Gators soak up South Florida atmosphere

Florida players Tim Tebow and Jermaine Cunningham look out over the ocean during the team barbecue.

Tricia Coyne/Staff photographer
Published: Monday, January 5, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, January 4, 2009 at 8:16 p.m.

MIAMI - As Jason Watkins, a 6-foot-6, 310-pound football player, walked down the grand steps at the Westin Diplomat Resort and Spa, he paused for a moment to gaze at the aqua blue Atlantic going on forever under a partly cloudy sky.

With a look of wonder on his face, the big man from Lakeland raised his cell phone and snapped a picture.

He and the other University of Florida players and coaches were going down to a beachside barbecue buffet laid out by the Orange Bowl Committee on Sunday afternoon.

They heaped food on their plates and sat down to eat - some of them hamming it up for the media, others looking like they'd rather not be disturbed under the palms, next to the ocean and the glimmering, glass, steel and concrete towers of the Westin.

This is their home for the week before the BCS National Championship Game. They've had some free time to enjoy South Florida - and the hospitality of the bowl committee - but not at the expense of daily practice or the team's focus on Thursday's game.

Watkins said Sunday morning it hasn't been all business in Miami.

"No, we had a lot of free time to pretty much do what we want to, but most of the guys, we took it upon ourselves that we'll stay out of trouble, pretty much low key, just enjoy ourselves with our family, our friends and our teammates," he said.

They haven't done anything spectacular. But they've been having a good time, going to shopping malls, he said, and doing a little sightseeing.

On Saturday the UF team dined out at Fogo de Chao in Miami Beach. For tonight, the bowl committee has planned a dinner at the hotel and entertainment by comedian Mike Epps.

For some players, like Major Wright, South Florida is their home. And for him the challenge has been to concentrate on preparation for the game.

"It's kind of tough for me being home, a lot of kids calling me. They end up getting my number, calling me, trying to distract me," Wright said on Saturday. "But I don't know numbers. I really don't pick up. I'm trying to stay focused."

Miami is "a beautiful place," said Brandon Spikes, a junior from North Carolina. "But we're here on a business trip. We can't really let distractions like that get in with our team. ... We're here to win and that's it.

"I'm from Jacksonville," said Ryan Stamper, a linebacker, "and I've never been to South Florida. The farthest south I've been was Orlando.

"So the palm trees and the beaches and the big hotels and all that is new for me, probably just like Oklahoma. It feels real good to be down here, just seeing the water and the nice buildings and stuff like that."

He was looking forward, he said, to the beachside barbecue.

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