In Florida, college football almost qualifies as a religion.
This past weekend, I made my annual trip to the altar, heading north from Orlando to watch the University of Florida take on those rival University of Tennessee Volunteers at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville. In the interest of full disclosure, I'm not a Gator alumnus, but I'm a devoted UF band-wagoner, courtesy of the inordinately high percentage of colleagues and friends who went to school there.
In truth, I never attended a college that even had a football program, which makes the game-day pageantry even more exotic. All the key elements were in place this past weekend: the crowds, the marching bands, a Gator victory. You can tell by the photo on this page that the fans were having fun.
Everyone knows about that stuff, but I added a new wrinkle on this trip, an idea hatched by my friend Hank. He and his wife, Mickie, were kind enough to allow me and another mutual friend to stay at their home. Hank's an innovative thinker and, at one point, mentioned how he often likes to return to the stadium on Sunday mornings, when the attendance figure is closer to 9 than 90,000.
"They keep it open pretty much all the time," he told me. "It's almost like a public park or something."
On my way out of town, I tried out the idea.
Now would be a good time to mention that this isn't the first time that I've indulged in the charms of an empty ballpark. I used to spend the occasional work lunch hour at a deserted Tinker Field in Orlando, just to bask in the peace of a quiet baseball diamond.
That was cool, but the Sunday morning post-game vibe was better: There were a couple of students doing homework, a middle-schooler making some fantasy circus catches on the field, a few athletically minded folks jogging the steps in the stands.
On Sundays, things move slower on University Avenue, too. It was easy to find a parking place near Kay Bros. BBQ (kaybrosbbq.com), a new spot that opened this past spring across from the stadium. Like the empty stadium, I'd highly recommend it.