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No myth: Tom Petty thought it was great to be a Florida Gator

David Whitley
Gator Sports
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Florida will stage its inaugural Tom Petty Day on Saturday. If you knew Petty as a kid, that might sound a little odd.

Sure, he and Gatorade are the two most famous things to ever come out of Gainesville. Both have become synonymous with the university’s football program.

Players everywhere guzzle Gatorade every weekend, but only Florida fans can fully savor Petty. When 90,000 of them sing “I Won’t Back Down” leading into the fourth quarter, it’s one of college football’s great scenes.

And what’s not to love?

LSU fans are entitled to hate the Gators this Saturday, but no right-thinking person can dislike Tom Petty. And while other schools glom onto rock anthems by artists who’ve never heard of the school, UF can blast a song by an ex-employee, a favorite son and rock ‘n’ roll god.

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The oddity is that while UF has embraced Petty, he wasn’t a huge Florida fan growing up.

Don’t take that personally, Gators. If Petty could be at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium Saturday night, the scene would put a lump in his famous throat.

“He would be on the floor,” said his daughter, Adria.

That would negate one more urban legend about Petty – that he left Gainesville and never really looked back.

There are plenty of others that have echoed around town the past 50 years. Like how “American Girl” was based on a suicide leap from Beaty Towers, and Petty planted a tree on campus.

Such mythmaking comes with the territory for icons. Especially when you’re Thomas Earl Petty and your original territory is a small college town.

“Everybody feels as if they have a sliver of a connection to him,” Adria said. “You get to the point where it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, as long as it’s cool.”

A true one: My wife bought the Cutlass sedan that belonged to Petty’s English teacher at Gainesville High!

Tommy Petty liked English class

Mrs. Sharp was probably his favorite teacher since he flunked most of his other classes.

“I didn’t mind reading something. I liked stories. That hooked me,” Petty told Men’s Journal in 2015. “I could get into how words came together, how sentences were built, stories put together. All of that interested me. It was effortless.”

That helps explain how he eventually sold 80 million records. As for sports, it’s safe to say Tommy Petty, as he was known back then, never considered going out for the Purple Hurricanes football team.

“He grew up in a time when there was a pretty solid and big boundary between jocks and whatever you want to call them,” said Warren Zanes, a longtime Petty friend who wrote the 2015 book “Petty: The Biography.”

Florida Gators fans cheer during the Tom Petty song “I Won’t Back Down” during the second half against the Utah Utes at Steve Spurrier Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, FL on Saturday, September 3, 2022. [Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun]

Freaks, Buzzers, Heads. By whatever name, you could recognize them by the long hair, laid-back vibes and interest in the arts as well as a particular form of dried leaves.

That might have helped Gainesville be such fertile ground for musicians. Stephen Stills, Bernie Leadon and Don Felder orbited around Lipham Music store on North Main Street. Petty and his brother, Bruce, would pool their money to buy $3 LPs.

Bruce was the sports fan. The Petty boys shared a bedroom, and Bruce would listen to Otis Boggs call games on WRUF and collect Gator cups. His older brother was more into the Beatles and the Marvelettes.

“Tom had one thing – music,” Zanes said. “And he did it very, very well and very obsessively. There wasn’t room for a lot else.”

Well, there were girls.

Petty was 14 when started his first band, The Sundowners, to impress one at Howard Bishop Middle School. Later on, he got to know guys like Benmont Tench and Mike Campbell.

They formed Mudcrutch, and it became the house band at Dub’s bar. To make ends meet, the lead singer got a job one summer with the UF’s Grounds Department.

That’s where the “Tom Petty Tree” myth came from.

“What I did plant certainly wasn’t at the University of Florida,” Petty said with a smirk in 2011.

Mudcrutch did play free concerts on Sunday afternoons at the Reitz Union. Then the library started complaining about the noise and UF pulled that plug.

As their local fame grew, it became apparent little old Gainesville wasn’t big enough for Mudcrutch’s budding talents. So the guys packed up a van and headed to L.A. Into the great wide open they went.

“It was inconceivable at the time,” Adria said. “They left as these hippie losers and came back and made a mark like this.”

It was good to be a rock 'n' roll king, but it wasn't easy. Petty held himself and his band to exacting standards, and it wasn't easy for a tune to pass his ear test.

"If Tom were here with us today," Zanes said, "I think he'd say, 'Yeah, there's more to this than I might have known back when I was a kid.'"

Playing stadiums with the Heartbreakers was a long way from playing frat houses with The Sundowners. Petty rarely came up for air, but he got a whiff of basketball about 20 years ago.

Jack Nicholson started giving him tickets to Lakers games. Courtside seats, of course. True to his obsessive form, Petty became a Lakers super-fan.

As for his hometown school, it wasn't the one-sided love affair that mythology holds. Tom would watch UF's bowl games with Bruce every year on Christmas vacation.

When he played halftime at Super Bowl XLII, the NFL Network asked him which team he and the Heartbreakers were pulling for.

Patriots or Giants?

“We’re Gators, man,” he said.

He named his music publishing company Gone Gator Music. When his kids were young, he’d bring them back to visit relatives and go to places like Sonny’s BBQ.

“He loved Gainesville,” Adria said.

Maybe in his golden years Petty’s sports interest would have fully intersected with his childhood memories. Can you imagine a more epic honorary Mr. Two Bits?

Of course, all we can do is imagine.

Petty died of a heart attack on Oct. 2, 2017. Five days later in a game against LSU, “I Won’t Back Down” first crackled over the sound system. The tribute turned into a cathartic combustion of grief, pride and joy. It was as if everybody had a sliver of a connection to the man.

Now five years later, there’s a full-fledged commemoration, complete with TP Day T-shirts and other merchandise. All proceed go to local charities, and the event has the blessing of the Petty family.

“I grew up with a pantry full of Gator cups," Bruce said. "And now, to have one with Tom Petty on it is unbelievable.”

It will culminate about 10:15 p.m., when tens of thousands of fans lift their glowing cellphones and their voices to rock ‘n’ roll heaven.

He may not have collected Gator cups as a kid. But you can’t help feeling that somewhere up there, the night will sound like music to Tommy Petty’s ears.

David Whitley is The Gainesville Sun's sports columnist. Contact him at dwhitley@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter @DavidEWhitley

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