To truly understand the emotions that go into a Senior Day in The Swamp, there is no better place to be than under the goalposts watching the players as they leave the field they defended for the last time.
There were hugs and kisses for coaches and staff who lugged their children through the opening and into a celebratory locker room. Some seniors stopped and posed for pictures. Some just wanted to get to their families.
Then there was CeCe Jefferson.
In many ways, he has been the poster boy for what Florida football has been through for the last four years. Some of it has been his fault, some of it the circumstance of college football.
And this was it, the last game in The Swamp.
So he stopped there, his arms outstretched like a rock star walking the runway as he looked up at the script “Gators” on the wall above the entrance to the locker room.
And he let out a guttural scream. We all knew what he meant.
Because no matter what happens from here on out, these seniors will always have this day when just about everything went right.
“This day went pretty well for us,” UF coach Dan Mullen said.
From the start of the game — a pick-six by Chauncey Gardner-Johnson six seconds in — to the perfect scenario of letting younger players and walk-ons finish it up in the second half, it was a pretty sweet day for the Gators.
You got the sense that even though Florida was a 40-point favorite, Mullen had gotten through to these guys to be as on point as they were for any SEC game this season.
The first play told you they were focused.
“They were looking for a spark,” Mullen said, “and we killed that spark.”
From there, it was just a matter of naming the score and while there are always complaints any time a team as bad as Idaho is brought to town to play the goat to the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, nobody was really complaining that these guys finished up their Swamp careers with a blowout win.
“It was a great day, dog,” said freshman running back Dameon Pierce. “Sending them out with a win, a dominant performance by everybody on the team.”
Offense hummed like a well-tuned engine. Defense not only suffocated but scored points.
“Defense came to play, offense came to play,” said senior tight end C’yontai Lewis. “But it makes me real sad because you build a lot of relationships. I hate leaving the young guys behind. That’s what hurt me the most.”
That’s the way it is in college sports, where your time is limited by eligibility and your success is often restricted by circumstance. These seniors wanted more than they are going to finish with, but they hardly go away empty-handed.
As much as anything, they can say they were the class that got things headed in the right direction by doubling UF’s win total from 2017 to this season.
“They did more than people can imagine for this university,” said quarterback Feleipe Franks. “They’ve set the tone.”
There is still more ball to be played, more memories to be made.
But this is one — no matter the opposition — they can carry with them for awhile.
Oh, there was that one mess up on the punt team when Florida had back-ups running in and out like ants and Mullen got so mad at his assistants he flung his visor to the ground. That’s why he went for a fourth down deep in his own territory later.
“I didn’t want to mess with the punt team,” he said.
And things got a little sloppy in the second half with so many back-ups playing around freshman Emory Jones.
Mere details, my friends.
This was not a day for nit-picking and criticism. It was simply a day to enjoy.
Even for the hands-on, attention-to-detail head coach.
As he was talking about Jones at the podium, he noticed I was watching the closing seconds of the Ohio State-Maryland game on my phone. Mullen stopped in mid-sentence and wanted to know what was going on. Maryland had just recovered its own fumble in the end zone to take the lead.
“I stayed my age today,” he said. “This game can age you.”
Saturday did not, not in The Swamp.
It was wrinkle free.
Contact Pat Dooley at 352-374-5053 or at email@example.com. And follow at Twitter.com/Pat_Dooley.