Rabid Gator in Hawkeye territory


T.J. Juskiewicz flies his Gator flag at his home in suburban Des Moines, Iowa.

Special to The Sun
Published: Sunday, January 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 31, 2005 at 10:14 p.m.
T.J. Juskiewicz's home in suburban Des Moines is pretty easy to spot.
"I have a Gator flag outside my house, probably one of the only ones in Iowa. It's got snow on it and sleet on it, but it looks pretty darn good out there," he says.
From 1983 to 1997, Juskiewicz called Gainesville home as he was earning bachelor's and master's degrees from the University of Florida and working here.
He can't remember missing a football game the whole time he lived here. Growing up in Fort Lauderdale, surrounded by Miami fans, he was the kid in orange and blue. When he was in high school, he'd make the drive to Gainesville to take in a football game, even in some of those very lean years that many Gator fans would like to forget.
He left Gainesville for Orlando, and for five years he worked as director of Bike Florida. In 2003, he moved to Ankeny, Iowa, to become the director of the longest, largest and oldest touring bicycle ride in the world, The Register's Annual Great Bike Ride Across Iowa, RAGBRAI for short, which every July draws 10,000 riders to the state. His first Iowa winter, he realized just what it meant when he sang, "in all kinds of weather, we'll all stick together" at the end of the third quarter of all those Gator games.
"I'm not in Florida anymore," were his thoughts the first time he drove by the bank sign that announced the morning temperature was minus 20.
And as he settled in that first year, he didn't keep his love for the Gators a secret, but certainly didn't feel any guilt in also rooting for Iowa's Hawkeyes, and Iowa State's Cyclones, since they aren't in the SEC, and the chances of them meeting UF in football were miniscule.
Then when the season ended, Iowa and Florida headed to the Outback Bowl on Jan. 1, 2004. He was confident the superior talent at UF would make easy work of the Big Ten rival. But Iowa walked away from Tampa with a 37-17 thumping of his Gators.
"My e-mails were buzzing from the time we found out we'd be playing them until the time we lost to them," he says. "That wasn't a very good effort on the Gators' part at all. I was eating crow all day, that day."
He's still making the adjustment to life in the Midwest. He now has a much better appreciation for how corn and pork chops find their way to a supermarket, and he's gotten skilled at plowing snow from his driveway.
And now, two seasons later, he's facing football deja vu. Over the past couple of years, he's even added a couple of black and gold Hawkeye shirts to his wardrobe. He's still Gator to the core, but you won't find him talking ugly about Iowa, either.
"They remind me a lot of Florida in the early '90s, adding on to their stadium and becoming a national powerhouse," Juskiewicz says. "I'd root for Iowa over anyone else in the country, especially if they played Florida State or Miami. But blood is thicker than water. You have to go with your alma mater."
With the help of the Web, the Gators' national TV exposure and buying the right cable packages to pick up those less-than-stellar matchups, he says he hasn't missed a game this season, and even made it down to take in the UF-Tennessee game in person.
"I could tell immediately when I went in for the Tennessee game that the excitement was back in Gainesville," he says.
Being 1,300 miles away from the heart of Gator Country, he keeps his eye open for the familiar colors. RAGBRAI typically draws 400 to 500 riders from Florida, and he looks for the Gator bike jerseys in the two-wheeled masses. He makes a point of talking to those wearing their loyalty to UF. The rest of the year, it's quite a challenging hunt.
"It's a nice feeling when you do see someone wearing a Gator shirt or Gator hat up here. There's not a whole lot of them, you've got to do a double-take when you see one," he says.
Just like two years ago, he's feeling confident about the Gators' chances on Monday, and there have been some friendly wagers. He's hoping he'll see some of his friends paying up on Tuesday by wearing orange and blue to work.
"I can say, for most Gator fans, it wouldn't rank up there very high on their list, beating Iowa in the Outback Bowl, but for me it would be very sweet," he says.
Gary Kirkland can be reached at (352) 338-3104 or kirklag@gvillesun.com.

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