bang Bang Shrimp.
Kourtney was distracted, too.

“Is he ever going to propose?’’ she thought. “I mean, eight years!’’

She knew how Brian felt about marriage. Scared he couldn’t hack it. Brian had gotten his bachelor’s and his master’s in education and was teaching at A.L. Mebane  Middle School in the little city of Alachua.

“Teachers don’t make enough money to be married,’’ he informed Kourtney.

The bill at Bonefish came without a ring.

Out in the parking lot, Brian looked as miserable as Kourtney.

“I do have a little anniversary surprise,’’ he said.

Kourtney’s heart skipped a beat.

“Yes,’’ said Brian. “But do you mind wearing a blindfold?’’

As a matter of fact, Kourtney did. But she allowed herself to be trussed up once she took her place in the Toyota.
Then they went for a long drive.

“Brian,’’ Kourtney said after a bit, “I feel like I’m going to barf.’’

“Well, I’ll stop. We can take off the blindfold. No big deal. What I had planned is kind of cheesy anyway.’’

That somehow reassured Kourtney. The blindfold stayed put. They drove for another 10 minutes before Brian pulled the parking brake. He helped Kourtney out of the car and led her by the hand.

Kourtney was literally and figuratively in the dark.

First they walked on concrete along a fence. Then on something squishy.

“Okay, stop,’’ Brian said. He removed the blindfold.

They were standing on the 40-yard line of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium at Florida Field, better known as the Swamp.

It wasn’t very bright on the field. Emergency lights were on. Kourtney squinted to make out details.

Even so, she was seeing more of the stadium than ever before. The eye holes on the Albert and Alberta costumes are so tiny the two mascots are always tripping over benches or cheerleaders.

In the dim light, Kourtney finally made out a blanket on the 50-yard line. The blanket was lined by candles, though the wind had extinguished them. The wind had also scattered the petals from the roses.

A few of Brian’s friends, including a photographer, watched silently in the stands. So did a couple of fitness freaks who were working their lungs and quadriceps by running up and down the bleachers.

Kourtney burst into tears.

Gallantly, Brian knelt.

“Will you marry me?’’ he piped up.

The witnesses, including the sweaty guys, applauded and cheered wildly. Then everybody came down on the field and shared champagne.

Kourtney finally got her ring.

***

She recently earned her doctorate in pharmacology. Soon she will begin a new job at the Department of Veterans Affairs in Gainesville.

She is also thinking about the wedding.

Lots of things are up in the air, but they believe they will exchange vows next May 5. At the reception, their cake will be topped with the traditional bride and bridegroom plastic dolls. Their dolls, however, will be scale models of Albert and Alberta.

Brian might touch her nose with wedding cake, irrepressible young man that he is, but swears he won’t duck her head under the water.

The happy young people promise to do no bellowing, grunting or head slapping at the reception.

They are, after all, complete amateurs.

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at (727) 893-8727 or klink@sptimes.com.

[Last modified June 11, 2006, 18:42:45]


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