COLUMBIA, S.C. — It started, like most good moments for Florida’s football team this season, with a punt.
A Johnny Townsend boomer that glided 58 yards before getting grabbed at the South Carolina 4-yard line. Already down 7-0, the Gators needed that boost. Like a wounded hero in a comic book, they needed something to go right, and for a moment, Townsend’s blast gave them that.
The Gamecocks came out in the shotgun once the special teamers cleared the field, with quarterback Jake Bentley’s feet planted into his own end zone. He took the snap and stepped back. He scanned the field and saw a man down the sideline, so he heaved it just as that man stopped running.
The only person near Bentley’s target now was Florida’s C.J. Henderson, who waited under the gift from the football gods. He snagged it and darted to his right. The freshman from Miami picked up some blocks and shifted direction toward the end zone, dashing and weaving his way through defenders until about the 5-yard line.
He was tripped up and fell forward toward the 1-yard line, where USC’s Hayden Hurst dislodged the ball. It trickled into the end zone, where Carolina running back A.J. Turner picked it up and rumbled down the sideline for a 20-yard gain.
Yes, Florida got an interception and — somehow — the play resulted in a 20-yard gain for the team that threw the interception.
It was the weirdest, wildest, most-fun football play I’ve ever seen in person. Notice that last word: Fun. That word hasn’t been tied to Florida football much this season, and with good reason.
The Gators have lost five straight, both sides of the ball have reached peak incompetence and the team has been a living, vivid nightmare for the past three weeks. Nevertheless, Saturday’s game, at least for that moment was fun.
Sure, if you’re a Florida fan, you were probably cursing at your TV when you saw the ball rolling around on the ground. Or maybe you were just silent, lost in meditation about how this would happen to the Gators, because of course it would. It’s just been that kind of season. Or that kind of decade.
But you were also entertained. That play gave you a reason to stand. To yell. To have adrenaline pump through your circulatory system. And at the core of sports, that’s why we watch. That’s why fandom exists.
Sports give us a chance to escape our lives as systems analysts or toll booth operators or product implementation coordinators and live a magnificent lie. They let us assign massive amounts of value to games that don’t matter at all, but that help us cope with jobs we hate or people we dislike or parts of life we don’t enjoy.
Yes, even when the teams we root for are bad, it’s this chance to embrace the lie that keeps us watching. It’s this escape that keeps putting UF fans in the seats despite Florida’s rotten record. To quote UF athletics director Scott Stricklin totally out of context, Saturday’s game “was about more than wins and losses.”
It was about the adrenaline rush you felt and the passion that burned in your soul when Henderson made the catch. It was about the anguish and the chasm he left in passion’s place when he fumbled. Even though none of it matters — it is, again, just an arbitrary game with arbitrary values — it let fans feel. Sports let us feel in a way few other life events can. They provide an arena where storylines unfold and heroes are born and destroyed in every game. Where the “impossible” becomes possible.
So even though Florida stinks, remember to appreciate that feeling. Embrace it. Enjoy it. And remember that even though the plays made and the final scores don’t matter, the moments that make them up do.
You can follow Ethan Bauer on Twitter @ebaueri, and contact him at [email protected].