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Gameday Memories: assault, battery, and redemption in the Swamp

Miami’s 41-16 win over Florida on September 7, 2002 was among the sweetest moments of my sports fandom.

Corso taking our photo with Herbstreit was the icing on the cake of a great day.

“Go home, b*tch!”

The words sounded down on me from a obscured figure silhouetted by the sun blinding me as I looked up at him, stunned. The orange letters of “Florida” on a blue shirt were vaguely visible, as the figure moved, laughing, walking on with a group of other fans.

I sat up in the middle of the street just outside of the southwest gate at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, chest cold from the freshly-poured adult beverage that had soaked through “Miami Hurricanes” on my shirt. As I turned on my hip and looked back, my then-roommate and lifetime friend Matt was streaking after the group of well-oiled early-twenty-something goons who had just put me down. However, my buddies Scott and Greg quickly interceded and grabbed him before he could get his hands on them. ”Dude, I just spent $125 on this ticket,” Greg said. ”I’m not going to jail and missing this game.”

And so I had been indoctrinated into the Miami-Florida rivalry.

I had been to plenty of college football games across the southeast by that point in time, but I had (and have) never seen any rivalry that reaches the level of vitriol and nastiness - both on and off the field - that Florida and Miami radiate when they get together.

We were second-year law students at UM in the fall of 2002 and had just enjoyed watching the greatest team in the history of college football bring home the crown. With Miami facing Florida in Gainesville for the first time since the 1980s, there was a 0.0% chance we were going to miss out on that road trip, especially with a free place to stay.

We headed up to Gainesville on Friday evening from Southgate Towers on South Beach, where Matt and I were living (fun fact: their deli served best Cuban sandwich I ever had in Miami). We piled into Matt’s white Chevy SUV and headed north. Fortunately the drive up the turnpike and I-75 was fine (but the alternator in his truck crapped out on the return trip and we had to call triple A; literally the only blemish on the weekend).

The reason the place to stay was free is because my parents lived in Gainesville from 2001 until just a few years ago. Yes, yes, they’re Gator alums, so please don’t hold that against me. My parents had a screened-in pool in the center of their house, with the house wrapped around, so we just hung out and drank ice cold beer after my folks made dinner, rather than go face the madness near campus and find a way to get all the way across town early in the morning.

Rather than drive and set up a tailgate, we decided to bounce around campus on Saturday morning, because there were a number of people there we could potentially meet up with that were tailgating near the stadium. My dad actually drove us there and dropped us off, so we could drink without consequence AND have to avoid the indescribable nightmare that is Florida gameday parking. The Citrus Bowl/Camping World Stadium will always be the gold standard for logistical and parking stupidity, but Florida’s setup is on the list as well. Parking in the lots on or by the side streets across University Ave in the student housing area makes the old Orange Bowl “no-blockey” parking setup seem like an amazingly well-organized and dirt-cheap deal.

So, we were walking down University Avenue, when we get yelled at by a bunch of raucous Florida fraternity-like dudes, who point at this massive sign that’s in their front yard. No joke, it’s like 20+ feet tall. Under the title “Hurricanes Blow” is a picture of Dorsey jumping into Shockey’s arms, with his waistline near Shockey’s facemask.

Yeah. Stay classy, dudes.

We also saw an old jalopy painted orange and green in a front yard, which some dude was hammering with a sledgehammer, with Florida fratty bros letting out gutteral YEAHs each time the hammer pounded the car. We received several “F-you’s” and “Miami sucks” along the way, and some girls put their hands up towards our faces with disapproving looks. Nothing too bad. Yet.

We had been looking for tickets as we walked towards the stadium up University Avenue, and as we got to the white picket fence of The Swamp bar & grill, the number of tickets in the air started to approach the number of fingers sticking up in the air seeking tickets. It was an absolute mob of people of all ages, with oranges, greens, blues, Us, Fs, dresses, shirts, face paint, visors, and the smell of beer and sweat all mixing together. The coronavirus would have absolutely loved this environment.

