If you can't beat them, join them

Published January 9, 2007

Gainesville — I had a lot riding on the Florida-Ohio State game, mainly a steak dinner and a big helping of humility.

It started with a little trash talking between one of my co-workers and I and escalated into the winner buying the loser a steak dinner.

True to my Big Ten roots I wanted Ohio State to win. I know, I know, I live in Florida, but growing up in Chicago and going to Indiana University, my ties are to the Midwest. Since Indiana never seems to have a decent football program, I’ve adopted most of the Big Ten programs - with the exception of Purdue - as my surrogate football teams.

As the weeks counted down to game time, the phrase “mmmm, steak” and other fun comments were exchanged in the office.

Flash forward. It’s Monday night. Game time. I’m wearing a burgundy Indiana Hoosier T-shirt to meet some friends and co-workers at Beef O’ Brady’s in Inverness. One of my co-workers, Eddy Ramirez, decides to walk in behind me just to see the reaction I get when I walk in the room.

It’s priceless. Everyone in the room turns around and stares. Eddy just bursts into laughter.

We sit down to eat and have a few beers when the jawing starts. After the first 16 seconds there wasn’t much I could say.

Burying my head in my hands I’m utterly embarrassed that the team I’m cheering for doesn’t come to play and keeps taking cheap shots. I don’t care that the Buckeyes were off for 51 days or not, it’s a complete meltdown. The Gators’ fumble recovery gives my friend Steve Coddington a chance to try and high-five me as a joke, stopping in mid-air while laughing, “Oh yes, sorry you’re cheering for the other team.”

By halftime I’m feeling sluggish and miserable. Even the Gator fans are leaving. That’s when Eddy suggests going to Gainesville. Despite much pleading our friend Catherine backs out. At first we decide maybe it’s better to go to Coach’s but after seeing the empty tables we decide there is only one place to be: Gainesville.

It’s now 11 p.m. I ditch the red T-shirt and leave on the long white sleeve shirt I have underneath it. I begin embracing the inner Floridian. As they say, if you can’t beat them, join them.

Steve, Eddy, and John Frank, one of our co-workers, and I pile into my Volkswagen Jetta and crank up the radio.

We make it up there faster than we should, getting to Archer Avenue with one minute to go in the game. It’s perfect timing. Students are piling out of their apartments, dorms and the O’Connell Center. I open the sunroof and windows and become obsessed with honking my horn as the mounting drunken cheers grow from the people in the street. They high five our hands as we slowly drive by. We find a safe place to park, ditch my car and join the mob.

It’s pademonium, but it’s great. People are setting of fireworks, couples are kissing in the street and fireworks are being shot off. The noise of hundreds of cars honking their horns and smell of smoke fills the air. Fans are chugging beer and smoking stogies.

As soon as we reach University Boulevard there its a sea of wall to wall bodies.

Students are climbing on top of roofs, light poles and breaking off branches from Magnolia trees. We pose for pictures with cheering police officers, a fuzzy gorilla and a male student dancing in a thong.

The crowd begins chanting: “It’s gre-a-t t-o be a Flooorida Gaaator. It’s gre-a-t t-o be a Flooorida Gaaator.” We slowly make our way through the mob talking to people along the way.

I meet Florida’s “Robeman.” “Gator” Bill Evans who has worn a Gator-print bathrobe to every game since the 1990 Sugar Bowl. It’s signed by every big name Gator from Steve Spurrier to Danny Wuerffel.

I buy a Gators T-shirt, as a peace offering for the bet I now owe my co-worker and talk to a Navy Seal named Sam Helms who missed the 1996 championship because he was in training. He lives in Jacksonville now but jumped in his car during the third quarter once he realized how the game was going to end.

“There ain’t no way I’m missing this one,” he said. “This is just Gator nation at it’s best Ain’t nothing better than this right here.”

Looking around, I realize that he is right.

Dawn Reiss can be reached at dreiss@sptimes.com or (352) 860-7303.