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A Southern heirloom: Football and the Gators, from my grandfather to me

The best things in life are passed down.

Football is the greatest sport. It’s the ultimate team game, and truly takes everyone working in unison to achieve success. And in my opinion, the greatest version of football is played at the college level.

The quality of play in the NFL is obviously superior and the pro game is built to achieve a level of parity that is lacking in college football. However, the college game combines a high-level of play with a lot more variation of scheme than is seen on Sundays. At the college level, you could see an air raid team one week, a triple option team the next, and 12 personnel smashing mouths after that. This variation of scheme makes for a more fun product.

More important than what happens on the field, you also get the added elements of civic pride in a fandom passed down from generation to generation. In the South, college football fandom is sometimes the only heirloom that gets passed on when people die. It’s also an heirloom that transcends your means, one of the few things passed on by a rich man and a poor man alike.

There are many places where, if you’ve been a fan of a school, you’ve been a fan your whole life. Your father was a fan, your grandfather was a fan — so on and so forth. My family is included in this category. I was raised a Florida fan my entire life, as was my father. That fandom is probably the result of a night in the late 1940s.

One night in 1949, a young boy and his parents were traveling down a rural road in the small town of Palmetto, Florida. They had a watermelon and some soda in the backseat; it was a special occasion, and they were gonna be celebrating that night.

On their way home they were hit and got into a pretty brutal accident. The first person on the scene came upon the car, a twisted ball with steel and saw the people inside. He saw quite a sight.

It wasn’t quite as bad as he thought, however. What he thought he saw was somebody with blood and brains stuck all over them. In reality, it was the soda and watermelon that had kind of exploded upon impact. He proceeded to throw up on the side of the road.

The injuries, while not as bad as they may have seemed to that initial onlooker, were still substantial. The young boy sustained significant damage to his lower body and had his teeth knocked loose. Thinking quickly, he decided to use it as an opportunity to straighten his teeth instead of opting for an expensive dental procedure, for which his parents did not have the money. However, there was not much that could be done immediately for his lower-body injuries.

That young boy was my grandfather, Norman Donald Varnadore. He was born into a family of two brothers and three sisters on December 21, 1936. He and his brothers are all big guys with large frames. His brother owned a gas station where he used to give away a free tank of gas every time someone could beat him in an arm wrestling match. He never had to.

But my grandfather‘s athletic career was basically over before it could start. He was to attend Manatee High School, but the injuries would not allow him to play sports. He had to instead focus his energy on academics. He was always a smart boy, but I’m sure this focus helped him greatly in his academic career. Upon graduating from Manatee, he was accepted into the University of Florida, becoming the first person in his family to go to college, and made his way there in fall of 1954. It was then that a new family tradition began. He graduated in 1958 and was a Florida fan the rest of his life. He loved the Gators, and, despite not playing athletics due to his injury, he loved sports.

He passed down both of these loves to his children, and, in turn, his grandchildren. When my father was growing up, he and his two brothers would play with the neighborhood kids in their front yard every day. Depending on the season, they would have either a baseball diamond or a football field out front.

What they didn’t have, however, was a lush, well-manicured lawn. A daily pounding from small feet had beaten it to death. One day, a neighbor came to ask him about the issues on his lawn. As we all know, curb appeal helps resale value. My grandfather set him straight: “I’m not raising grass, I’m raising men.”

All three sons were involved in various sports through high school, including football, basketball, baseball, and even the marching band. In all those years and all those teams, he only missed one game. He would come into work at 5 a.m. to ensure that he could make those games. He wanted to make sure his sons knew that they had his support.

It’s football season in the front yard

His sons took that lesson to heart and raised their children in much the same way. As a result, my brother (now a successful pastor) and I both became football coaches. My cousin is a high school basketball head coach and just led his team to an upset of the No. 1 seed in the state playoffs.

Two future coaches getting in the right play

In addition to raising those men to be involved in athletics, he also raised them to be Gators. My father remembers going to his first game in Tampa against Duke in 1971 and they went to many games after that. By the time I was born, my grandfather had already had season tickets for nearly 30 years, and he wasn’t missing many home games.

Don and sons heading to a game

Getting a chance to go to a game was obviously a big deal to a young kid. I got the chance to go to my first Florida game in 1993 against Vanderbilt. Florida won 52-0 and I was hooked. I have a ticket from that game up on the wall in my office; my dad has a ticket from the Duke game in a frame in his room.

As my grandfather got older, my dad was able to return the favor. I got to tag along on a lot of these trips, and they helped build my love for the game. I remember riding in the van with my grandfather to Knoxville in 1998 to see Tennessee beat the Gators in overtime and pull down the goalposts. We also went to Mississippi State and suffered a similar fate there. I traveled with my dad and my grandfather to every one of the old SEC stadiums except Kentucky and Georgia. When the Gators played between the hedges in 1995, my grandfather went with his three sons.

