GAINESVILLE — Now that Mr. Two Bits has retired, he has become the Florida Gators' new No. 1 fan.
He is at the stadium when nobody else is.
He never abandons his team.
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He never boos or anonymously posts nasty messages about the coach on Internet message boards.
He lives by the words of "We Are the Boys" — that traditional Gator anthem:
"In all kinds of weather, we'll all stick together."
Not rain, nor sleet, nor the blazing noon-time kickoff Saturday against a non-marquee team like Toledo can keep him away from his appointed rounds at The Swamp.
His name: Mr. Empty Seat.
"I used to never be able to get a ticket to the opener," Empty told me in an exclusive interview Saturday during the Gators' 24-6 victory over the Rockets. "Today, I can pretty much sit wherever I want."
The announced attendance at The Swamp Saturday was 83,604 — the lowest-attended opener and second-lowest attended game overall since Ben Hill Griffin Stadium was expanded a decade ago. Troublingly, Empty Seat and his buddies have become more and more prevalent at Florida games. It started three seasons ago during Will Muschamp's first game as coach when the Gators' decades-long streak of 137 straight sellouts ended. Since then, Empty has become a staple at the Swamp. Last season, for example, the Gators sold out only two of their seven home games.
Unlike Florida's other spoiled fans, you won't hear our friend Empty complaining about Saturday's victory. You won't hear him sarcastically say that the most explosiveness the Gators showed was Coach Will Muschamp's postgame tirade about "inaccurate, wrong and irresponsible journalism" against those media outlets who incorrectly reported freshman Jay-nard Bostick had been suspended for the Toledo game. You also won't hear Empty complain that the ground-and-pound Gators ran the ball 48 times and only threw it 22.
You see, Empty is a positive fan who never bellyaches after victories. He agrees with Muschamp, who said after the game, "The best thing about being 1-0 is you have a chance to be 2-0." After Saturday's opener, Empty pointed out the Gator defense lost eight starters, including five who were drafted into the NFL, and still limited a really good Toledo offense to two field goals and 205 yards.
"And what about our depth?" Empty said. "We had five starters who were out with injury, illness or suspension, and we still won by three touchdowns!"
You'll never hear Empty whine about Muschamp's Gators winning ugly and not being explosive enough. Empty doesn't care how the Gators win. He was just happy his team won 11 games last year despite having an offense that ranked No. 103 out of 120 teams in major college football. In fact, Empty prefers games like Saturday — uneventful, unexciting victories against no-name opponents. Such performances keep the fair-weather fans at home, which means Empty will continue to have good seats in the future.
Sadly, though, Empty is an underappreciated fan. The school's administration hates him and athletic director Jeremy Foley is always trying to keep him out of the Swamp. In an effort to block Empty and his buddies from overtaking the stadium, Foley even wrote a letter over the summer to boosters, trying to persuade the growing number of them who have not renewed their season tickets to change their minds.
"It's because of loyal football season ticket holders like you that game day in The Swamp is such a special experience," Foley wrote, adding that UF's across-the-board athletic success is only "possible because of the financial stability of our football program."
"Foley has never liked me," Empty says. "but I understand."
That's because Empty is an unselfish fan. He never complains about the sight lines at the stadium or the price of a Coke at the concession stand. He never gets drunk and obnoxious and stumbles around and stands up and blocks the view of those behind him.
And even though he loves attending games, he will gladly give up his seat later in the season when the fair-weather fans buy tickets and flock to see Florida State.
"It's great to be a Florida Gator," Empty tells me at the end of our interview
Then, as I turn to walk away, he says something I never thought I'd hear.
"See ya at the Tennessee game!"
firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BianchiWrites. Listen to his radio show every weekday from 6 to 9 a.m. on 740 AM.