I was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, a place where college football was no big deal. I loved the NFL and enjoyed being a Miami Dolphins fan, but that wasn’t very popular up there surrounded by Giants and Jets fans. Needless to say, when I moved to the 305 in 1980, I loved that I would get to root for the Dolphins for the first time as my home team.
My love affair with the Miami Hurricanes started late in the 1980 season. My best friend, Jose Fons, loved UM and it was starting to rub off on me. The first vivid memory I had as a Canes fan was the season’s final game in Gainesville against the gator (if you are a true Canes fan, you NEVER capitalize the word "gator").
As the Hurricanes were stomping the gator late in that game, 28-7, Miami head coach Howard Schnellenberger became so furious at the 56,000 lizards who were pelting the Hurricanes sideline and players with tangerines, that with one second left in the game, he brought in kicker Jim Miller to run up the score on the gator.
Canes won 31-7 and that didn’t go over very well with the little lizards.
At first, I found the move to be a bit arrogant of my new college football favorite. It was only after learning about the infamous "Florida Flop" nine years earlier and what the gator did in that contest to break an individual passing record, that I realized that I was rooting for the right team.
To lay down and let the other team score so you could break an individual passing record? Man, I was happy Coach Schnellenberger ran up the score on these reptiles on their home field.
To hell with the gator!
I watched the Hurricanes beat Virginia Tech in the 1981 Peach Bowl, 20-10 and couldn’t wait for the following season to start and go to my first game at The Orange Bowl.
Nine months later, my wish came true. I joined 74,000 fans for my first visit to the historic stadium and saw a sloppy game filled with Miami Hurricanes turnovers. With Miami down 20-11, and our starting quarterback Jim Kelly sidelined with an injury, backup Mark Richt (you may know him these days as Coach) mounted a courageous 4th quarter comeback. With 40 seconds left, kicker Jim Miller’s 54-yard field goal attempt hit the crossbar and was good, giving the Canes a 21-20 lead. On the game’s final play, the gator missed a 59-yard field goal and the Canes emerged victorious.
I was in heaven.
To this day, I find it difficult to explain the joy and overwhelming sense of loyalty I felt for MY Miami Hurricanes that day. 15 months prior, I was a Brooklyn kid that didn’t make much of college football. Yet, a rivalry as thick as a Burger King milkshake (Burger King reference in honor of their support of the Canes in the 70’s with their ticket programs when no one went to the games. Only real old school Canes fans remember that!) brought out the orange and green in my blood and created a Cane for Life!
Later that season, the Hurricanes shocked the top ranked Penn State Nittany Lions and spanked Notre Dame, a team that had traditionally teed off on Miami often during the Ara Parseghian years in the 70’s.
Other moments in the 80’s solidified my life long connection to the Miami Hurricanes. This big city kid was completely in love with this little school in Coral Gables. It was consuming. It felt so right.
As I began high school at Coral Park Senior High, I noticed how strong the community’s ties were to the team and the program. Games like the 20-0 shutout of Notre Dame in 1983, the last second field goal to beat FSU, 17-16 in that season’s final regular season game stood out to me. I felt like I might be watching something special.
Especially on January 1, 1984.
"Deflected away! Deflected away!’ screamed Sonny Hirsch as Kenny Calhoun tipped a Turner Gil two-point conversion pass away. Miami had won their first of six (yes Ohio State, six) National Championships.
The axis of college football power had shifted and things in Coral Gables would never be the same.
Neither would I.
I can remember arguing with my legendary journalism mentor and Miami-Dade Wolfson campus newspaper professor, the late Jose Quevedo, because he didn’t want to let me write a monthly column extensively covering the 1987 Miami Hurricanes football team. I had approached the UM media relations department in hopes of getting credentialed for all home games and for cooperation with interviews and Tuesday press conferences with then head coach Jimmy Johnson.
The University credentialed me, showing a great deal of class by doing so. After all, I did it without the blessing of my leader. They took me on my word.
"We are Miami-Dade, NOT the University of Miami!" Quevedo would sternly remind me.
I kept telling him that I felt we were on the cusp of something special. Something historic. I also reminded him that there was only so much Barracudas volleyball I could cover. The students wanted to read about the Canes.
