and Football: A Gator Tradition
The madness had come to town. They started spilling into the community early on Friday, giving the place a feeling of density and pressure. Different factions roamed the streets in groups for safety. There were sneered threats and promises of revenge. Something serious was about to unfold. So serious that the police had erected barricades and the news media had warned the public. The tension was palpable. The universities of Florida and Tennessee were going to play a ball game.
College football is taken seriously at Florida. It controls the pulse and the soul of the university. It amuses some, bewilders to others, and becomes addictive to a frightening few. More studious types are disgusted at the hold it has over academic life. They can't believe, for example, that classes would be canceled for homecoming or that students would be hustled out of their parking spots early on Friday to make room for rich alumni arriving in RV's.
On Saturday, the frenzy of anticipation and celebration reaches a crescendo. Human decency often begins to wane under the pressure. And a late kickoff provides even more time for the breaking down of the common bonds of the race. After a point, it becomes tribala simple question of association and geography.
With an 8 p.m. game time on Saturday, September 18, I knew what would be happening on campus by 1 p.m. I wanted to document some of the debauchery in order study it and try to understand it, and perhaps to record a portion of it for a more civilized posterity who may never know what it was like. Plus, crazy/drunk people are good fodder for writing and photo projects.
I had a simple plan. There would, of course, be no parking. I'd have to go in on foot. Office Depot on 13th Ave., about 10 blocks from campus, had a deal on film. I made the purchase and noticed that some of the combatants were roaming even that far afield from the conflict. Still, ten blocks had to be a good enough buffer zone of safety for my car. I started walking.
I rendezvoused first with some acquaintances who were tailgating at the infamous "Broward Beach." The "beach" is not a beach at all. It is nothing more than a large rectangle of grass on the South side of Broward Hall dormitory. A parking garage, tennis courts, and sloping ridge surround the area. The low-lying, hemmed-in nature of the place give it an ambiance of isolation.
The "tailgators" were there. TAILGATING: The word was originally used to designate the kind of hearty, simple folk who, instead of being a slave to stadium concessions, would prepare a sort of picnic to be served from the back of the family truck or wagon in the parking lot. Like so many words in the American lexicon, the practice has ridiculously transcended the original meeting. My tailgators had a full-size, park-it-and-leave-it-on-the-wood-deck-out-back, two-tank, propane-fueled grill on which a couple of racks of still raw, pink, pork ribs were cooking slowly They had furnitureboth the lawn and living room varieties. They had two gasoline-powered generators and full gas cans to replenish them. They had a television complete with a 20-foot tower antenna that would be erected to capture the signal of the game being beamed from the CBS affiliate in Jacksonville. They had enough alcohol to kill 30 frat boys on initiation night.
Though they were each already on the way to their personal happy place, or perhaps because they were, I was greeted as a "hale fellow well met." In the spirit of indulgence and consumption they entreated me to partake of their food and beverage. I declined, and started to take pictures, promising to destroy them before the subpoena arrived. One lanky young man had on a shirt that read, "I think, therefore, I am not a Vol." One of those helmets with the cup holders for beer with a forked tube that intersects to form a Y of sustenance leading to the drinker's mouth rode above his red-shag hair. No cans or cups were mounted in the contraption but the youngster was sucking on the tube anyway. All around me, loud, incoherent, happy shouts erupted at intervals. After a few moments and some excellent photographic opportunities, the kid in the drinker's helmet produced a bullhorn. It was no toy, but a big, loud, professional-looking, civil-defense-type deal. He started to yell into it, but was not able to be understood for the Hendrixesque feed back squealing off of the thing. His fellow revelers just smiled and covered their ears. Then, as if fate had delivered them into our hands, a long, white crew-cab pickup full of Tennessee fans slowly meandered its way down the little service road that runs next to Broward. The road was a dead end. They were obviously lost. As if cued by a choir director, all of the tailgaters stood with one accord and shouted a stream of vitriol and derision. The one with the bullhorn took great delight in running, well stumbling really, toward the truck as the driver tried to get turned around to exit, and shouting things into the bullhorn: "You drive like Tee Martin...that's how your offense works...that's why Tennessee suuuuuucks!" These mild insults were greeted with ugly hand gestures from inside the truck. As bullhorn-boy kept moving toward them, members of our happy group reminded him that the truck was a crew cab, and it was full, and maybe he, considering that, should use some discretion. Not that we couldn't take them mind you, but it was still so early and we hadn't even eaten yet. The farm truck full of Tennesseans finally got righted and faded over the hill without further incident.
Though I was begged to stay and celebrate, I told my friends I must move on. I was already late for one of the prime attractions of the madness: the ESPN College Game Day broadcast. College Game Day was started by the network as a sort of all-encompassing, pre-game show for the major college football contests to be played on a given Saturday. In 1993 College Game Day went on the road. Now, each Saturday, the show sets up shop on the campus where the powers that be believe the biggest game of the week will be played. According to ESPN, Game Day has a "huge following" and the campus visits have garnered a "rock concert atmosphere." By all observation, ESPN is right.
I arrived just as the broadcast was finishing, but I heard the ruckus before I saw it. A sea of people was gathered around the set on the North side of Florida's Ben Hill Griffin stadium. They pushed and shoved and shouted trying to steal some camera time. The Game Day hosts each wore little headset contraptions that I surmised helped them hear one another over the din of a thousand idiots shouting.
As the broadcast broke up, the University Police Department hustled the three wise men away. The crowd was dispersing so I took some shots of the set. I spotted a group of UT fans and decided to capture them socializing, clowning, and eating pizza. One of them approached as I clicked away and soon there was only a large white "T" in the viewfinder. "What's the pict-chers foar," he said in that nerve-grating twang so common among those who hale from the hills.
"Photojournalism," I said with contempt in my voice, hoping my response would be confusing. It was.
"Oh," he said and paused for a long time before walking away. A not-bad-looking girl asked him the same question he had asked me when he got back to the group. "I don't know," he said.
After leaving the Vol enclave, I became aware of some movement of obviously emotional people toward a gathering on the other side of the ESPN set. I walked around there, but couldn't see anything special. A woman approached me and said, "I wish I had my camera." The statement invited inquiry of course, but also invited the offer of the use of my camera and perhaps a conversation and an exchange of addresses and the promise to send the developed photos right along. I ignored her. She said it again, louder.
"Why?" I said, irritated.
"Because there's Lee Corso," she said pointing. And indeed, Corso, FSU graduate ('57) and assistant coach, Burt Reynolds friend and confidant, Gator Hater of the first order and perennial loser to (USFL Days) and antagonist of Steve Spurrier, College Game Day clown and host was among the people. He acted, peculiarly enough, in this casual setting just like he does on stage: squirrelly and flinchy. Loud staccato bursts of dialogue erupted from him as he shook hands and took pictures with admiring fans. Sensing an opportunity, I walked away from the woman who stood hoping for an offer to use my camera and sought a picture of "the coach" as he is popularly known due to his 28 years in professional and college football.
I couldn't get a good shot. He moved quicklywildly almost. Wheeling, whirling, smiling. Each time I walked in front of him to take a shot he would turn around to greet another fan and I'd be looking at his back. As a purely amateur photographer (on my first assignment I took 36 pictures before realizing I had loaded the film wrong and it wasn't advancing), I miraculously remembered that the way to capture quick movement is to up the shutter speed. I reached down, ratcheted up the dial, checked the light meter, adjusted the f-stop, and moved in closer. I would have a photo of Lee Corso.
Finally, there was a break in the crowd and he stood chatting casually with one of his UPD handlers. I moved closer. As soon as he saw me, the coach was all motion again, this time moving toward me. I big, fat Corso finger was all I had in the viewfinder now. I looked up annoyed. "I'll get someone to take us together," he said reaching for my camera. Being a serious journalist-in-training, I thought it highly inappropriate to fraternize with subjects, and as UF student I thought it highly unsavory to let Lee Corso touch me, as he was trying to do now with his arm almost draped across my shoulders. I moved away quickly and took up a defensive position, trying like mad to get my Canon in focus. He looked bewildered, even insulted. "You don't want one of us together?" he said, sounding now really like a disappointed child.
"I just want you Coach," I said, in a tone of respect and friendship.
"I just want you Coach," I said again cutting him off. Finally he stopped moving but only for a second. He froze flashed a quick smile and then turned back toward the UPD officer. I backed away hoping I had gotten the shot. I stood close, but not threateningly close and observed. Corso was talking to the officer.
"Y'all get enough to eat?" he said trying to imitate the easy-going, country-boy twang of his guard and not pulling it off. The officer was laconic; Corso acted like he was on speed.
"We're fine, Coach," the policeman said.
"There'scolddrinksoverhere, there'scolddrinks," he said quickly pointing to a spread ESPN was providing for the support and security people.
"Thanks Coach," said the officer, "we're doin' fine." I backed further away and watched. Corso fawned over the officers, slapped them on the back, laughed, paused to sign an autograph for a fan, and in general seem to have a good time with the people. I felt my rigidity soften a bit. Corso...hey maybe he's not a bad guy. The serpent can beguile you. Corso who used to play and coach at FSU and whose USFL teams got the mess beat of them by Head Ball Coach Spurrier's teams and is mean and resentful and never picks Florida. No, never mind, I didn't like Lee Corso at all. I walked away from the set.
My film was nearly all used and I had to get it developed. I walked back up 13th Street enjoying the last vistas of the madness. It was getting late. The game would start in a couple of hours. A Gator Cab driver stopped in the middle of the street to yell incoherently at some Vol fans leaving McDonald's. What he yelled sounded something like: "Heyyallboysmynolesyouknowhahalookoutnowyallboysrighttherebaby." He seemed to be doing the Seminole Chop, of all things. The UT fans, not sure what was happening, just pointed back at the man. I remembered a professor who said that wherever you go, cab drivers are the same.
On down 13th, a big, gaudy, white and "burnt orange" (what a stupid name for a color) limousine with UT flags flying passed me on its way toward campus. I stopped and used my last exposure. Nothing like game day madness, I thought. I wondered if the limo would make it out of town. It probably would, with minor damage. My car, thankfully, was still in one piece. I drove home satisfied to have been a witness.
When I walked into my house, the family, as I knew they would be, was gathered around the television. ESPN was on. The announcer was saying, "And our very own Lee Corso, the Coach, has picked Florida by three."