That time I sank into The Swamp

By: 
Sep. 4, 2013

If you weren’t wearing blue or orange, you didn’t exist. That was the rule, Will said — just that one.

That was all you needed to do to be a part of them on game day.

So I slipped inside of a blue T-shirt — I didn’t have one with a Gators logo, but it would have to do. It would get me into the stadium at least, blend me right in and erase all my features, turn me into another anonymous speck in the ESPN aerial shot.

From way up there, I’d be no one and I’d be everyone, I thought. I wouldn’t be alone. And sometimes, after another relationship ends or unemployment’s lasted too long or whatever else we have in our lives to complain about, it’s just better to roar.

It isn’t life we’re howling over, it’s football.

Even before he went to UF, Will’s been a Gators fan. His parents and brother are alumni. And even as elementary schoolers, I remember him and his family swearing that college football was so much better than the NFL: more determination, more fire, more life.

So I headed to Gainesville, blue shirt in tow. Will had snagged me and a couple friends tickets, and he borrowed a few student IDs from his classmates that we’d need to use to get past the guys with Walkie Talkies at the front gates.

My ID said Wade Combs, and it showed a guy with darkish hair and a toothy smile. I imagined my back story: dad was a stock broker; mom was a teacher; growing up, my friends called me Puffy (as in the rapper, Sean “Puffy” Combs).

Life was good as Wade Combs, but school was tough and my grades were slipping.

The Swamp was my outlet.

I got into character.

Maybe I didn’t have any of my own school spirit but, this weekend, that didn’t matter. Spirituality in any form was the idea.

“Ohhh man,” Will said, rubbing his hands together, getting a load of the 60,000 or so other specks of orange and blue inside the stadium. “College football is BACK!”

And I tried to mirror his excitement. The Gators scored early and my cheers got lost somewhere in the eruption surrounding me. It was perfect. I was slapping high fives and heckling Toledo’s offense as if I actually knew what I was talking about.

My name is Wade Combs, and I am a Gators fan.

What got to me after a while, though, was all of the pageantry. It defined this place. A hundreds-piece marching band played the halftime show, spelled GATORS on the field with their bodies. Flag twirlers went nuts. Cheerleaders flipped and flew through the air. And every few minutes, there was another coordinated chant echoing inside the arena — a thousand mouths in unison, rattling the floorboards and benches.

But it wasn’t just the game-time traditions. Girls came in dresses, skirts, full makeup. Boys with shaved chests went shirtless. Nobody rushed to their seats — they sauntered, looking around, making sure to be seen.

This wasn’t sports, I realized; it was spectacle. Ritual. And I was in the middle of it, pretending to be a believer. The problem was that I didn’t know the chants. I hadn’t memorized the rhythm of the cheers.

I was not Wade Combs.

And soon, after three hours baking under the summer sun, my skin started blushing, as if it were embarrassed of this whole charade.

“Alright, we’ll wait till the quarter’s over, sing the fight song, then head out,” Will said, wiping sweat from his face.

Then when the fight song started, every person in the arena put their arm around the person next to them. And they started swaying.

“We are the boys from old Florida!” they sang, pulling me from side to side. “Where the girls are the fairest, the boys are the squarest ...”

And of course I couldn’t sing along. I couldn’t even fake it. I just kept swaying back and forth, back and forth, imagining the ESPN aerial shot.

We all must have looked like waves just then — a sea of everyone and no one, a constant ebb and flow. No one fought against the tide; not one person forced it. We just let go awhile and let the sun ruin us to prove that we were really there.

We just kept swaying, so loud and defiant, so anxious to see where we’d all wash up again.

BY MIKE CAVALIERE | ASSOCIATE EDITOR

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