Chompions return home


Florida head football coach Urban Meyer waves to members of the media after the Gator Football BCS National Championship team arrive at the Gainesville Regional Airport on Friday, January 9, 2009.

Aaron Daye/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Friday, January 9, 2009 at 10:19 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 9, 2009 at 10:19 p.m.

The Florida Gators didn't come home to a massive crowd of screaming fans, but the handful who did come to the Gainesville Regional Airport on Friday afternoon packed a big dose of love and support.

Due to security and traffic concerns, officials asked the public not to come to the airport to greet the team as it returned from Miami as the 2008 BCS national champions.

The few fans who did show up had to stay in a grassy area sectioned off with yellow tape. They didn't actually see the players step off the plane because of the distance from the tarmac and three buses that blocked the plane.

Willie Ross, 61, works at the airport as a taxi driver with Bestway Cabs. He said when the Gator basketball team won one of its two national championships, a platform was set up and fans were all around it.

"They should have let people come in to see the team," he said. "I'm a little disappointed because they're going to come in and not see anybody here to greet them."

Linda Burrier, her husband and Keith Sellner came from St. Augustine to watch the game in Gainesville on Thursday night. They stayed up until 2:30 a.m. celebrating downtown.

Despite officials' plea to fans not to show up at the airport, they were determined to welcome the team home.

"We're diehard Gator fans. We just want to see the team We're disappointed with the way it was set up," Sellner said. "We're not going to mob them like they're the Beatles or something."

"We want the players to know we appreciate them and we'll do whatever it takes to show them how much we love them," Burrier added. "We were prepared to lie to get in."

The team charter flight arrived at the airport around 2:30 p.m. Gainesville Fire Rescue greeted the American Airlines jetliner with a water salute, two fire trucks shooting water over the plane, forming an arch.

Players, coaches and staff all strolled down the steps easily and slowly. Some had tired faces. Smiles filled the faces of others. Many paired gray SEC and national championship T-shirts with orange and blue Gator gear.

Quarterback Tim Tebow, wearing a royal blue Gator sweat suit, came off the plane with a big grin, squinting his eyes from the sun. Later, as he was being escorted to the parking lot, fans yelled out, "Tebow, we love you boy!" and "Way to go Tebow!"

He told the mob of media who surrounded him that he was still undecided about whether he will return to the Gators next year.

"I don't know yet," he said. "I'm just going to sit down and pray about it the next few days and try to make a decision."

Safety Will Hill was one of the first players to leave the runway and head to the parking lot. He walked into the arms of his girlfriend.

Defensive tackle Brandon Antwine said he was still in shock from getting a second championship ring. He said the locker room Thursday night was full of energy, but also emotion. He said he's looking forward to celebrating with "Gator Country" Sunday.

"It still really hasn't sunk in yet," he said. "It's just unbelievable. We did it two times in three years."

Coach Urban Meyer called the feeling of a championship win "indescribable."

"I've been around some really good teams, some great teams and this is the best group of guys I've ever been around," he said.

UF student Amanda Bryan squealed when she saw Tebow. Then she shouted "Urban, I love you!" when the coach was in her line of sight.

"I'm very proud that in my short time here, I've seen my football team gain two championships," said Bryan, who didn't have classes Friday. "I go to the best school ever."

Karl Saddlemire has been a fan for five years and said he and his wife go to all the football games. They went to the game in Arizona when the Gators beat Ohio State for the 2006 BCS national championship.

"This is fantastic. It's really great to see them win," said Saddlemire, who moved to Gainesville from Syracuse, N.Y. "They really deserve it. They really worked hard."

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