Gator fans savor uniqueness of Big Easy
Published: Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 10:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 1, 2013 at 10:11 p.m.
NEW ORLEANS — In a city flooded by a red sea of Louisville Cardinal fans, Gator supporters found a swamp to relax in on New Year's Day.
By about noon Tuesday, Gators fans started to trickle into The Swamp, a Bourbon Street bar designated this week as the headquarters for the orange and blue faithful.
Emcee Bobby Hilliard welcomed visitors over a loudspeaker as Tina Turner's version of "Proud Mary" played in the background.
"I'm playing music way quieter 'cause I think we're all hung over," he said.
The beer still flowed for David Council and Kevin Stanaback, two Gator fans who can remember the roaring crowds at Florida Field when their fathers took them to home games.
"It blew me away," Council, 47, recalled.
Neither attended the University of Florida, but both have alumni in their families. Both are proud boosters.
When horns of the Fightin' Gator Marching Band came over the speakers blaring louder than the music before it, conversations stopped. Arms stretched out, then crashed together to the beat.
Bhaskar Rao savored a jazz trio that was feeding off each other's energy and improvising as they performed outside a beignet shop in the French Quarter.
One of many dressed in Cardinal red at the cafe off Decatur Street near Jackson Square, the Louisville native quickly measured the importance of the Sugar Bowl to Louisville fans.
"It's a colossal game," he said.
He pointed to Louisville head football coach Charlie Strong as the main reason for the team's success — a thought echoed by former Cardinal wide receiver Doug Beaumont.
Beaumont sported a team shirt marked with his number Tuesday. He glowed when talking about playing for Strong, saying he felt lucky to have played for someone who had played a big part in giving Louisville's football program stability.
"It shows how much the program has improved," he said.
Before the bright fleur-de-lis dropped at midnight in Jackson Square ushering in the arrival of 2013, the New Year's Eve crowds on Bourbon Street sporadically erupted in team chants.
"Ooooooooh — C-A-R-D-S! Cards!"
"It's great … to be … a Florida Gator … I said it's great …"
One group even bellowed a boozy rendition of "Rocky Top," the unofficial fight song for the University of Tennessee.
Thousands of people crammed block after block. They hollered for beads from partygoers on balconies and sipped green Hand Grenades and red Hurricanes, two of New Orleans' signature drinks.
After New Year's kisses and well wishes, the party raged for hours.
By mid-morning, the streets were still sticky with spilled drinks and the team colors were still out in force.
Down one street in the French Quarter, a guitar and violin duo played a seething tango. Down another way, two boys faced off on snare drums, trying to outplay each other. On another street, break dancers laid out mats for a public performance around lunch time.
All day, if you listened closely, you could hear the first-timers giving rave reviews.
"I love it here."
"There's a lot of history in this place."
"I've never been to a place like this."
Wednesday morning, about 50 representatives from UF will be heading to the Ninth Ward to plant a garden.
UF invited Louisville to work with the Sankofa Community Development Corp. on the community service project that will bring students, faculty and administrators from both schools together to start game day by giving back.
The project has a special meaning for UF Vice President for Student Affairs Dave Kratzer, a retired U.S. Army major general whose last military command was in New Orleans.
He commanded the unit when Hurricane Katrina hit. Many of his soldiers were displaced.
With the city still rebuilding, Kratzer said, the garden will help provide homegrown vegetables to an area with limited access to fresh produce. Excess vegetables will be sold to local restaurants.
Together with Mary Kay Schneider Carodine, assistant vice president for student affairs, and Myra Morgan, director of external relations for student affairs, Kratzer organized the project that he said fits in with the way UF supporters travel.
"It's part of our DNA to leave a place better than we find it," he said.
Gator fan Matt Anderson stood with shoulders back and chest out for a picture while wearing his custom-painted orange and blue Iron Man mask.
He had no doubts about what will happen Wednesday night in the Superdome.
"The Gators are going to dominate," he said.
Anderson and two friends started their drive to New Orleans from Jacksonville in the wee hours of the new year, and they were spending their afternoon at the Allstate Fan Fest.
Staged in a parking lot on the bank of the Mississippi River, the festivities at Fan Fest drew scores of fans from both teams for pep rallies, food, contests and concerts.
Cardinal fans packed the area for a pep rally early Tuesday afternoon. A smaller crowd gathered for a UF pep rally later on — a crowd that dispersed quickly after heavy rain dampened the party.
Members of the Gator Band joined Albert, Alberta and UF cheerleaders to lead fans in a few cheers before the sky opened up, cutting the pep rally short.
UF freshman Marisa Anguilano and fellow band members sought shelter in a coffee shop and talked about their stay in New Orleans so far.
Tuesday morning, they had band practice in the Superdome. For lunch, a cruise on the Mississippi to see the sights. And despite the rain, they were waiting to see an indie rock band.
Anguilano said she loves the old, historic feel of the city, and she is most excited about Wednesday night's game.
"The band is the best part of the football games," she said smiling.
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