Game On

College Football Season is Upon Us

Every autumn, solid citizens turn into crazed UF and FSU fans.

By Hannah Wallace August 31, 2016 Published in the September 2016 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Football rivalry tiw8ch

Frank Maggio and Katie Hendrick staying true to their schools.

Image: Barbara Banks

Saturday. Game day. Longboat Key’s Allen Brackner puts on the same logo-covered shorts, shirt and hat he wears to every FSU football game. After a five-hour drive, he and his wife park their 45-foot motor home in his reserved spot at Doak Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, tailgate for a couple hours, and then head to their seats in the third row behind the Seminoles’ end zone at Bobby Bowden Field. Brackner has practiced this tradition for the last 25 years.

Autumn in Florida, when the leaves stay green and the people bleed blue and orange or garnet and gold: Gators versus Seminoles, the Swamp (UF’s stadium) versus the Doak, the chomp versus the chop.

Brackner did not attend FSU. He offers a few theories about the origins of his fandom. He and legendary coach Bowden both hail from Birmingham, Alabama, for instance. But for reasons he can’t quite express, Florida State football seems to affect him on a profound, almost spiritual level. “It’s just the best team you could ever root for,” he says in a sincere Alabama drawl. “I get chill bumps just thinking about it.”

Every fall, all over Florida, respectable citizens lose their minds for the Gators and the Noles. Bankers strut around in war paint and headdresses. Lawyers dance with inflatable alligators. Gentle grandmothers scowl and hiss at the very mention of their rival’s quarterback.

How insane is their dedication? Last December, Sarasota Republican Party chair Joe Gruters was interviewed by USA Today about his post as chairman of Donald Trump’s Florida campaign. He began by boasting that, as an FSU booster, he gets to fly with the Noles football team.

Yes, a prominent political operative in a U.S. presidential campaign made sure the nation knew about his Florida college football allegiance. This is serious stuff.

This year, the Noles and Gators will end their regular seasons by facing each other in a game on Nov. 26, an annual Florida tradition. Since 1990, UF and FSU have combined to produce six national championships, five Heisman trophy winners and 65 first-round NFL draft picks.
On paper, there is  one of the most compelling college football rivalries in the country. In person, it’s even more impressive.

On any given fall Saturday, a colorful parade of Noles and Gators supporters heads out of town on I-75, team flags flapping in the wind and tailgate gear in tow. Sarasota’s Katie Hendrick, a third-generation Gator fan, is among them, making the same trek to the Swamp her grandfather first made in the 1950s—decades before Hendrick became a UF alum herself.

Attorney Jennifer Compton began her fandom as a student. She smiles as she recalls driving her old Toyota Tercel all the way to New Orleans for the 1996 national championship versus FSU, “just so we could watch the Gators win.”

Now, Compton and her family—including her son, an 11-year-old Gator fan—are starting their own dynasty. As season ticket holders, they revel in sweltering Saturdays in the Swamp where they, along with thousands of others, mark the end of the third quarter by embracing the sweaty strangers next to them and singing, “We are the Boys from Old Florida.”

Brackner and Compton pay upwards of $400 for each of their season tickets. But you can’t buy a ticket just for the price of a seat. You must also be a booster, contributing anywhere from $250 to $12,000 or more annually, before you can purchase season tickets for either team; higher-level donors can buy better, more expensive seats. Families renew their seats year after year, decade after decade, creating new generations of fans who can trace their passions back to well before their college days.

You don’t have to leave town to watch FSU/UF fanaticism in action.

Head to the Clark Road Gecko’s on any fall Saturday and you’ll see a grown man in voluminous feathered headdress and red and yellow war paint streaking his face, microphone to his lips, leading fellow members of the Sarasota Seminole Club in chants of “It’s great to be a Gator hater.”

That’s Frank Maggio, a former member of FSU’s Marching Chiefs band who is now a vice president at Sarasota’s Insignia Bank.

Like fans on either side of the rivalry, Maggio’s attitude is one of mature congeniality spiked with barbs. After playing down any sense of contentiousness between the two sides, he can’t help but add, “The atmosphere we’ve developed at Gecko’s is far superior to anything [the University of] Florida has developed.”

Down the road at Harry’s Sports Bar and Grille, UF fans would disagree. Amid a noisy crowd of Sarasota County Gator Club supporters, 74-year-old Bunny Rudolph sports an emporium of orange and blue Gator gear for every game. Her son attended UF in the mid-’90s, and Rudolph, who’s originally from Korea, says the camaraderie keeps her young. “I get so excited just thinking about football,” she says. “I’m so proud to wear the orange and blue.”

When talk turns to the Nov. 26 UF-FSU game, fans on both sides give the edge to the Noles, who will be playing at home. Gator fans are cowed of late, having lost the last three matchups in the rivalry, but at the beginning of another season, hope seizes them once again.

“It’s crazy, the things you do for your school,” says Compton.

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