Fans gather to cheer Gators to victory


John Linde, right, gets a hug from friend Justin Rossano at Gator's Dockside as the Gators score their third touchdown.

CELIA TOBIN/Special to The Sun
Published: Tuesday, January 9, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 9, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

Even from kickoff, it seemed everyone in Gator Nation knew it.

"We know they will win," Gator grad and Houston resident Rob Newsom said just seconds before he watched the Gators score their first touchdown from a big-screen TV at The Swamp restaurant.

Whether they gathered at The Swamp, the Reitz Union or the O'Connell Center, tens of thousands of Gator fans descended Monday night on Gainesville to watch the University of Florida-Ohio State matchup from the heart of Gator country.

At the end of a first half that saw four Gator touchdowns, the announcer at the O'Connell Center had a request of the thousands of students who gathered to watch the game there.

"Please, no crowd surfing," he said via the arena's loudspeaker.

Members of the crowd, which filled the O'Connell Center nearly to capacity Monday night, mostly refrained from becoming airborne.

But they did scream, jump, stomp, dance and chomp their way through the broadcast of the national championship game, which the O'Connell Center showed live on four huge video screens.

The crowd didn't wait for the Gators' touchdowns to fill the arena with an echo-making roar. The arena seemed to burst into an orange-and-blue riot for every tackle the Gator defense made and every yard quarterback Chris Leak ran.

And after each touchdown, stunned fans turned to each other to share amazement and joy.

"Well, that was exciting," said Ty Morton, an 18-year-old freshman, after the first half ended. "That was a lot more scoring than I thought we'd do."

The crowd stayed just as enthusiastic during the defense-heavy second half, reaching its peak volume after quarterback Tim Tebow's fourth-quarter touchdown.

"It's pretty good for being the underdogs," 18-year-old freshman Morgan Rothenburg said, grinning as images of the national championship trophy started playing on the video screens.

The O'Connell Center was reserved for UF students, faculty and staff with Gator 1 ID cards, with each cardholder allowed to bring one guest.

Many said the student-heavy crowd created an atmosphere similar to the student section at The Swamp at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, and it made the game-watching experience even more special.

"The atmosphere here is just electric," said David Sweeney, a 20-year-old sophomore. "It's loud. You've got all the students around you. Nothing could be better than this."

But even from outside the O'Dome, Gator fans had no trouble finding fellow orange-and-blue lovers with whom to celebrate.

At The Swamp bar, more than 500 people clung to every available banister, chair or wall, their necks craned to catch glimpses of the game from one of the many big-screen TVs. Although about 250 people were crammed inside the restaurant, where the temperature rose to sweat-inducing levels, just as many or more fans filled the outside patio area.

"We may be ranked No. 2 going into this game, but we're undisputed No. 1," said UF finance major Justin Price, 24, who stood near one of the two TVs set up outside The Swamp.

Price said he and his friends plopped themselves on the sidewalk outside the popular Gator watering hole — which lent its name to a similar establishment in Glendale just for the game — about three hours early Monday, armed with a deck of cards and a case of beer. Despite their early arrival, he said he and his three friends were reduced to taking turns on the one metal chair they were able to claim in the mad rush for seats .

"We're willing to lease it out for the right price," he said laughing.

And when asked whether he attended his classes on the day of the championship game, an expletive-laced "no" was his reply.

"I did go buy a calculator today," he said. "That was my school thing for the day."

Up and down W. University Avenue, it seemed any bar or restaurant with an accessible television was filled to capacity with orange-and-blue-hued fans.

A bouncer at Gator City said the tables were full by 11:30 a.m. Monday, a mere 30 minutes after the doors were opened. And the first fans in the room were Brian Barry and his Beta Theta Pi fraternity brothers, who had been taking turns since midnight Monday for a chance to snag their lucky tables.

"There was no question; we had to get these front two tables. We've never seen the Gators lose at these tables," Barry said, his voice noticeably hoarse from 13 hours of drinking and cheering.

But W. University Avenue wasn't the only place to find Gator fans Monday night. At the Gainesville Ale House on Archer Road, a capacity crowd of about 400 people turned out to watch the Gators battle the Buckeyes.

"There are three big parties in the country right now: here, Columbus and Arizona. And I was closest to this one," said Jacksonville resident and Gator grad Arthur Dizon, 24, who watched the game from the patio at the Ale House.

Sitting on a lone bench outside on the Ale House patio, Santa Fe Community College students Kristen Bear, 21, and Shannon Riley, 23, said they tried to go inside, but gave up when they found themselves being pushed and shoved with every big play.

With a clear view of a television and a pack of cigarettes handy, Bear and Riley said they were proud to watch the Gators play.

"The motto this week has been 'Peace, love and go Gators,'" Bear said.

Alice Wallace can be reached at 374-5036 or alice.wallace@gvillesun.com

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