Soldiers cheer Gators from Iraq

Gators with the Forward Support Medevac Team in Ad Diwaniyah, south central Iraq, gathered in their break room, dubbed the "Gator Zone," to cheer a score in the second quarter of Monday's National Championship Game. From left at top are Sgt. Jason Hughes, flight medic, and Sgt. Paul Weeks, flight operations. In the bottom row, from left, are 1st Lt. Geoffrey Fahringer, section leader, Staff Sgt. Rey Regulacion, flight medic, Capt. Brett Rhodenizer, team leader and Chief Warrant Officer Brent Gordon, maintenance test pilot.

Photo courtesy of 1st Lt. Geoffrey Fahringer
Published: Wednesday, January 10, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 9, 2007 at 10:50 p.m.

A 4 a.m. kickoff didn't keep some Gator-faithful Army reservists in Ad Diwaniyah, Iraq, from grabbing a front-row seat for the BCS title game Monday.

The air ambulance team with the U.S. Army's 1st Battalion, 111th Aviation Regiment, gathered in the camp's break room to watch the Gators take on the top-ranked Ohio State Buckeyes, broadcast live by satellite over the Armed Forces Network. Since the group is made up of Florida National Guard reservists, the gathering had a distinctly Gator flavor.

They didn't see Ohio State's Ted Ginn Jr.'s 93-yard kickoff return to open the game in high definition — far from it.

Instead, the unit members, who call themselves Team Gator, watched the game using an LCD projector they'd bought from the guys stationed at the base in south central Iraq before them, using a sheet hung on the wall.

"The picture's a little fuzzy, but it's the next best thing to being home for the game," one wrote in an e-mail.

Team Gator provides air ambulance evacuation for U.S. forces and civilians in Iraq. Capt. Brett Rhodenizer pilots a helicopter with the medevac team. He's the son of Paul Rhodenizer, owner of Jay's Bridal in Gainesville, and the father of twin 3-year-old boys.

Rhodenizer, 33, is a 1995 University of Florida graduate who is an Alachua County sheriff's deputy when he's home. His National Guard unit was deployed to Iraq in October and he expects to be there for one year.

By halftime, he reported, Iraq's little corner of the Gator Nation could not have been more fired up.

"Soldiers from the medical and dental clinics have already been lured into our Gator Zone to see what all the yelling and screaming was about," Rhodenizer said.

Sgt. Therron Johnson hails from Jacksonville and says he was "born and raised a Gator." So imagine his disappointment when he was launched on a mission "with 9:38 left in the fourth quarter."

When he got back to the landing zone, Johnson reports that he was practically tackled by the base's Gator fans, screaming that they'd won the national championship, 41-14.

The play of the game, Rhodenizer reports, was Earl Everett's tackle, so jarring that it knocked the Gator linebacker's helmet off.

The troops watched Everett get blocked, knocked down, lose his helmet, then get up and chase down Ohio State quarterback Troy Smith for the tackle without a helmet, earning a bloody nose in the process.

"I'm sure the shouts of 'Get him, Earl!' and cheers after the hit woke up people sleeping elsewhere in the camp," Rhodenizer wrote in his post-game e-mail. "He inspired us and reminded us to go after our mission with the same intensity every day."

In Bagram, Afghanistan, at an air base that's home to an Air National Guard unit full of Gator fans, Bryan Fletcher and other Gator faithful woke up at 5:30 a.m. to catch the kickoff in the unit's recreation center.

Fletcher, a Santa Fe Community College student and Starke resident, said the Camp Blanding-based unit typically works six days a week, but officers in charge arranged for time off to watch the game on what was already Tuesday morning in Afghanistan.

"Watching this game means the world to every Gator fan in our unit," Fletcher said. "It lets all of us kind of forget where we are for a minute, and lets us go home in our memory."

James Black, a rare Ohio State fan from the same Florida-based unit, said that was true for the losing team, too.

"Even though I'm not a UF fan, it is enjoyable to see a team from Florida play in the game, and to see some of home," Black said. "It takes your mind off what is going on for at least four hours."

The thought was echoed by 1st Lt. Geoffrey Fahringer, a 2004 Gator grad stationed with the medevac unit at Ad Diwaniyah in Iraq.

Fahringer is from Naples; his wife Kara, also a UF grad, lives in Orlando.

Fahringer describes stepping outside to check on the weather during the BCS broadcast.

The normal morning sounds of Iraq, including the call to prayer from the local mosque, were drowned out with shouts of "Orange!," "Blue!" and "Go Gators!"

"It's as close to home as I've felt since I got here," Fahringer wrote in his e-mail to The Sun.

Sun staff writer Amy Reinink contributed to this report.

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