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Thursday, June 01, 2023

When I walk on campus, I can feel it. There's excitement, hope for a victory and enough good company to spare. The smell of charcoal, burgers and beer fills the air.

Behind Broward Hall lies a tailgate like no other. Drinks are held high as Gator Tony makes a toast in memory of deceased friends and for a UF win. After almost 20 years, a legend has been made.

"It wouldn't be a football game if I didn't see Gator Tony," said Natalie Romano, a UF psychology senior. "Since my first football game, I saw him. It's a tradition."

Anthony "Gator Tony" Burke, a 56-year-old who lives in Ocala, has been tailgating at the same place since 1993. He has been writing the toast before each game since 2008 after the founder, Robert "Gator Bob" Bishop, passed down the tradition.

Though the toasts first started to insult the opposing team, over the years they have also become a way to commemorate old friends. In 1994, the crew began toasting Gator Tom and Gator Sue, said 61-year-old Bob of Turkey Lane, Fla.

In 1994, Bob's sister Susan Murphy died from cancer. In 1985, Tom Rymer died in a car accident. The two were both part of the original six-person football block started in 1979.

"I did not want people to forget Gator Tom and Gator Sue," Bob said.

Bob ran out of ideas for toasts when he decided to elevate Tony to "Gator" status. The two have been friends for about 25 years, Bob said.

"I said, ‘It was time for a change,'" the 1972 UF graduate said. "The torch was passed. I do put in a guest appearance once in a while."

Tony graduated from UF in 1977 with a bachelor's degree in journalism. The toasts give him the chance to continue writing, he said.

"I try to be intelligent and cerebral a little bit," Tony said. "I'm not just going to be like, ‘Roses are red, violets are blue. We're the Florida Gators, and we're gonna beat you.'"

On gamedays, tailgating is Tony's top priority, second only to the game, he said.

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Tailgating on campus allows Tony to reminisce.

"As you progress on your journey through life, things change, but one of the things that hasn't changed for me are going to those football games," he said. "There's still an invigoration that I get when I walk into the stadium, and I see the field, and I see the inside of the stadium and hear the crowd. I've been doing that since I was 11 years old."

Tony can trace Gator games back over periods of his life like when he was a kid, teenager, college student, newlywed and new father.

"It's always been the constant in my life," he said.

The 1966 Auburn game was the first of almost 300 games Tony attended. He still remembers Steve Spurrier and the winning field goal known as "The Kick."

Tony attends every game after he tailgates. While on an 18-year streak, he has only missed two games, one of which was in 2004 for his daughter's wedding.

UF can definitely beat Alabama, Tony said without hesitation.

"They better bring their A-game," he said. "If they think they're just going to walk in there and walk out with a win, they're sadly mistaken. If Alabama thinks all they have to do to win is show up, then they will get beat."

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