Amid the insanity, we flagged down a girl with 4 tickets for sale. She offered us all four for $500, end zone, upper deck. The prices had been well north of $150, and we didn’t want to wait anymore, so we forked over the cash. Greg was very hesitant to hand over that money, as he was on a tight budget, but we got him to do it. I remember the overwhelming relief, as I always have some fear of being unable to get tickets every time I go to a game empty-handed.

So we worked our way across the street to campus, where we met up with some UM folks - I think they were friends of Scott (who knew then and still seems to know just about freaking everyone every time we’ve gone to a game together). We were hanging out with a good mix of Miami and Florida people. Drinking, shooting the bull. Everything going well.

Then, as we were making our way to the stadium, it happened. As we were walking through the throng of people approaching the gate at the stadium, a group of Florida fans was walking past us. I was in the front of us, and some guy steps over - unprovoked and out of the blue - and two-hand shoves me as hard as he could. I went flying, landed on my back. My drink spilled all over me, as my solo cup clinked on the pavement.

That’s the only time in my life I’ve ever been assaulted. Anywhere. Certainly the worst I’ve ever been treated at a game anywhere in my life.

And instead of retaliating, as I mentioned before, we trudged on, fought our way through the line of people getting into the stadium, and made it to our seats in the upper deck.

As it turns out, there was no need to fight outside the stadium, since the Canes beat up the guys in blue on the field for all of us.

A back and forth first half saw Miami up 20-10, with the Canes scoring twice inside the half’s final 5 minutes. Dorsey found Andre Johnson for a 13-10 lead. Then, following a botched punt, Miami answered again with a 10-yard catch and run touchdown by Ethenic Sands. It could have been even more, if not for a deflected interception in the end zone by Florida safety Todd Johnson on second and goal with 0:05 left in the half.

Florida rallied in the second half, using 11 plays to drive 88 yards down to Miami’s 5 yard line. The Florida crowd was amped up. Everyone was standing; Florida fans smiling, Miami fans with hands on hips. Were we watching this one slip away?

Then, on second and goal, Rex Grossman lobbed a ball for the goal line. It was a foot away from the hands of Florida wide receiver Carlos Perez. Just then, Maurice Sikes’ hands grabbed the ball.

I spoke with Sikes back in 2013 or so, and he told me that he had a sore shoulder from an earlier hit and could barely lift his arm up. It took him all he had to do it, and what an amazing effort it was.

As quickly as he grabbed the ball, he was streaking in the other direction with a convoy. He was sprinting, but watching him run away from us towards the other end zone, it all seemed like it was happening in slow motion. I almost blew out a lung screaming and we jumped as high as we could, all of us embracing and leaping up and down like absolute idiots. Sikes crossed the goal line 99 yards away and set the ball down in the end zone.

34-16. Gator backs were broken. We exulted, screaming, high fiving the Miami fans sitting behind us, as adjacent Gator fans with the 100-mile stare remained cross-armed. I think I had my arms around whichever poor soul was sitting next to me. The Canes tacked on another score later, and we waved at Florida fans as they filed down the steps in the fourth quarter. We bought “Miami 41, Florida 16” printed signs outside the stadium that some vendors were selling and headed back to where my folks had dropped us off.

Earlier in the day, we had stopped by the College Gameday set. There was a trailer there, and we hollered for Kirk Herbstreit and Lee Corso to come out. And......they did! They came out and spoke with the four of us and were very nice. We asked if they’d take a picture, and they obliged. Corso took the camera we were using (don’t remember whose it was) and snapped us standing with Herbstreit, as you saw above (I’m the one in the green shirt).

That moment was the cherry on the most delicious football sundae I had ever experienced. What I wouldn’t give to be able to go back and re-live a moment like this one. Notre Dame in 2017 was on that level, as were a very select handful of others. Hopefully the Canes will give us more memories like these in the coming years.

Go Canes!