Wolfson Campus was just a stone throw away from the Orange Bowl. Lunchtime at Wolfson Campus was memorable as many Miami High grads, now attending Dade, would congregate at the big round tables for lunch to talk Hurricanes football (and a little Stingaree hoops too!). It was remarkable to see the crowds that would gather for this.
As Quevedo normally did when it came to my hair brained ideas, he eventually let me run with it. What came from that were the most amazing memories of my career.
Tuesday, September 29, 1987.
I arrived for the regularly scheduled Tuesday presser with Jimmy Johnson. He spoke about Saturday’s 51-7 trouncing of Arkansas IN Arkansas. That season started with a triumphant beat down of the gator in the Orange Bowl, 31-4 and the Canes were 2-0 as they got ready to hit the road again. This time to face in-state rival Florida State at Doak Campbell Stadium.
I can remember Jimmy talking about working on team speed and the things necessary to beat the Seminoles in front of their home crowd the same way they had defeated Arkansas a few days prior.
"Coach, how will you handle the crowd noise at Doak Saturday?" I asked Johnson.
"With earplugs," he answered facetiously as he smiled. He went on to explain why he felt this Hurricanes team was special and how they had the ability to beat anyone, anywhere.
I smiled backed. I couldn’t help but think of Quevedo at that moment. I knew I was right about being amidst something special with this team.
As the presser ended, I chased down a skinny, tall wide receiver wearing number 47 as he walked off.
It was Michael Irvin.
He was all alone. I ran to him to get a couple of sincere answers to questions I had about this team.
"Mike, after the first two wins this season, what are your thoughts going into this game against Florida State?"
His answer was so perfect.
"Hey little man," as he draped his long right arm over my shoulder and pointed with his left hand towards my notebook where I was feverishly taking notes.
"You can write this in your notebook there, if you want. The University of Miami Hurricanes will be National Champions. You can quote me if you want. We will win the National Championship!"
I was in heaven.
Today, I’m older and wiser. I’m not a big fan of running up the score anymore. These days, I know our program has changed. What hasn’t changed is the seed planted in my heart for University of Miami athletics.
For 36 years, this Brooklyn kid, who never attended a class at the University of Miami (just like many of our fans), has covered and unconditionally loved the football, baseball and basketball programs. Hurricanes Athletics are a part of who I am and who I will always be.
Being a Miami Hurricane is so much more than being an alum. It’s about being a part of the most amazingly diverse and unique sports community in the country.
I share this moment with you to tie together the significance of University of Miami football and athletics in my life.
December 1, 2007.
Florida International had just defeated North Texas, 38-19, in the final college football game at the historic Orange Bowl. The city was getting ready to tear down our monument. A building that housed so many of my Hurricanes memories. It was hard to believe I was about to say goodbye forever.
My good friend and two-time National Champion, Mario Cristobal had just won his first game as a Division 1 head coach at Florida International and I was with him in the same locker room he had so often celebrated in as a Miami Hurricane player.
We then walked outside to an empty and somewhat spooky Orange Bowl. It was as if the ghosts of Hurricanes past we out in full force. Hovering over our sacred grounds. Moments after stepping outside, Bernard "Tiger" Clark joined us.
For what seemed to be an eternity standing still, Mario and Bernard walked me around telling me stories about being a part of some of those special games and championship teams.
Clark stood near the spot where he intercepted a Tony Rice pass that November evening in 1989 against Notre Dame.
"It was right here!" he screamed.
Mario took me to the sign that commemorating our 58 game home winning streak, an NCAA record that still stands today. We took photos in the end zone. I took pics of the stadium. A haze hovered over the OB. The ghosts were out for sure.
"Are you ready to say goodbye?" he asked.
"No way, Caballo. But I guess it’s time to go," I answered.
Mario draped his right arm over my shoulder, just like Michael Irvin had 20 years prior.
"I’m so happy that a Hurricane could close this place down with a win," he told me.
We were both welling up. We knew what was next.
As we walked out the famous tunnel where so many Hurricanes ran through the smoke and made college football history, I remember a security guard ask Mario if we were done.
"Yes sir. We are done."
Arm in arm, we walked out as they began to shut down the lights behind us. The sound haunts me to this day. It sounded like transformers blowing out during a hurricane.
This Brooklyn boy was in a place, emotionally and physically, where he had found himself so many times since 1980. A place only Hurricane fans can relate to. A place where our football team had taken us to so many times. So many memories.
I was in heaven.