While driving north, friendships flourish


Ocala residents Mike Bruce, left, does the Gator chomp as he poses for a photo with friend Don Stevens outside of Macon, Ga., on their way to Indianapolis to see the Gators play in the Final Four.

SARAH STEWART/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, April 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 31, 2006 at 11:25 p.m.
It's been 15 years since the five men in the Coachman motor home first became friends, and none can quite remember how it happened.
They bought the RV together four years ago, specifically for Gator road trips like this. Friday morning, they stocked it up with pork rinds, popcorn and diet Snapple, and left Ocala searching for a Gator victory - but also the bonding inherent to road trips.
"It's like a rolling clubhouse," said Jim Edwards, 55, a dentist. "We play cards. We eat a lot. We have a satellite TV connection, so we watch ESPN. We get to spend some time with each other. What more can you ask for?"
On Friday, the five from Ocala were only a few of the Gator faithful with orange-and-blue flags and high hopes on the 900-mile trip to Indianapolis.
IT'S NOTHING NEW Ehron Elkins' boss at Perry Roofing Contractors offered him Final Four tickets on Wednesday.
Elkins, 26, knew right away who he'd bring.
He and Chris Ferraro, 32, go to most UF home basketball and football games together, and have gone to lots of away games, too. They've been to Georgia, Alabama and Louisiana for Gator games, to name a few.
Ferraro and Elkins already have their hotels booked for away games next fall, when they plan to watch the Gator football team play Vanderbilt and Auburn.
The two friends have also endured some awful rides home together.
"The rides home after you lose are long," Ferraro said. "You have so much more energy on the way there - it's Friday, and you're looking forward to everything you're going to go do. On the way home, it's Sunday, you've lost, and you have to go back to work. You're usually hung over. The finality of it all hits home."
Long rides home notwithstanding, they've had fun on every trip.
That's why when Elkins offered Ferraro the Final Four ticket, there was no doubt in his mind he'd go.
"I told my boss, 'I might need Friday off,' "said Ferraro, a civil-engineering doctoral student at UF. "He said, 'All right, cool.' The next day, I was like, 'I might need Monday and Tuesday off, too.' He said, 'My one requirement is that you have a good time. ' "
His boss got his master's from UF, too. He understands.
SPRING BREAK PART DEUX Xavier Vega and his four road-tripping friends started the journey to Indianapolis at 3:30 Friday morning. He and his group arrived around 4 p.m. in Indy, where they're meeting up with 15 or 20 other friends.
"I can't wait," Vega said in a phone call shortly after arriving. "I think it's a once-in-a-lifetime thing."
Vega, 22, is in his final semester at the University of Florida. As soon as the Gators won their Elite Eight game on Sunday, he knew he wanted to go to the Final Four. A test in his Latin American economics class scheduled for Monday stood in his way, but after requests from many students, the professor moved it to Wednesday.
Vega and his friends encountered just one other group of Gators on the road, a pair of older men somewhere in Indiana with UF flags flying from their car. They shared a Gator chomp, then kept driving.
SOUTHEASTERN BOND Not all fans on I-75 Friday were Gators. A magnetic purple-and-gold LSU paw print adorns the back of Ray Evans' Toyota 4Runner. Evans stopped for coffee in Valdosta, Ga., on his way home to Coral Springs.
"When you grow up in Louisiana, when you're born, they strap you in purple and gold," he said.
His 14-year-old son, Brandon, however, grew up in Florida and is an avid UF fan. Both are pulling for an all-SEC NCAA final - the paw print, in fact, was a gift from Brandon.
He expects the two of them will make a friendly bet if LSU and UF meet in the championship game.

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