Unstoppable Gator fans


Published: Tuesday, January 2, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 1, 2007 at 10:50 p.m.

The Gators clinched a championship-game berth, and tickets from Florida to Arizona grew scarce.

Facts

Gator fans' trekto GlendaleSome of the routes ticketless Gator fans are taking to the game:

  • Ron Blake and Harley Smith are driving to Glendale from Gainesville, taking I-10.
  • Ryan Frost is flying to Orange County, Calif., Jan. 7 and flying to Phoenix from there Jan. 8.
  • Rick Staab is flying a commercial airline from Tampa to Las Vegas and then taking a private Lear 60 jet to Glendale.
  • Kate Wallace is driving from Gainesville to D.C. on Jan. 4, then flying to Phoenix from there on Jan. 6.

So Rick Staab and seven friends did what they had to do to make it to the game: They rented a jet.

Staab, who owns a business in Alachua and describes himself as frugal under normal circumstances, will fly from Tampa to Las Vegas on a commercial airline, then take a private Lear 60 jet from Vegas to Glendale, Ariz., to watch the Gators play in the National Championship game against The Ohio State Buckeyes on Jan. 8.

As game day approaches, Gators like Staab are stopping at nothing to make it to Glendale, dodging personal obligations and ignoring their own sensibilities to do so.

But for Staab and others going to the game, the only scenario too absurd is staying home.

"There's a lot to be questioned about the motivation here," said Ron Blake, 59, who's driving to Glendale from Gainesville with fellow retiree and Gator fan Harley Smith. Neither man has game tickets. "We could easily go and not get tickets. But I guess you sort of plant in your mind that you'd rather go out there and be a little disappointed if they lose or if you don't get tickets as opposed to staying home and wondering about what it was like."

Let's charter a jet

Even in the best of circumstances, a trip to Glendale from Gainesville requires some effort.

Blake and Smith plan to drive about nine hours of the 2,300-mile trip each day in Smith's minivan.

Blake said they considered flying to Arizona, but were put off by high ticket prices and long layovers in out-of-the-way places.

"All the easy stuff is gone," said Andy Bailey, president of Breakaway Vacations. "At this point, people are having to pretty much be creative, going through secondary cities and then switching airlines and being willing to take 12 or 13 hours to get there and 12 to 13 hours to get back. I've heard of people flying to San Francisco or Oregon, then flying back down. People are doing anything they can to get there."

Staab, president of InterMed Biomedical Services in Alachua, said the charter jet idea came about when he and a group of close friends found airline tickets from Tampa to Las Vegas for $300. Tickets from most Florida airports to Arizona were $800 at the time, and most had two or three layovers, Staab said, so the group started investigating the best way to get to Glendale from Vegas.

Hotel rooms, rental cars, plane tickets and parking fees added up. Someone suggested renting a plane, and a tenacious friend negotiated a good deal on a Lear 31 jet, Staab said: $5,300 for 12 hours.

When the charter company told the group the Lear 31 needed maintenance that weekend, the same friend convinced the company to provide a better plane for the same cost.

The jet will fly the friends into Glendale the morning of the game, and will fly them back to Las Vegas that night.

"I had to sell it to my wife, saying this was our Christmas present," Staab said. "We said we were going if the Gators went to the championship, so really, it was just a matter of figuring out how we were going to do it. This is more than we anticipated spending, but it doesn't happen that often that your team goes to the National Championship game. You don't want to sit back now and kick yourself for missing it later."

Ticket hunt

If plane tickets are prohibitive, game tickets are nearly impossible to come by, with most costing more than $1,000 apiece. That's why some Florida fans are heading to the game without them, hoping to buy from scalpers outside the stadium and readying themselves to watch the game in a Glendale sports bar.

Ryan Frost, a 24-year-old UF junior, received a plane ticket to Arizona via Southern California from his grandfather for Christmas. Frost said he's still searching for affordable tickets for himself, as well as for his buddy and the buddy's fiancee. Frost will be in the pair's wedding on Saturday, and will send them off on their honeymoon to Mexico immediately after.

But if the tickets come through, Frost said, the honeymoon may change to include an extra stop, Frost said.

Frost is accustomed to making personal sacrifices for the Gators. He hasn't missed a Florida football game, home or away, for six years.

"My freshman year, my girlfriend at the time was moving into Flagler College on opening day," Frost said. "I said, 'Sorry. I'll be there for you Sunday, but not today.'"

Though Kate Wallace's parents are paying for her trip to Glendale, the 21-year-old UF senior had to find a way to skip her first day at work — as an intern in Washington, D.C., for the Bush administration.

"They were totally understanding, and actually congratulated me on getting to go," said Wallace, who will drive to Washington, D.C., for the internship Thursday and fly to Arizona from there.

Blake also is no stranger to making personal sacrifices to make it to Gator games. Blake traveled to both of UF's previous championship game appearances, and recalled a long flight home after Florida lost to Nebraska in 1996.

Blake said he flew back from Arizona on a red-eye flight that landed in Gainesville at 6:20 a.m. He taught high school at the time, and was due in the classroom at 7:30 a.m.

"We'd been in the same Gator clothes for two days, and we were probably still buzzed from the weekend," Blake said. "But the worst hangover was the loss. It just tore us up."

Blake said he and Smith considered this when deciding whether to go to Glendale. After all, they don't have game tickets, and the Gators aren't favored to win.

They thought about watching the Gators win the NCAA Basketball Championship on TV, and decided to go for it.

But just to safeguard the road trip, Blake and Smith said they've routed their drive home through Columbia, S.C., so they can watch UF play the University of South Carolina basketball team on Jan. 13.

"That way, we are at least guaranteed to get into one arena to watch the Gators play," Blake said.

Amy Reinink can be reached at 374-5088 or reinina@gvillesun. com.

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