Fans relish chance to show team their appreciation
Published: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 14, 2007 at 12:54 a.m.
A sea of orange-and-blue-clad fans shot to their feet and exploded into a thunderous roar as the newly crowned national champion Florida football team raced onto Florida Field Saturday.
It was the moment the Gator Nation had waited all week for: the chance to celebrate their hometown heroes.
What Steve McClain, University of Florida sports information director, claimed were 70,000 chanting, screaming and Gator-chomping fans crammed into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to celebrate the football team's victory over the Ohio State Buckeyes in the BCS National Championship Game. The crowd stood and loudly cheered as Urban Meyer took the stage to recap the team's season and when Heisman Trophy winner and former Gator quarterback Danny Wuerffel made a surprise appearance and presented current quarterback Chris Leak with the championship game's MVP award. The other 20 seniors also got an earful of boisterous hooting and hollering from the audience.
Some fans, like the Salazar family, waited in long lines as early as 9 a.m. to get prime seats near the stage in the south end zone.
Richard and Brenda Salazar and their daughters, Ashley, 11, and Amber, 8, were decked in orange and blue as they eagerly awaited a glimpse of the football team.
"We're huge Gator fans," Richard Salazar said, noting that they never miss a game. "At 9:30 a.m., it started getting bad; everyone bull-rushed to get in."
Aside from heavy traffic congestion, there were few glitches during the day, according to police. Several thousand people stayed in the stadium after the celebration to watch the men's basketball team beat South Carolina on two large video screens, McClain said.
Fans traveled from all corners of the state and from as far away as North Carolina and Tennessee to be at Saturday's mega-party.
The celebration seemed to bring both the team and fans closer. A group of friends who went to UF during the Wuerffel era reunited Saturday - 10 years after witnessing the Gators seal their first national championship football title.
Danielle Thibodeau and her boyfriend, Ryan Doerflein, planned to have a "celebration picnic" at Lake Alice after the event.
For UF senior Doerflein, 21, it was the perfect send-off.
"I just want to thank the Gators for a memorable year," Doerflein said. "I'm going to tell my kids about this someday."
The unseasonably warm weather couldn't stifle the brass of the UF marching band as it led the crowd in "Go Gators," "Gator Jaws" and the Florida fight song.
For Leif Erickson, 35, and his girlfriend, Amber Gallagher, 28, both of Zephyrhills, it was a celebration that simply couldn't be missed.
"It gives me chills to watch the video," Erickson said with a wide smile as he looked at video highlights of the historic season. "It's great to be a Florida Gator."
Toward the end of the celebration, it was only fitting that the tens of thousands linked arms and sang "We Are the Boys of Old Florida" to close what has been an emotional and unforgettable season for the players and fans.
Deborah Ball can be reached at (352) 338-3109 or email@example.com.
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