By Wednesday night and Thursday morning, when players flipped to a sports network, they heard one pro athlete after another denouncing the idea of playing games over the weekend. Some Gators started voicing their discomfort at the prospect of being the nation's highest-profile sporting event on Saturday. Safety, already a concern for the more than 80,000 people expected to attend the game, was becoming a larger issue in light of hurricane warnings for Florida. "As if we didn't have enough distractions," says Pearson. The Gators started to wonder not only about how appropriate playing on Saturday would be but also about how well they could perform under the circumstances.
Last Thursday afternoon Spurrier was told that the SEC had postponed all of its games, and he conceded that he was relieved. "The mood of the country isn't on sporting events," he said. Soon after the coaches entered the locker room, where players were getting taped for their regular conditioning workout, and announced the news. "There were sighs of disappointment and sighs of relief," says Walker. "We had switched emotions on and off so many times over those few days that we all felt a little of both."
After the Gators finished their sprints and were dismissed until Monday, Spurrier said he was going home to be with his family and suggested that the players do the same. Most of the team's 75 Florida natives obeyed, including Sheppard, who jumped in his Gator-blue 1976 Chevy Impala and took off for Jacksonville, where Mya would greet him. Perez called his mother, Patricia, who was in the midst of an 18-hour drive to Gainesville to watch him play. She was in South Carolina when she took his call and told him that she was coming anyway, "just to be close" to him. "I'm at the end of an emotional roller coaster," Carlos said that night. "I think that it worked out the way God wanted it to work out."
On Friday, as the university packed food that was intended to be served before the game and shipped it to rescue crews in New York City and Washington, D.C., some Florida fans still felt the games should have been played. "By not playing, the bad guys won a small victory," said Gainesville resident Bob Wessells. Others maintained that the postponement was for the best. "Victims are suffering," said Jess Johnson, a sophomore who has attended Gators football games since he was five. "Games can wait."
The Tennessee versus Florida game is likely to be rescheduled for Dec. 1 and the SEC championship delayed a week, until Dec. 8. By then football rivalries might feel right again, and the Swamp will again be teeming with fired-up fans and players. At 3:30 on Saturday, at what would have been kickoff, the stadium was eerily silent in the wake of the tropical storm that had passed through the night before. Over to the west, above the site of countless kick-offs to come, the sun was beginning to break through.