The first time Chris Crary sat in the stands for a Gator football game, he was 3 years old.
After the game, he remembers running around the house, saying "I Gator."
"That’s when I knew," he said. "I was going to be a Florida Gator."
Saturday night, Crary, now 18, leaned over the first row of the student section.
With blue face paint rimming his eyes and mouth and orange streaking down his cheeks, the computer engineering freshman was still in disbelief that he and his friends were standing in the front row for their first game as students.
Crary was one of 90,227 people packed into The Swamp as the Gators ushered in the Jim McElwain era of Florida football with a 61-13 win against New Mexico State University.
While the victory was sweet for McElwain, he said the support from the fans was even sweeter.
"The fans, man, were awesome," McElwain said. "They were into it. And what I liked, too, is that they were knowledgeable. They knew when to kind of get going."
McElwain gave the fans good reason to get going.
The Gators’ passing game came to life, with quarterbacks Treon Harris and Will Grier combining for 381 yards and four touchdowns.
Fourteen different players caught passes, a testament that McElwain isn’t afraid to spread the ball around.
The defense limited New Mexico State to just 200 yards of offense — including a 1-yard loss in the second half.
"They energized us from Gator Walk on," McElwain said of the fans. "That was a great, great crowd."
It was an almost unprecedented crowd, as well.
In 25 home games during the Will Muschamp era, attendance surpassed 90,000 just 10 times, with each occurrence coming against either Florida State University or a Southeastern Conference opponent.
The last time the Gators reached that mark in a season opener was in 2009, Tim Tebow’s final year on campus.
"Over 90,000 people for their first game of the season, a non-conference game, is huge," said junior linebacker Alex Anzalone. "There’s nothing like it, that’s for sure."
Tickets for the game had been sold out since Thursday at 5 p.m., Mark Gajda, an assistant athletics director in ticket sales and operations, wrote in an email.
More than 20,000 of the tickets were claimed by students and their guests, Gajda said.
Students flooded UF Facebook groups in search of tickets for themselves or their friends.
After posting on Facebook, UF psychology senior Carrie Green received a message from someone selling a ticket at 3 p.m. Saturday.
She bought it for $20 at 4:30 p.m., just three hours before kickoff.
The 21-year-old said she had been to every season opener since she moved from Atlanta to Gainesville in 2012.
At her first game as a freshman, Green said she didn’t know anyone. But for her last first game before graduation, she said she went with friends.
"Now it feels like home," she said.
• • •
The morning of the game, dark clouds loomed as fans began setting up tents and chairs around campus.
While a few donned ponchos as they unloaded coolers and cushions, others crammed into the beds of pickup trucks and waved to passersby.
Despite the drizzle, the grill fires still blazed, the music still played and the Gators still danced.
Richard Schultz, 58, had been parked in his signature spot in front of Century Tower since 7 a.m.
His 1973 Volkswagen Westfalia bus has made the trip from Melrose to Gainesville for nearly 30 games, with curtains, cushions and doors emblazoned with the Gator logo.
In front of the bus, an alligator head rested on a wood table with a foam New Mexico State sign, shaped like a gun.
"It’s always there," Schultz said of the head. "With somebody else in it."
While he liked Muschamp, the advertising alumnus said he was ready for McElwain to take charge.
"It’s a big anticipation of a new era," he said.
But for him, the best moments of the game were to come in the 15 minutes before kickoff.
"It’s got all the pre-game pageantry," he said.
• • •
The fans began trickling into the stadium hours before kickoff.
They cheered for the warm-ups, watching as cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III stood in front of the tunnel and high-fived every player who left the tunnel.
Once the players returned to the tunnel, the band took to the field for its signature opening.
It was then time for the game to begin.
Inside the tunnel, the Gators couldn’t keep still — bouncing, slapping backs and helmets and chanting.
And then they ran.
In the stands, there was sheer excitement.
Beach balls bounced across the student section, with field assistants tossing stray ones back into the fray.
Students crowd-surfed, held on the shoulders of their friends and fellow Gator fans.
Even Albert, one of the UF mascots, took a break from posing for pictures and was hoisted into the air.
Larry Martin and his 9-year-old granddaughter Savanah Martin looked onto the field.
Martin, 62, has been going to the stadium for 56 years.
"Of course I love it when the Gators win," the UF alumnus said.
He’s not the only one: Alumni and students hooted and hollered at every firework-filled touchdown.
"Everyone was in such good spirits," said UF psychology freshman Sydney Major.
Major said she went to Saturday’s game to gauge how the rest of the season would be, and she wasn’t disappointed.
She said this was her first game in the student section, and the vibe was completely different.
"I wasn’t the only crazy person yelling at the football game," she said. "We were all in it together."
• • •
With the final score illuminated by fireworks, the fans in the stadium cheered, high-fiving strangers and hugging friends.
McElwain, who remained stoic for most of the game, hugged players and slapped backs before greeting the other team.
The Gators crowded around the band to sing, some conducting the musicians from the field.
As the band played its last notes, the players began to dance, exuberant with the victory.
A final roar came from the crowd when McElwain walked to the front of the band and chomped, a salute to the students.
On Monday, he said he hopes for the same support for the next game: a Saturday-night matchup against East Carolina University, the same team the Gators played in the Birmingham Bowl to close out the 2014 season.
"We’ve got a heck of a challenge," McElwain said, "and we just need those fans out there like we did last game to make the Swamp a tough place to play."
Alligator Staff Writers Jordan McPherson, Danielle Veenstra and Aaron Albright contributed to this report.
Faces painted in orange and blue, Erik Teriele (left), a UF mechanical engineer freshman, and Chris Crary, a UF computer engineer freshman, perform the Gator Chomp during the Gators’ first game of the season. The 18-year-olds didn’t expect to get the seats that they were assigned. Teriele said they were freaking out when they realized how close they would be to the field.