Published: Thursday, January 8, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 7, 2009 at 11:24 p.m.
MIAMI - Just before 6 p.m., the National Championship Fan Fest in Bicentennial Park had a carnival-like atmosphere.
Then angry clouds came in over downtown Miami and fierce winds kicked up. Hundreds of Gator and Sooner fans rushed to shelter under a 6,600-square-foot tent in the middle of the park.
As the storm burst around them, the fans - people of all ages - crowded against each other in their team colors and costumes and waved flags and signs and shouted. Spontaneously, dueling pep rallies erupted.
"O-U! O-U!" rang out.
And then, "Let's go, Gators!"
The crowd started up a deafening debate, like two sports analysts screaming at each other.
"S-E-C!" the Gators shouted.
"Ole Miss!" the University of Oklahoma fans chanted in response, a reference to the only team to beat UF this season.
"Texas! Texas!" the orange-and-blue crowd answered.
All this went on - each side taking turns taunting the other or chanting a slogan - for about 25 minutes. Then the rain cleared and the festivities resumed with Low vs. Diamond on the stage and, eventually, the university marching bands performing.
The Sooners and Gators had been tested face-to-face there in the huge white tent. They showed themselves to be honest-to-goodness fans, for sure, but also respectful of each other.
"It's all in good fun," said Anthony DelDuca of New York, who was there with his brother and with four boys ages 11 to 15.
DelDuca, a UF grad, was at the BCS championship game in Arizona two years ago. The Ohio State fans were different. They were "cocky," he said, and the Gators were outnumbered.
But there's a lot of respect between UF and OU fans, DelDuca said. "I think each side is fearful of not winning the game."
Jim Sasnett, a Sooner fan from Moore, Okla., wasn't fazed by the raucous shouting.
"It was a friendly rivalry," he said. "The Florida people were a lot louder than us."
As for the chanting back and forth, he said, "It's like we know each other's business. ... It's like we know what they're all about and they know what we're all about."
Nina Misialek, 22, of Norman, Okla., had brought a sign that announced the arrival of "Hurricane Sooner." When the little storm came, she stood on a table waving her sign and chanting slogans.
"This just proves my sign all the way!" she said. "This is just the beginning. They have no idea what we will bring tomorrow on the field."
Among the loudest Gators was Mike Tomberg, 36, of Jacksonville, who wore a blue UF jersey and a towering orange wig. For him the rain was a good sign.
"You've got to love it," he said. "The Gators love to play in the swamp."
He, too, was in Arizona two years ago and sees a big difference this year.
"The Oklahoma fans are respecting us a lot more," Tomberg said. "We were totally disrespected by Ohio State in '06."
The Buckeye fans, he said, "were basically telling us that we didn't belong there and they felt sorry for us."
Gator fan Mike Curran of Mount Dora summed it up as he stood next to his dear friend and former Army buddy, the red-and-white-clad Devon Engleman of Duncan, Okla.
"There's a lot of pride," Curran said, "and a lot of healthy respect, too."
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