Converted for a night
By DAWN REISS
Published January 10, 2007
GAINESVILLE - I had a lot riding on the Florida-Ohio State national championship, mainly a steak dinner and big helping of humility.
It started with a little trash talking between me and one of my co-workers and escalated into the winner buying the loser 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.
As the weeks counted down to game time, the phrase "mmmm, steak" and other fun comments were exchanged in the office.
Flash forward to Monday night. Game time. I'm wearing a burgundy Indiana Hoosiers 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 turns 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. 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. It's now 11 p.m. I begin embracing the inner Floridian. As they say, if you can't beat them, join them.
Steve, Eddy and John Frank, another co-worker, and I pile into my Volkswagen Jetta and crank up the radio. We get to Archer Street with one minute left 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 us as we slowly drive by. We find a safe place to park, ditch my car and join the mob.
It's pandemonium, but it's great. People are setting off fireworks and couples are kissing in the street. Fans are chugging beer and smoking stogies.
As soon as we reach University Boulevard, there are 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 male student dancing in a thong. The crowd begins chanting: "It's great, to be, a Flooorida Gaaator. It's great, to be, a Flooorida Gaaator." We slowly make our way through the mob.
I meet Florida's "Robeman." "Gator" Bill Evans has worn a Gator-print bathrobe to every game since the early 1990s. It's signed by every big-name Gator from Steve Spurrier to Danny Wuerffel.
I buy a Gators T-shirt 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 likely to end.
"There ain't no way I'm missing this one," he said. "This is just Gator nation at it's best. Nothing better than this right here."
Looking around, I realize he is right.
Dawn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 352 860-7303.