“So, if you grew up in Knoxville, how in the heck did you end up a Florida fan? Did you go to the University of Florida?” I’ve been asked some version of this question so often that it practically haunts me in my sleep.
This is how.
About seven and a half years ago, my mom called me after school.
“You did it!!!!” she screamed into the phone.
“Umm, I did what?” I asked, a bit puzzled.
“You got the scholarship at Florida!!!!!” she screamed, upping her volume. My mother, like most mothers, had a knack for opening mail that was addressed to me.
In that moment, I froze in the hallway of my small high school in Knoxville. I had goosebumps covering my arms; my heart began to race. I jumped up and down and freaked out in this hallway, one full of Vol fans.
I yelled to my friend, on the verge of tears, “I’m going to be a Gator!”
I had really done it: I was going to the University of Florida. I was going to be a Gator.
Or, as my dad likes to say, I was going to be a “Gator traitor.”
In all fairness, a near-full ride scholarship to one of the best public universities in the country was worth taking on the title. And even if I was raised to hate the Florida Gators (like most good Vol fans were), that amount of money could easily sway me to become a Gator for life.
So I immediately embraced being a Gator despite still living in Knoxville. I proudly wore an F on my shirt on senior college day Wednesdays. I Gator chomped on stage — thanks partly to my dad saying I wouldn’t — at an academic awards banquet, right before shaking the mayor’s and governor’s hands.
The mayor and governor weren’t as amused as my father was.
Since coming to Florida and eventually graduating, being a Vol-turned-Gator has not gotten any easier. My family’s Tennessee roots run deep: My dad has been a season ticket holder for Tennessee football (along with my stepmom) the past few years; my brother works for the UT police department, so I got to inadvertently break the news they would travel to Gainesville this week; many of my favorite Knoxville residents — yes, I have some — are die-hard Volunteer fans.
And I’ll admit that for a while, I still had a hint of Volunteer in me. Rocky Top was home sweet home to me, and Tennessee sports are the reason I became so interested in college athletics in the first place. I wanted to bond with my dad, and I saw Tennessee sports as the best way of doing that.
In 2010, I put that history aside when I traveled to Knoxville to support the Gators at Neyland Stadium. I was so invested in my first Tennessee game as a Gator that my ex-boyfriend and I painted ourselves orange and blue with a “U” and an “F.” (Yes, when we walked on the wrong side of each other, our body paint read “F U,” which Vol fans made sure we knew.) Nevertheless, Gator Chomping for a picture in Neyland Stadium at the end of that win — one of the least memorable in that 11-year winning streak — was one of the first moments when I truly felt like it was great to be a Florida Gator.
The games in this lop-sided rivalry were always important to me, year after year. I traveled to Knoxville for the game again in 2014 and in 2016. But the other game that stood out to me most was, of course, the 2015 game in Gainesville.
My dad, stepmom, and brother all traveled down to The Swamp for that one. My dad had purchased four tickets in the visitors section, knowing all too well that I would be proudly wearing my Gator blue in a sea of orange. The fans were harassing me, as per usual in a situation like that, but I just sat there and waited for the Gators to make a statement for me.
The Gators came from behind to win, and all that orange around me was suddenly hanging on very quiet humans. My dad and stepmom say to this day that they were so shocked that they enjoyed a near-silent drive home to Knoxville the next day.
From my first year at Florida until that year my dad and I always had a bet for this game. If Florida won, he had to wear a Gators shirt the next day. If Tennessee won, I had to wear a Vols shirt the next day. But after that stunning comeback in 2015, he was already so miserable that he couldn’t even bear wearing a Gator shirt.
Thus did our bet end for good.
More recently, Vol fans on Twitter have decided that my posting of selfies in which my butt is visible means I’m a “slut” or I have AIDS, and that I should be told as much. (Yes, really. Yes, I have receipts. No, we don’t need to get into them.) I know these comments have as much or more to do with me being a woman as me being a Gator, but, at this point, I’ve had enough of them to last a lifetime, and those cracks have pushed me further and further from what was my hometown team.
I now openly root for the Vols to lose almost every game they play. When Tennessee lost to South Carolina last season, I was elated. When the Vols went on to lose to lowly Vandy, I was practically giddy.
Some East Tennessean I am.
This East Tennessean will continue to be at odds with her family during the football season this year and in years to come. And I will take the heat when Florida loses. But I will dish out some heat when Tennessee does.
I will endure whatever ridiculous trolls Vol Twitter throws my way. But I will make fun of the ridiculous things Butch Jones says in his press conferences.
Most difficult of all, I will continue disappointing my father. But I will do this all very proudly for the love of the Florida Gators.
Rocky Top is no longer home sweet home to me — The Swamp is, in all kinds of weather.
Being a “Gator traitor” in a “house divided” is not something to be taken lightly. It is a constant challenge. It is a never-ending struggle. It is downright awful on one particular Saturday every fall.
But it is something that I will continue to embrace, because for me it just means more.