Today, at 12:21 p.m., or a few minutes after, Florida will kick off its 2013 season against Toledo.
And it will feel more like the end to a terrible, horrible, no-good offseason than the beginning to something great, even though it might well be both.
I'm a native Floridian, and I've grown up in two very different places: Rockledge, in Brevard County, on Florida's Space Coast, and Gainesville, in the heart of the wholly invented region of North Central Florida.
Rockledge is a quiet place. It was founded as Brevard's first city way back in the 19th century, has fewer residents than the University of Florida has undergraduates, and is mostly a central waystation for Brevardians, even in a county that often feels like a waystation for its younger residents. Summers are hot in Rockledge, but they're broken daily by the thunderstorms that roll in like clockwork in the afternoon, and moderated by breezes from the coast, and even if those summers are hot, it's okay to succumb to the drowsiness; sleep, and you won't miss anything.
Gainesville can be just as sleepy for stretches of the summer, but seems that way in part because of the activity that happens in the spring and fall. Gainesville falls are structured around six or seven Saturdays, and it's actually easier to tell that the further you get from The Swamp on gameday: The epicenter is there, in that cauldron of orange and blue-clad humanity, but the shocks don't travel far at all once the game begins, and the rest of the city feels almost post-apocalyptic. Wrong though this may be in fact, it feels like nothing happens on a gameday Saturday in Gainesville except the game, and all associated things. That's an absorbing, wonderful, communal experience.
But enduring the summer in Florida is another absorbing and communal experience, and this summer was one to be endured for reasons other than punishing heat and incessant #Rainesville precipitation. The Gators ensured it would be endured in January, by going to New Orleans and laying an egg big enough to rot for months and poison the perception of one of the nation's best teams in 2012. Florida had the nation's fourth-best regular season, at worst, in 2012, but its Sugar Bowl loss made a team that ground out wins by walking over broken glass seem more like a pack of charlatans whose smoke cleared as its mirrors were smashed. In that light, most of the things that happened contributed to, not countered, a prevailing Florida narrative of strides forward and steps back.
Jessamen Dunker's grand theft scooter case was amusing, at its core, but Dunker's arrest and departure looked like another piece of evidence suggesting Will Muschamp merely continued Urban Meyer's lax discipline. Florida's incredible 2013 recruiting class got few bumps near Signing Day, and ended up underrated for having been assembled long before the mad dash to February. Tim Tebow's release and signing gave joke fodder to fans who just can't get enough of one of Florida's all-time greats not being a great NFL quarterback. (His release today? Mercifully, a footnote.) Antonio Morrison did two stupid things, and even a cop overreacting to one of them didn't do much to stop his reputation from ticking toward the unenviable "thug" branding. Aaron Hernandez's alleged murder of Odin Lloyd provided fodder for far less humorous jokes, and both cast Florida's Meyer era in a new light and blotted out much of the rest of Florida's summer. Riley Cooper's racist and stupid remark felt like a blip, compared to Hernandez's fall from grace and the dizzying heights of NFL stardom, but blips like Cooper's idiocy kept coming, with everything seemingly terminating yesterday, as reports of suspensions to five Florida players — all-hype team first-stringer Loucheiz Purifoy among them — finished the Gators' summer on a sour note.
Back home, in Rockledge, the beach is a half-hour away, and a temporal transport from all the whoos and woes of everyday life. Gainesville doesn't have a beach, and doesn't have a nearby one for an escape from reality. If you're here in Gainesville for the summer, you're here in Gainesville for the summer, and this summer brought the metaphorical dark clouds from Gators' actions and real ones that dumped rain for what seemed like days on end. It was not a fun summer, not really.
But it is more or less over. And today is a chance to put it behind us, if only for a few hours.
Florida fans love Florida for as many reasons as there are fans. There are Florida fans who find football and basketball too sullied by money, and flock to softball and soccer games; there are Florida football fans who couldn't give a tinker's damn about every other sport; there are Florida women's basketball fans who pull harder for those ladies to get out of mediocrity than they do for the football team to drive to a fourth national title. There are old fans who have seen it all and young fans who have seen the mountaintop and students who don't know what they're missing and alumni who remember halycon days with fondness. The Gator Nation is lucky to have existed through times of immense joy and unlucky to have had members of its big tent bring unfathomable pain to the world; as the Chinese proverb says, "We are cursed to live in interesting times."
Summers in Gainesville may be quiet, and oppressively hot, but Gainesville is not to the Gator Nation year-round what The Swamp is to Gainesville on gamedays: Things happen elsewhere, in far-flung parts of a fiefdom that spans the globe, and we care. If things are great, as in 2012, when Gators helped rule a Summer Olympics, then we rejoice; if they are not, as in 2013, we tweet through it.
We don't have to do that now, on a day when it all comes back to the heart of the Gator Nation. The Swamp won't be sold out or full today, sadly, with fans shying away from that cauldron for its heat, despite its humanity, thanks to a noontime kickoff that will no doubt send some fans who partook in libations to get emergency treatment and yet another season-opening opponent that moves the meter only minimally on a day that could be spent in air conditioning, toggling from great game to great finish on a 60-inch LED screen.
But Florida could beat Toledo by 50 points or a game-winning field goal today, and I would be fine with it, because that would give me something to care about that is not this summer of sorrow and stupidity; a voice in my head could guarantee a Toledo win right now and I would still go to the game and stay for all four quarters, all 60:00, because this is the right way to spend this day of my life. Caring about all of this is sweet relief from caring about things like paying bills and cleaning an apartment for me, and sweet relief from that sweltering summer for me and many others, and sweet relief from a spectrum of problems I can't even begin to describe for the thousands who will be in attendance and the hundreds of thousands more who will be watching. This is ours, and we will enjoy it, even if we complain about it, and we're so, so glad it is back.
In all kinds of weather, and in both the unbearable heat of this offseason and The Swamp at noon in August, we all stick together. And so, today, I will say one thing I love saying more than anything else as loudly as I can: