As a sports writer, it’s rare that I get to sit in the stands as a fan. The Florida v. LSU football game in 2018 was one of those times.
It was only freshman year for me in Gainesville. However, it does not take long to discover that game day in The Swamp brings new energy to an otherwise small college town.
I had seen great Gator games before. I was there when Will Grier brought it back against Tennessee in 2015 and when Feleipe Franks heaved it to Tyrie Cleveland in 2017. Nothing compared to what I was about to witness.
Florida ranked 22nd heading into an early October heavyweight bout with the fifth-ranked LSU Tigers. Dan Mullen just started his first season with the program and thirsted for a statement win to put Florida back on the college football map.
The Tigers flaunted their highly sought-after graduate transfer at quarterback. He’s a little-known guy from Athens, Ohio named Joe Burrow. His legend on the horizon had to wait for another day. Today, he faced a hostile Swamp with a lot of rowdy reptiles chomping at the bit.
As I said, this was not my first rodeo with gameday in Gainesville. This was different. Fans entered Ben Hill Griffin like pilgrims arriving at the Mecca. This was the place to be and fans on both sides knew it.
Not only was the game special, but a legend came home too. After a scoreless first quarter for Florida, Tim Tebow walked out on the field to talk to the crowd.
His jersey number immortalized on the edges of the stadium, Tebow gave Gainesville a pep talk. Everyone, including the Gators, fed off of that energy. When he finished speaking a cloud covered the harsh sunlight that had been slow-cooking the student section for about 30 minutes.
Florida outscored the Tigers 14-3 in the second quarter to take it to halftime.
The game continued to live up to the hype. Both teams started the final quarter scoring a touchdown and failing to convert the two-point try. Florida only led by one point when they punted with 2:21 remaining.
The rest is what makes it the greatest game I’ve ever seen. I had never seen a team band together and hold the line as the Gators did in those final two minutes. Florida defensive back Brad Stewart Jr. stepped in front of a Burrow pass at the 25-yard line and put the Gators up by eight points.
To this day I have never heard The Swamp louder than it was at that moment. Screams and pure ecstasy on one side; agony and defeat on the other. 90,000 people watched LSU’s playoff hopes die and Florida’s program jump-start.
The late Edward Aschoff reported from the sidelines that evening. According to him, Stewart Jr. knew Burow would crack in that moment.
Burrow got the ball back and proceeded to throw another interception to Donovan Stiner with 21 seconds left. Ball game.
With the void in sports created by COVID-19, moments like these seem fleeting. It is important to know that while this was the best game I’ve ever seen live, it absolutely will not be the last.
Stay safe, cover your mouth and wash your hands.