Last football season left many fans missing the iconic atmosphere at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, but the environment Florida football enthusiasts lost finally returned under the stadium lights Sept. 4.
After a year of social distancing, canceled tailgates and limited-capacity crowds, 86,840 Gators fans from far and wide packed The Swamp for the first game of the season against the Florida Atlantic Owls. The energy within Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was contagious, with fans chanting and singing in unison as the team began its season with a Gators win.
This energy reached its peak during the game, but it was also present over the entire course of the day.
Excitement was widespread even hours before kickoff, with little kids doing their best to catch a glimpse of the players as they arrived for their famous Gator Walk in front of the stadium alongside the marching band and mascots Albert and Alberta. The traditional walk from the team bus to the locker room through a parted sea of fans also returned for opening night, yet another absence in the restricted 2020 season.
As game time approached, fans lined up at every entrance, and everyone’s anticipation to enter the stadium again was high. They stood just one security checkpoint away from the experience they all missed dearly.
Traffic slowed and cops lined the streets in preparation for the surge of people coming. RVs camped out, crowds of people walked through campus and tailgaters’ tents took over, setting the scene for game day early on.
After on-campus tailgating was prohibited during the 2020 season, Florida’s hardcore supporters could finally fill campus once again, and they found every nook and cranny to set up camp.
Eager to make up for loss time, fans and students did not miss a beat in bringing back the staple of pregame tailgates.
Many students flocked to Fraternity Drive to spend the afternoon together celebrating not only their team, but a sense of normalcy last year never had. Fraternity houses blared music, the sound of student voices carried through the air from every direction and cars and tents rooted to each spare inch of grass.
For seasoned visitors, a game day resembling pre-COVID-19 times felt like a breath of fresh air.
“Last season was hard and sad without the normal game and tailgate experience, especially since our son started as a freshman last year,” Eileen Mercier, a long-time Florida Gators fan, said.
Mercier has been a Gators fan for over 30 years and was beyond excited to return to campus to cheer on her team with her family by her side, the way she always has. She wasn’t always sure she would have that chance in 2021, though.
“With the Delta variant spreading, I was worried the university would have to say no tailgating,” Mercier said.
For second-year public relations major Cadi Schwartz, a football season with tailgates and full-capacity seating is exciting but also a little nerve-racking.
“I’m still a little weary of everything with Delta that’s going around,” Schwartz said. “It makes me a little worried that there is no distancing or anything like that, but I feel like it can be enjoyable if you do your best to stay safe to your own standards.”
Even though last year lacked the normal game day experience, Schwartz said she still had an absolute blast at her first home game in 2020 despite the smaller crowds.
Mercier, Schwartz and countless others spent their Saturday in The Swamp uniting over food, drinks and their love for Gators football. The first game day with tailgating since Nov. 2019 was filled with an air of palpable joy, excitement and hope for the future.
Contact Elena Barrera at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @elenabarreraaa.
Elena is a second-year journalism major with a minor in health sciences. She is currently the University Administration reporter for The Alligator. When she is not writing, Elena loves to work out, go to the beach and spend time with her friends and family.