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Saturday, June 15, 2024

‘Football family’: ‘Tailgators’ return to the Swamp

Fans reunite in Gainesville

<p>Tailgater Dane Ullian grills hotdogs off of West University Avenue before Florida’s matchup with Utah Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.</p>

Tailgater Dane Ullian grills hotdogs off of West University Avenue before Florida’s matchup with Utah Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022.

Dotted with white tents, the Reitz Union North Lawn was prepared for the beginning of another highly anticipated Gators football season. Most were empty shells of the tailgates that would fill them later.

Except for one.

On the corner of the lawn near McCarty Hall A, the smell of burgers on the grill complemented the lively chatter of one particular Gator family gathering: They call themselves the Two-Headed Gator Tailgate, in honor of two friends who stuffed themselves into one Gator shirt during a 1980s game. 

“It’s great, to be, a two-head-ed ga-tor,” chanted Margie Nelson, 63, recalling the group’s conception. 

“We won,” she added. “Obviously.”

Nelson and two friends, Cam Baker and Lisa Bristow, have tailgated at every UF home game since they were students from 1979 to 1981. Although their tailgate spot has changed over the years — once at Broward, once at Keys and once on the main Reitz Union lawn — the tailgate has settled in its corner of campus for 21 years. 

The Two-Headed Tailgaters are just some of the hordes of people, including alumni, grad students and football fans who arrive early to the Swamp to tailgate.

The tradition has passed on to their children as well, who grew up tailgating together. Courtney Bristow, Lisa’s 29-year-old daughter, has been following the Gators since she was in diapers.

“I haven’t missed a home game in 29 years,” Courtney said. “This is football family.”

On game days, campus fills with “tailgators”: fans who camp out before football games, usually with barbecues and drinks. 

REVELxp, formerly known as The Tailgate Guys, sets up tents, caters food and provides TVs for fans who buy their tailgate experience service. 

For Saturday’s game, REVELxp sold 48 tailgate packages at Gator Walk — where the football teams get off their buses before entering Ben Hill Griffin Stadium — and 32 on the lawn. 

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Teddy Salb, sales manager, said it was one of the most popular games so far, second only to the Louisiana State game Oct. 16.

Alternatively, many tailgaters set up their own tents across campus, cook their own barbecues and wait for the game to begin.

Jim Copeland, a 68-year-old 1976 undergraduate UF alum, grilled his famous Gator Tail Sub Sandwich — a meat-and-cheese sub inspired by former local sandwich shop Joe’s Deli. 

He and his brother, John Copeland, were situated under a tent in front of Williamson Hall facing the stadium. They had been there since 6 a.m.

“Sometimes it's the only time you get to see everyone during the years because we all have our own families and our own obligations,” Jim Copeland said.

Steve Brosius, a 49-year-old Class of 1999 business UF alum, is a Gainesville native who began tailgating at 6 a.m. He has occupied his tailgate spot off Stadium Road since 2003. His family has also attended UF for generations, he said.

Brosius’ tent was filled with friends he said he’s known for decades, some having met 10 years ago and others 30.

“It really is about getting back together with good friends,” Brosius said.

Zack Lewis, a 39-year-old UF alum, tailgates every home game. His children, a 2-year-old and a 9-month-old, were born as Gators fans, he said. Lewis said former coach Steve Spurrier announced the gender of Lewis’ child through Cameo, a paid app where celebrities send messages to fans.

Lewis wears a 1996 national championship ring to every game, which he bought for $5 on Etsy, because he said it’s good luck. It also causes people to confuse him for a former Gators football player, he added. 

When asked why he continues to tailgate, he said: “The good answer is tradition, but the honest answer is beer. You can quote that.”

For Kara Eversole, a 29-year-old UF neuropsychology intern, and Amanda Wisinger, a 28-year-old UF doctorate student, Saturday’s season-opener was their first tailgate at UF. Eversole, who’s from Chicago, and Wisinger, from Ohio, moved to Gainesville less than a month ago. 

They tailgated with members of the Department of Clinical and Health Psychology in the Plaza of the Americas.

“I feel like I haven't met older people in our program in a casual setting,” Eversole said. “And showing our Gator spirit!”

Directly across from Eversole’s group in the Plaza of the Americas, a series of structured tents pushed together formed more of a canopy than a traditional tailgate. 

“Tailgate-Palooza,” as the group calls itself, has been tailgating in the Plaza since 2003. Dack Vaught, 50, said he doesn’t attend the football game after the tailgate; instead, he watches the game from the TV set up in the tailgate tent.

“I love it,” Vaught said. “ I love the atmosphere. It’s fun.”

On the Reitz North Lawn, Paul Johnson, 39, tailgated under a tent with a banner that read, “Super Gators 20 Year Reunion.” 

Johnson was a member of the Super Gators, a group of Florida football fans who dressed up for games between 2001 and 2007. For the first time in 20 years, the Super Gators — a group of about 50 at their peak — reunited for the Utah game. They have kept in touch through a Facebook thread started in 2008.

“I haven’t seen most of these people in a decade, and it’s cool,” said Brian Barnes, a 39-year-old former Super Gator. “It's weird making small chat with people that you, at one point, knew exceptionally well.”

Contact Alissa at Follow her on Twitter @AlissaGary1.

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Alissa Gary

Alissa is a sophomore journalism major and University Editor at The Alligator. She has previously covered student government, university administration and K-12 education. In her free time, she enjoys showing photos of her cats to strangers.

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