If there’s one thing you learn as a sports journalist, it’s that viewing sports through a team-centric lens can be limiting. If you’re too preoccupied with what the outcome will be, you can miss the forest for the trees.
What makes sports (especially college football, in my opinion) so special is not the final tally on the scoreboard. It’s what happens between the whistles. It’s what happens in the stands. Hell, it’s what happens minutes and even hours before the ball is kicked off.
It’s the pageantry, the tradition, the passion.
Never in my life as a sports fan have I experienced all of those factors mixed together in such a beautiful and awe-inspiring way than when I traveled to watch the No. 7-ranked Gators face the No. 5 LSU Tigers in an inter-divisional battle between undefeated teams last October.
I was the sports editor of The Alligator then, and myself, along with our then-football writers Kyle Wood, Sam Campisano and Dylan Rudolph, piled into my 2013 Nissan Pathfinder and drove due west until we heard the soothing sounds of Cajun drawl and saw the comforting sights of coach Ed Orgeron’s image plastered across every other billboard on the highway.
We all approached our time in the Bayou a bit differently. Dylan, a Louisiana native, raged against his home state to anyone who would listen. Kyle and I indulged in the local cuisine, namely Raising Cane’s (which gives Zaxby’s a run for its money, sorry, I don’t make the rules). And Sam, of course, mostly made jokes about the Civil War.
To each their own, I suppose.
After a short trip into New Orleans the morning of the game, we were off to Baton Rouge to see if Death Valley lived up to its reputation as one of the best atmospheres in the country.
And boy, did it.
The stadium began to fill long before the 7 p.m. local time kickoff. The energy and anticipation from two playoff-contending teams and fanbases with no love lost for each other was almost palpable.
The rivalry has ramped up in recent years, mainly due to the rescheduling of a game as a result of Hurricane Matthew in 2016. The game was originally scheduled to be played in Gainesville but was moved to Baton Rouge. To add fuel to the fire, the rescheduled game came less than a month after the death of Mike VI, LSU’s live tiger mascot that had been a fixture on the sideline since 2007.
Florida’s players responded by bringing a toy cat skeleton to the game and ran around LSU’s home field with it after beating the Tigers and sealing a spot in the SEC title game.
While walking around on the field before this year’s game, I noticed a guest had joined the Gators as they were going through warmups, donning purple and gold Mardi Gras beads: skeleton cat.
Seeing as nobody seemed to notice this and I am powerless to resist the dopamine rush of a tweet popping off, I decided to point this out, at which point my Twitter mentions were flooded with reminders of why college football fandom is the greatest thing on Earth and also that it should be listed in the DSM.
The responses ranged from Gators fans mad with glee at the sight of the faux feline to LSU fans seemingly under the impression that I was the one who brought the malicious reminder of their beloved big cat’s departure into their home field.
It was great.
The game itself wasn’t too bad, either.
Both teams played perhaps their best games of the season, especially on offense.
Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow proved to myself and the rest of the country that night that he was undeniably the best player in the land. Against UF’s talented defense, LSU punted just twice, once in each half.
The only other drive that didn’t end in points for the Tigers was the first of the game, in which they missed a field goal.
Burrow was nearly flawless and unfazed by Florida’s front seven, completing 21 of 24 passes for 293 yards and three touchdowns, but Gators quarterback Kyle Trask countered with a gem. He only completed 23 of 39 passes, but threw for 310 yards and three touchdowns as UF kept with LSU step-for-step in a shootout.
The Gators even took a brief 28-21 lead early in the second half, but their only mistake — an interception in the end zone from Trask in the fourth quarter — cost them a win against an LSU team that went on to win the National Championship over Clemson in dominating fashion.
The game may not have gone the way Gators fans hoped, but in talking to UF fans afterwards, it didn’t seem like most were too upset. They knew they were a part of an amazing game in which both teams played their absolute best.
Being a part of moments like that is why I love sports so much. It’s the reason I’m jumping headfirst into a volatile industry when I graduate in December, knowing I’ll probably never live extremely comfortably or without fear of my job up and disappearing. It’s the rationale that’s keeping me sane as we face the uncertainty and tragedy of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Sports may be just a game, but the passion of the fans and the heat of rivalry makes them something else entirely. It makes them real.
And I can’t wait to be a part of more moments like that one in the future, whenever that time may be.
LSU defeated UF 42-28 on Oct. 12, 2019.