Jim McElwain wasn’t himself. It was easy to see. Usually an upbeat guy, even following his team’s loss to Michigan two weeks ago and other low moments, the word that reporters used to describe the Gators football coach on Wednesday was somber.
When asked about his seemingly low spirits, McElwain said he felt down because of the impact Hurricane Irma had on his players, their families and his own family. He said it brought him perspective on football’s importance.
“Sometimes 3rd down and 7,” he said, “is not the most important thing in life.”
But he added that there’s a place for football in times of crisis. When facing grief and destruction, he said the game can serve as a distraction. As a catharsis.
As a result, he thinks Irma and the downed trees, power outages and injuries it brought could motivate his players — and fans — Saturday when they take on Tennessee.
“I know our guys are excited to play,” he said. “And hopefully, play with a little bit of passion and desire for the people of the state of Florida.”
McElwain’s demeanor was more grim than others, as most players who spoke to reporters on Wednesday seemed like their usual selves. Granted, most players aren’t usually as upbeat as McElwain, but none of them said the hurricane had a heavy impact.
Some, however, did agree that football serves as a distraction, both while the storm was hitting Gainesville and in its aftermath.
“When the hurricane hit,” wideout Josh Hammond said, “guys were ready to just go practice, just get things off their mind, just tired of hearing about all the hurricane and devastation. When you’re at practice, you just kind of forget about everything and you’re just feeling in another world. So I think this game of football really allows people to kind of clear their mind and just let things go a little bit.”
Defensive tackle Khairi Clark agreed, opting to spend some of his down time during the rain and wind watching film and thinking about getting back onto the field, in addition to sleeping. Defensive back Chauncey Gardner also watched film with linebacker Vosean Joseph.
With the matchup against the No. 23 Volunteers serving as UF’s SEC opener, players are so focused in part because of Irma, but also because they want to avoid a letdown similar to their matchup with Tennessee last season, when they blew a 21-0 lead against UT and lost 38-28.
“Just go out there and if we gonna throw bombs, throw bombs. If we gonna continue to blitz, continue to blitz. Just do what we gotta do,” Gardner said of finishing strong against the Volunteers this season. “Do what we did in the first half in the second half.”
With the backdrop of Irma, and the Gators wearing a special commemorative patch to commemorate its victims, playing football seems relatively insignificant. But without making such adjustments, players realize they could do more harm than good to an already hurting fan base.
Instead, some of them hope to be the distraction some folks need.
“I wish we would have got a chance to play — not just for us, but for the people around Gainesville just to give them something to think about,” linebacker David Reese said of last Saturday’s canceled game against Northern Colorado. “But unfortunately, we didn't have the chance. But we're excited that we have the opportunity to this week."