[originally written September 30, 2014]
The game may have turned into
something of a debacle but the
Capital Area Gator Club road trip
turned out to be fun for all
A look back at the CAGC Road Trip to Tuscaloosa.
That was my initial thought when months ago I saw that Tallahassee’s own Capital Area Gator Club was offering a bus ride to the upcoming Gators vs. Bama game in Tuscaloosa. Little did I know then that by the time the actual game week would arrive, writing trip would be more appropriate. And, a bus ride to an away game isn't exactly a classic road trip. But mixing with Gators rarely disappoints and (as I think you’ll see) the Bama trip was no different.
7 a.m. departure
The excitement of a college football Saturday is hard to beat, whether you're watching at home, the sports bar, or with friends. Actually traveling to a game, however, is a different thing entirely. It's like convoying to a battle. This bus trip was a first-time experience for me. I've done very little with the local Gator Club over my quarter-century in Tallahassee so I was curious to see what was what on this writing excursion.
Stephen Lawson, Club president, greeted us Saturday morning at the prescribed location – Gator chompin’ to be sure but, because of work requirements, not joining us on the trip. It’s an election year for state government in Florida, Tallahassee is the epicenter of Florida politics, and Lawson is a partisan participant in this year’s gubernatorial election. So we’ll give him a pass.
Matt Hall, a recent UF graduate and current Master of Public Administration grad student at FSU, was placed in charge of coordinating things, making sure we had food for our tailgate, and all made it back on the bus for the return trip home. It would be too much to say that Matt turned out to be something of a bon vivant but he certainly did mix and mingle well and would provide some genuine humor on the long trip home (I’ll not write about the substitute bus driver who took over in Dothan on the ride back home but if you see Matt, ask him about it!).
We boarded our charter bus in the Killearn area of Tallahassee near Interstate 10 for a trip that would take ordinarily around 5 hours on a bus. Gameday, I knew, might add one hour to the time. So, as we settled in for the long ride, my mind floated as I cruised through my subconscious and variously sampled thoughts such as these:
- Is today the day I firmly believe it is? The day we announce to the college football world that the Beasts of the SEC East are back and we do so by sneaking out of Tuscaloosa with a bigtime win?
- How well does Jeff Driskel demonstrate some command presence to start the game and maintain it throughout? (remember, the question for me riding over to Tuscaloosa wasn’t whether Jeff would demonstrate such – I knew he would – the question was how well he would do so)
- Is the promised Capital Area Gator Club tailgate going to happen at our parking area?
- Will the Alabama campus make a beautiful impression on me?
- Will I be able to hook up with that group of 10 Gators who are graduates of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences who get together for one road trip a year and Bama is the choice this year?
- Is Treon going to get a series in the 2nd quarter?
- Can Demarcus Robinson match Amari Cooper or at least come close to it?
- Can the Gator defense deal with the curve balls Lane Kiffin is going to throw at us?
Yes, that is yours truly front left -- trying to get some early morning rest on the way to Bama.
In hindsight, the answers to all of the posed questions floating around in my head on the ride over to Bama (with the exception of hooking up with the group of 10) were a resounding no, no, and no. But who could know that on the ride over? Everything was blissful as we geared our minds for spectator battle in support of our Gators. There was decent chatter back and forth all over the bus, Matt was doing a good job of mixing and mingling, and we were able to watch ESPN Gameday on the satellite television screens. Sitting behind me was Matt and Matt’s sister Alissa Rich, who is a pharmacist. Sitting across from me were two of Alissa’s friends, Katy and Karen, also pharmacists. Everything was copacetic on the Gator Club Bus as we bopped our way down the highway.
Well, not real trouble as it turned out, but I didn't know that at the time.
My first sign came after we exited Interstate 10, headed up US 231 out of Florida and into Alabama, and well after we passed through Dothan. In fact, it was as we were negotiating Montgomery. I had taken this same route months ago while driving from Tallahassee to Memphis to cheer on our basketball Gators in the March Madness regional. I clearly remembered passing through the area of the State Capitol, I remembered seeing the new Alabama State football stadium, etc., and then heading up Interstate 65 for Birmingham. But I was headed for Memphis on that trip, not Tuscaloosa. Why the hell is our bus driver heading for Birmingham ???
At Hoover, we made a turn and headed southwest for Tuscaloosa. Heavy traffic greeted us, and we eventually hit something of a slow parking lot crawl. As I feared. Most of the Bama traffic, I suspected, would be coming from places East and North of the place (Atlanta, Birmingham, Huntsville, etc.). We were coming from the South; why not take US 82 out of Montgomery?
