Hardcore tailgaters savor new start to season
Published: Saturday, August 30, 2014 at 10:10 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 30, 2014 at 10:10 p.m.
Joe Alvarez, 50, of Ponte Vedra Beach, stood in the middle of his tailgating party on the southwest corner of the Plaza of the Americas with the stub of an unlit cigar hanging out of the side of his mouth and a shovel in hand.
He dug a shallow hole in the ground, spit in it and declared: “We're burying last year's season.”
Jake Stritch, a 23-year-old University of Florida med student who was offering orange-and-blue beads to those who donated to UF Health's Project HEAL, walked by at that exact moment.
“Dig a bigger hole — that's not big enough,” Stritch told Alvarez before moving on.
Gators fans were sprawled across the UF campus, tailgating well before the rains came Saturday evening.
The scent of grilled meat wafted over the plaza as clusters of orange-and-blue-clad tailgaters engaged in a diverse range of activities.
Flying discs glided across the plaza as tailgaters played Cornhole. Others played drinking games while footballs flew overhead.
The sounds of generators used to provide electricity for TVs, speakers and floor fans under the many Gator-themed canopy tents that spotted the field could be heard everywhere.
Kristin Birdsey, 31, of Gainesville, and her friends set up one such canopy.
“Growing up here, being born and raised, it's definitely part of our culture,” she said. “If you're raised right, you're raised to tailgate.”
While the Alabama-Virginia game played on a 32-inch flatscreen TV, outside the canopy stood two yard flamingos — one colored orange, one colored blue, of course — and a Tailgater, which is a small, portable satellite receiver.
Birdsey, who said she's been a hardcore tailgater since college and remembers tailgating with her family as a child, admitted that last season, which was the worst since the 0-10-1 season of 1979, was rough, but she's not letting that color her view of the current Gator season.
“Being true Gator fans, you gotta take it,” she said. “And we like to hold onto those other SEC schools, like Auburn, who had a super sad year (in 2012) and all of a sudden came back to almost win a national championship.”
“So, in the true spirit of Gatordom, there's always next year,” she said. “And this is that year.”
Birdsey explained that she's “Team Muschamp” and believes that the head coach is doing a lot to build up the Gator program.
“I think if the Gator Nation can just stop chomping at the bit and give the man some time to build the program, we're going to do good things,” she said.
That said, she did add she would like to see more downfield action this season.
Alvarez, who buried last season, said he would be happy if the Gators won at least eight games.
That said, he said he does expect a turnaround this season because of what he's read regarding new Gator offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, whose offense seems like it will be better suited to UF quarterback Jeff Driskel.
“I think Driskel's going to be a lot more proficient in this offense,” Alvarez said.
In recent years, there has not been an evening game this early in the season when the heat is at its worst.
Birdsey said that while she'd be tailgating no matter the time of the game, she was grateful for a night game.
“Night games are huge because, honestly, we're used to roasting it out at noon, and you just have to tough it out and deal with it,” she said. “And if you want to tailgate, you have to get here extra early… . I don't know what stars aligned to allow us to have night games, but I'm like: 'Thank you, Jesus.' ”
Alvarez, who said his wife almost passed out due to the heat during last year's opening game, agreed, but added that the heat isn't the only reason he likes a later game time. It gives fans more time to meet with friends and hang out.
“I think the environment's a lot better because you're not as rushed and you get to spend a little bit more time just kind of relaxing and getting ready for the game,” he said.