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I am not a fan of the Florida Gators because of Tim Tebow. Tebow’s great and all, yeah, and he’s probably the primary reason a plurality of Florida fans are Florida fans, having been the greatest — if maybe not the best — player on the field during the Gators’ most dominant stretch of football.
But my love for Florida is older than that.
I am not a fan of the Gators because of Joakim Noah or Teddy Dupay, two guys I admired and aspired to be at different stages of my life. Noah was the thoughtful, skeptical college student I wanted to be around the time he was rampaging through the post for the Gators; Dupay was the squirrelly, irrepressible shooter I loved to imitate on the backyard grass that substituted for a blacktop around the turn of the century.
But my love for Florida is older than that, too.
It’s older, even, than Danny Wuerffel responding to hitting through the echo of the whistle by authoring the triumph that will echo loudest in the history of a rivalry the fans of the Sunshine State’s most popular football programs are desperate to dominate.
It’s because I got into sports when I was five, and I was five in 1995, and the Gators were good — great, really — at football then. It’s because I would be up early for school every morning, and started reading the sports pages of the Orlando Sentinel daily and watching SportsCenter almost as often then, falling for the Gators and Atlanta Braves and Green Bay Packers and Orlando Magic because they were all prominent and potent in 1995.
I was a bandwagoner then, of course — but we who are fans all are bandwagoners at least once, whether we jump on the back of the wagon, or are placed on it by parents, or amble up onto it as children who would have no use for the word “bandwagon” in the first place.
(An aside: I was one of those latter kids. Neither of my parents cared so much about college sports in the 1990s, and both thought Bobby Bowden was a little less of a jerk than Steve Spurrier back then, to the point that they bought me a never-worn, long-forgotten FSU hat as a present at one juncture.
Now my mom watches essentially every Florida football and men’s basketball game — she loves Chris Chiozza like every mom does, naturally — because of my love for and interest in the Gators.)
And “bandwagoner” is only a dirty word because so many sports fans like to romanticize staying or becoming a fan through tough times, and wear their anguish as a red badge of courage, like the hipsters who insist their favorite band’s first indie EP was so much better than their mainstream pop record. It’s cooler to pretend you never fell in love than to admit that you, too, once had a moment.
But I climbed aboard back then, when I hardly had a clue who the Gators were beyond Danny Wuerffel — still my favorite — and I’m still here now, when I feel responsible for knowing something interesting about virtually every person on the 85-man football roster and all of the other rosters of athletes that comprise the Florida Gators each year.
Yet I’m still a fan not because of that responsibility, but because of the privilege.
I’m a fan because of the stories I get to see and get to tell: Stories of getting over one familiar hump and then another to reach the mountaintop, stories of improving as teams and individuals, stories of quick thinking and good humor, yes, but also stories of tragedy, and tumult, and bad feelings.
I’m a Florida Gators fan because there are a million stories to tell in Gator Nation, and because there will always be a next year filled with more, even if I rail against some of the tropes. I’m a fan because there was a greatest team I have ever seen...
Watch sports for long enough and you'll fall in and out of love with them routinely, beaming when your teams win and souring when players you don't like prevail. Cover sports for any stretch of time, even only as long as the six or seven years I have, and it's hard not to be jaded. The whole of sports played by humans is a cup runneth over for anyone who wants to get drunk on victory or excellence or defeat or schadenfruede; the scribes who work their fingers to the bone to describe that world get paid for temperance, in large part. Even those of us who haven't seen much, thanks to the rapid proliferation of everything, have seen so much.
It is fine, I think, to forgo temperance for things like these Florida Gators. This was and is the best team I have ever had the privilege of watching, and will be the impossible standard for every team I will watch for the rest of my life. Many will try to do what these Gators did, to be what they were. Most, and maybe all, will fail.
And so, for me, these Gators will have a life after death, one that will last forever.
...and because every team that comes after it could be greater.
I’m a fan because those stories of teams being great are stories of people achieving amazing things with their friends. I’m a fan to be a fan is to let hope spring eternal, even if your faith wavers or is unfounded. I’m a fan because rooting, for me, is dreaming and wishing on good things, and sometimes making those dreams come true.
The Florida Gators make my — and more importantly, their — dreams come true with startling frequency. And for as long as I live, I believe that being a fan of the Gators will mean getting to share in that, in ways big and small.
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