Who the hell knows, I thought at the time, but that’s what we did. And I wasn’t happy. Later, I checked Google Maps of course – I’m anal in that kind of way – and noticed that US 82 in Alabama, incredibly, is a two-lane road. And may have been a longer slow parking lot crawl than Interstate 22. So, I thought to myself, you did exactly as you should have, Black Man: shut the heck up and let the bus driver handle his business.
All was fairly uneventful from there. We did run into heavy gameday traffic, our driver did briefly try an alternate route but quickly discovered the selected two-lane road was packed so he immediately turned around and got back on the interstate. Matt Hall smartly decided that we should have some of our “tailgate” food now as we crawled closer to campus and we all wolfed down the assorted sandwiches and chips.
The Bama Invasion
Eventually we arrived around 1:15 Eastern at our spot on Hackberry Lane; the town of Tuscaloosa, what little I took note of, looked okay. The campus, what little I saw, didn’t particularly look good or bad. The fans, however, would prove to be outstanding and cordial.
On arrival everyone quickly exited, but I had to take a picture of one particular Gator before we traipsed off to various spots on the Bama campus for further tailgating. Get a good look at Alissa Rich, y’all:
Yes, very pregnant. Believe it or not, this was the very first time she and her friends Katy and Karen were attending a Gator game on the road. Alissa is married to a Georgia Bulldog, recently moved to Tallahassee, and didn’t want to miss this opportunity to cheer on her Gators. So, against the advice of more than a few, she decided to soldier on with us to Tuscaloosa.
Our spot on Hackberry Lane was conveniently right across from a “Jack’s” fast food restaurant; this proved important for postgame munchies. From our location it was just a bit less than a mile to the stadium. Will Atkins and Clarence Anthony (yes, he’s Reidel’s brother), two Gator alums who came up from Gainesville to ride with us, headed off to meet acquaintances and check out the Bama campus, Matt and much of the bus crew headed off to tailgate on Alabama’s Quad, and I marched off a mile in the other direction looking for another story: Ryan Pender (President-elect of the Palm Beach County Gator Club), Brian Sapp (Director of Operations at the increasingly prominent White Oak Pastures farm in Bluffton, Georgia), and a group of fellow College of Agriculture and Life Sciences graduates who had decided to make this their one away game trip of the year.
They are a story I hope to write later in the year.
Eventually we all made our way into the stadium and checked out some of Bama’s pregame festivities.
It still bugs me to hear a Florida band, from Jacksonville no less, singing "Sweet Home Alabama" but -- what the hell, ain't much you can do about that.
All of us were tremendously excited and -- speaking for myself -- I had high hopes of coming out of there with a victory. It was now time for some SEC football!
And, well . . . the game was what it was. I’ve already written about that. The general consensus of the Capital Area Gator Club group was this: bad result, good experience.
Will Atkins said he had an amazing time experiencing SEC football at a different institution. After linking up with some other Gator and Crimson Tide fans, he visited the quad and found it lively and well organized. “We had fun. I felt no real hostility from the Bama fans, certainly not as hostile as I expected them to be. In the stands, I sat next to the band – it was exciting and fun.
Alissa Rich, our pregnant Gator fan, may have best typified the road trip. Honestly, I was afraid she was going to have the baby in the stadium! As it was, she said Bama fans were funny and kind to her. After observing her hiking up the upper deck steps (her seat, like mine, was one row from the top of the stadium), and knowing she had likely climbed the interminable Bryant-Denny walkway that led to the upper deck and went around and around and around seemingly forever, some simply said things like this: “You go, girl, you’re my hero!” Or this: “If you have that baby in this stadium you have to name him Bryant!”
In fact, one Alabama fan after the game came by in a golf cart, saw her walking back to God knows where, graciously offered her a ride, and personally drove her the near-mile back to our bus.
Yes, they had just won a big victory over a bigtime foe but that’s SEC family, y’all, and that’s what we do in this conference – knock the hell out of one another on the field, cheer like crazy for our team in the stands, and then head on back to the real world after it’s all over. Most of the time, in a very civil kind of way.
I had no idea then of just how much would go wrong during this season nor just how frustrated I would become with my starting quarterback -- a man I was certain would have an all-conference season and lead us back to Atlanta.
Though the season has been tremendously disappointing, hope springs eternal and -- as is ever the case --it's great to be a Florida Gator!