There's something in the air on game day in Gainesville. In all likelihood, it has something to do with the oppressive heat and humidity usually present for a majority of the home games. Maybe it's the combination of barbecue, perfume, palm trees and exhaust from motor homes. But as I prepare for my final home game as a student at the University of Florida, I realized that whatever is in the air makes the Swamp feel very much like home.
I still remember vividly a Saturday morning freshman year when, at 8:30 in the morning, I woke up to the sound of a stereo blasting outside of my dorm room. I got out of bed, opened the blinds and saw that the parking lot outside Graham Hall had been transformed into a party. That is when I knew that I was in for a special four years of Florida football.
If you have never been to the Swamp, you might not buy into the hype. Everyone talks about how loud it is and how difficult it is for opponents to play there. On my campus tour as a high school senior, they told us that an earthquake had once been registered there. Even I, an enthusiastic freshman, couldn't believe that a stadium could be so loud. Then again, as a lifelong Rays and Buccaneers fan, I didn't know a whole lot about crowd noise.
My freshman year was Tebow's last year. Yes, that one. The year where everyone, especially the students, thought Florida was a lock to repeat for the national championship. The regular season was magical—beating Lane Kiffin's Tennessee team, a long touchdown catch by Deonte Thompson saving a win against Arkansas and absolutely drilling Florida State on Senior Day. Everyone who was a student then remembers the deep, dark depression that hung over campus for weeks after getting throttled by Alabama in the SEC Championship. The image of Mark Ingram and Julio Jones mock Gator Chomping as the clock wound down will never escape my memory.
The Tennessee game was my first real experience of what the Swamp could be like. I try explaining how loud it is to people, but it's hard to put it into words accurately. Quite simply, it's like when you yell into a pillow to blow off steam, except there's no pillow and there are 90,000 others doing it.
How loud is that? Last season, on the first play from scrimmage against Alabama, John Brantley fired a 65-yard touchdown to Andre Debose. In the student section, where I was, people were falling over into rows below them and people were being inadvertently hit with elbows because everybody was losing their minds. A few weeks later, I talked to an Alabama fan who said that he had never heard a stadium so loud.
Of course, the Gators lost that game. They also lost a game against South Carolina in 2010 where Debose took the opening kickoff back for a touchdown to a very similar crowd response. But the funny thing is that those moments aren't much louder than your average third down in the Swamp. The place is noisy.
I think what really makes the Swamp so hard to play in is the environment. My sophomore year, the Gators played a game against South Florida. I think it was a noon kickoff, but whatever it was, it was brutally hot. The temperature that day couldn't have been less than 92 or 93 degrees, and I specifically remember the heat index that day being 110 degrees. Imagine that as an opposing player—not only are you playing a far superior team (although that year's Florida team was not), but you're doing so without being able to hear your quarterback change the play and being on the verge of heat stroke.
I have never been to Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge or Autzen Stadium in Eugene, but I'm always skeptical when people say they are tougher places to play than the Swamp. It's not just the noise. It's everything.
As a fan, it can be equally brutal. While the players can have the benefit of constant water or Gatorade and cooling fans on the sideline, fans do not get that. Aside from the rare ice cup from a concession stand, fans are exposed to the elements just as much (unless you are so lucky as to sit on the west side in the shade). But that's what makes it such a unique experience for us. You're so hot and sweaty that it becomes almost comical. The only thing to do besides complain is to yell as loud as you can on defense.
Saturday will be the final game I attend as a student at Florida. I have hundreds of memories from all the games I have attended. There was LSU's fake field goal in 2010, Aaron Hernandez chucking a ball into the north stands after a touchdown against FSU and Marcus Lattimore running our defense into the ground. There was taking my girlfriend to her first game, a clunker against Mississippi State. There was this year's LSU game, where the Gators reasserted themselves as an elite SEC team.
There were all the times I hummed the fight song until I finally learned the words, and hummed the Alma Mater until I learned the words. All the times I had to awkwardly put my arms around the annoying girl next to me or my sweaty friend on the other side during "We Are the Boys." All the thousands of times I did the Gator Chomp, deserved or not.
Football is a part of the experience at any SEC school, and Florida is no exception. There is nothing like campus on game day. Nothing even close to stepping into the stadium as the teams are finishing their warm-ups. There's the chills you get when the announcer says "Here come the Gators!" and the intense anger you feel when Tennessee or South Carolina or Florida State enters the stadium. There's the happiest walk to the car after beating LSU or the miserable walk back to the car after getting blasted by Alabama.
No matter what the feeling, it felt like home every time. This Saturday's game will not mean much in a football sense. With all due respect to Jacksonville State, no one is really going to care about the game on the field. Everyone knows next week's battle with Florida State is all that matters. But that doesn't change the nostalgia that will grip all of the seniors in the crowd on Saturday.
For the last time, I will get out my student ID and ticket, show it to the miserable ticket-takers, walk to my seats and take a deep breath of the cold, ugly weather that is forecast. And for the next three hours, I will strain my vocal cords to make sure that our FCS opponent never wants to come back to the Swamp again.
Then I will leave. I'll come back, sure. In all likelihood, I'll come back many times. But there's nothing like being a student, and it's a feeling I'll only get to experience this one last time.
There's something about game day in Gainesville. One last time as a student, I'm excited as ever for some Gator football.
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