Three generations heading to see Florida play at Vandy.

The really big games, however, were a two-man crew. My dad and grandfather attended a couple massive ones, just the two of them. Unfortunately, one of them was the 1996 Fiesta Bowl against Nebraska. That wasn’t much of a fun memory. I’d imagine the next year made up for it: They went to New Orleans together and saw Florida win its first-ever national championship in style, defeating Florida State by that 52-20 count.

My grandfather got to see a lot of winning later in his Gator fandom. He got to see three football national championships and was in attendance for each one. As somebody who graduated in 1958 — for a sense of perspective: the previous fall, Florida had returned from a victorious visit to UCLA, then gone four straight games without scoring 10 points — and sat through a lot of bad teams and a lot of poor games, that certainly seemed like a just reward.

My grandfather’s view for Florida’s first national championship

One thing that always impressed me about my grandfather was his steadiness. He was never one to make rash decisions. He was always very thoughtful, often preferring to write someone a letter rather than verbalize his thoughts over the phone.

He was a kind man. He was a happy man. And he was a well respected man in the community. He won the citizen of the year for Palmetto in 1972, and then over 30 years later won the distinguished citizen for Manatee County in 2006. He was a CPA for most of his life and he used to opine to me that the tax code had gotten so much more strict and didn’t allow for as much creativity as it used to back when he first started. But he would never want to bend the rules or break the law.

I never saw my grandfather drink a sip of alcohol, nor did I ever hear him curse. I don’t know if I ever even heard him raise his voice. He was a deacon at the First Baptist Church of Palmetto for the majority of his life and served many roles there at the church. He volunteered often and was on the boards of several local schools and nonprofits. He was known to many people for many different roles.

Everyone knew him as a Gator.

His fandom is one of the final things he held onto as he slipped into a mentally diminished state due to Alzheimer’s. It took a long time, but eventually he was robbed of that impressive mind of his, one that used to quiz me in the car riding home from Florida football games as we listened to the postgame radio broadcast.

Even after he started to lose a little bit, he would still want to talk about the Gators. You would see that more and more fleeting spark of recognition in his eyes when you mentioned Florida football. He was not one to follow recruiting. He never got upset about missing a five-star or not making somebody’s top-five. He followed his team for a long time through the ups and downs, the really good and the really bad.

He was steady.

He was in the stands to see Spurrier’s kick to beat Auburn. He was in the stands when Warrick Dunn took a pass 80 yards for a TD while the referees missed a blatant clip on Anthone Lott. He watched with equal excitement and interest during the national championship seasons as he did in 1979.

He just cheered for the Gators, whoever they were. He didn’t care where you came from. He didn’t care what you looked like. If you were a Gator, he was cheering for you.

I’m sure he wanted the team to be better some years. I’m sure he wanted more wins. He went to the Florida-Georgia game every year with a group of friends that were Georgia fans. It was one of his traditions; he probably did it for over 40 years. The winner paid for the losers’ meals after the game. He said paying for those meals was some of the best money he has ever spent. I’m sure he would have liked to have paid for a few more dinners in the 70s and 80s, but that dinner basically became an annual budget item in the ‘90s and early 2000s. These things have a way of cycling in and out, and steadiness is the key to surviving through the wild world of college football.

In enemy territory

My grandfather passed away on the morning of February 12, 2023. He had a Gators hat in his room and had a Gators blanket on his bed as he drifted off. I attended his funeral last month. My grandmother, who was married to my grandfather for 65 years and was the true love of his life, made sure to point out that she had orange and blue flowers on the casket.

A photo slideshow played during the visitation, and it was amazing how many photos showed somebody in the family wearing Florida gear. The gear was all around, but there was one piece that only he had.

Growing up, I remember looking at his class ring in awe. He had what is known as the Gator Wrap ring. It was just about the coolest thing in the world to a seven year old me. I was so proud to be able to become a fellow graduate from the University of Florida when I got my MBA in 2015. On that day, I finally got a ring of my own, and also one of my most treasured photos.

A couple of UF graduates

College football fandom in the South is an heirloom. It’s my favorite thing about the sport, and why I love it so much. These connections last through generations and get spread as families grow. It’s something to congregate around every Saturday before many congregate again the following day. My grandfather passed that down to my father, who passed it down to me, and I’m sure I’ll be passing it on to my children as well. My faith tells me that I will be with him again, but that may not be for a long time.

In the meantime, I know that every Saturday when I see a father and son — or a grandfather and grandson, or a mother and a daughter — all attending games together, I’ll see him then.

Making our way to see Florida roll Southwestern Louisiana 55-21