I first heard of the Florida/Georgia game when covering the Gator Bowl. I asked a vendor in 1978, “Is this the only game played in this stadium?” “Oh no,” she replied, “Florida/Georgia.”
Simple as that.
She looked at me like I was crazy for not knowing about “Florida/Georgia.” Growing up in Baltimore and going to school in Washington, Florida/Georgia didn’t have any meaning to me. Little did I know that it would become the signature sporting event defining my career to most of my friends and family who aren’t, as the saying goes, “from around here.”
My friend Keith wanted to experience the game in it’s fullest one year. Instead of staying with me he wanted to be a part of it. I asked if he was sure, perhaps he wanted to stay with me in Mandarin, again. But he said no, “I want to be in the thick of it.”
So be it.
I got him rooms at the Hyatt and left him to his own devices until Saturday morning. “How’d it go,” I asked around 10. “If I hear ‘how ’bout them dogs’ or ‘Go Gators’ one more time, I’m going to get into a fight.” I laughed and said, “How late did it go?” “I finally fell asleep at 4:30 when the guy in the next room stopped playing the recording of ‘Go Georgia Bulldogs!’
The game has a long tradition and it’s tied to Jacksonville. The wins and the losses on both sides are part of the lore of college football nationwide. Whether it’s Buck Belue to Lindsay Scott or a Don Gaffney led Gator drive for the winning score, everybody remembers something about this game and it belongs to them.
“I was there,” is a popular refrain when talking about this match up.
And generally that’s true. Most people are inside the stadium. It’s famous for it’s size and everybody knows that the size of the stadium now housing an NFL franchise was mandated to accommodate this one game of the year. More than 80,000 seats and still not enough. That’s why the game was under attack, or perhaps more specifically, Jacksonville’s hosting the game was under attack. The tentative agreement to extend the contract here was important to Gators and Bulldogs alike.
The game belongs here.
Atlanta can create it’s own traditions.
The history of the contest is as much about the trip here, the fans participation, the uniqueness of the 50-50 seating split and the tailgating as it is about the happenings on the field. If there are more than 80,000 inside the stadium, there might be 40,000 more who are around the stadium, knowing they won’t be getting tickets but wanting to be part of the festivities.
We know the late Bill Kastelz dubbed it “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” in a time of less political correctness. It remains that to this day, whether we call it that or not. And there’s a debate about which is more celebrated, the game on the field or the one off it.
I had a news director once tell me on Friday prior to the game he needed four press credentials for Saturday. “Good luck,” I said. “Why,” he asked perplexed. “It’s like looking for credentials the night before the finale of one of the big political conventions,” I responded. Indignant he snorted, “That’s ridiculous, it’s just a blanking football game. I don’t understand.” “You’re right,” I said, “you don’t understand.”
As the host of the game, Those of us here in Jacksonville should celebrate the culture of the game that has a place in college football history. Not just among Georgians or Floridians and not just among southern football or SEC fans. But a place in history among the great sporting events in this country.
It’s a “must see” among sports fans who want to experience college football, in all it’s glory. And as the host who invites people to their home for a party, we have a responsibility to our guests each year.
A responsibility of safety is paramount. The game has it’s share of tragedies that need never to be repeated. We have a responsibility of courtesy. Inviting people to our town for the weekend means friendliness, even among tough circumstances.
Last year’s parking crunch provided it’s share of challenges, but watching the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office operate in a tough situation was just what many of us hoped for. When I arrived a couple hours before game time only to be told that my parking lot was already full, the JSO officer just looked at me and said, “Park it right here, I’ll take care of it.”
So I did. And so he did.
Leaving it on a street corner, only to come back after the game with the officer still on duty, and cones around my car and 15 others lined up behind it in a makeshift lot. Necessity is the Mother of Invention.
And we have a responsibility of entertainment, as any good host does, a responsibility to see that our guests have a good time.
Nobody condones over-indulgence when it comes to this game but the weekend, and for some already in RV city last Tuesday, is truly a celebration of college football and our connection as a city to the game. This Florida/Georgia Hall of fame is housed in our arena for people coming to concerts, basketball game, car shows or whatever to see just how much a part of the fiber of our culture it is.
And we should celebrate it.
Our current efforts with safety zones, pedestrian walking areas, free concerts and events throughout the city are a step in the right direction. Why not create a festival, one that doesn’t impede traffic to the game, and celebrate what we have, what we enjoy as part of not just college football tradition but as part of who we are.
Congratulations to this year’s honoree’s and inductees into the Hall. It’s a high honor because you will forever be remembered as part of the lore of one of the greatest spectacles in all of sports.