We arrive in Tampa on Saturday morning and zoom north up 1-75 toward Gainesville, past the Benzes and Beemers with their GOD IS A GATOR side-panel decals, past the tasteless billboards (WE BARE ALL; COUPLES WELCOME; FREE TRUCKER SHOWERS). Everyone in Florida seems to be heading to this rare and enormously hyped meeting between perennial national powers and bitter rivals.
"I've never seen it like this, ever; the stadium seats 85,000, and there's twice that many here," screams the bouncer at the Swamp, not the stadium but the bar and restaurant on University Avenue. Pity the buxom Florida coeds who encounter the shirtless Miami fan with the face paint, orange Afro wig and foam red nose outside the stadium. The recent UM graduate stops one coed after another, asking each to pose for a photo, displaying an unflattering sign just before it's snapped, and then leading his crew of guys and gals in spirited chants of "Gator whore!"
The Clown, who moonlights as Kendall resident Michael Plasencia, will shed tears of joy later, after Miami's Maurice Sikes picks off a Rex Grossman pass and scurries 97 yards for the touchdown that starts the Hurricanes on their way to a 41-16 blowout. As the game turns into a rout, the Clown is lifted by the crowd and passed upward from the front row of the raucous Miami section until he disappears into the green-and-orange abyss. When he comes up for air, he vows that Gainesville will turn into Canesville tonight: "We're gonna destroy the town, walk in big groups and talk a lot of trash."
It's not enough that the Hurricanes humble the Gators; their fans feel compelled to humiliate them, too. In the fourth quarter Miami fans loudly assail the manhood of Grossman, who looked like anything but a Heisman candidate, completing 19 of 45 passes and throwing two interceptions. The verbal assault is interrupted when cops clear a path through the Miami section for a man who looks not unlike an older, muted version of the rowdies on fraternity row. " Jeb Bush!" someone screams as the governor and First Brother reaches the bottom row and is suddenly shoulder to shoulder with the Clown. Leading with his rank breath, the Clown initiates a hug, and the governor looks as crossed-up as a senior citizen counting butterfly ballots.
To the Clown the celebrity moment is merely a sideshow. The main event is the thrill of not only reacting to but also feeling as if you're influencing the game, the crowd feeding off the players' energy and redirecting it back at the athletes. Or, as the Clown puts it, "That's the best thing in the world—the joy you feel when your team just scored, and that's all that matters."
I admit I've had that feeling, albeit in scant helpings, during my years of humiliation as a Cal fan. It's nearly midnight back in Berkeley by the time we arrive at our hotel in Tampa—check in at 2:48 a.m., request a 5:50 wake-up call—and my cellphone rings. A bunch of my friends and fellow alums are calling from a bar with news of the Golden Bears' victory over New Mexico State. One of them hands the phone to Adam Duritz. "Dude, we're 2-0!" screams the dreadlocked Counting Crows singer. "And Stanford's 0-1!"
The Broncos and Rams are a mile high as Sunday's kickoff time approaches at Invesco, and a former Denver running back, Derek Loville, screams over the rising din of the crowd, "They say baseball's America's pastime, but I think most people would agree now that football is. Six months out of the year, people are lost, they're channel surfing through life. Now they have something to focus on."
The teams charge out of opposite tunnels, and I stand in the end zone, a perceptible tingle rising through my backbone. Marshall Faulk, the best player in football, smiles broadly, reminding himself of the unfettered delight this game has brought him since he was a kid dodging sin in the New Orleans projects. Kurt Warner prays, and Ed McCaffrey hyperventilates. "For a year, I thought about this moment and how I couldn't get too emotional when I did get back," he says later. "But once I got through the tunnel, it seemed like my heart rate shot up to 250, and it took about a quarter before I could really breathe."
Up in the fifth row of section 108, Ed's decidedly unsentimental wife, Lisa, sits with the couple's four young boys and tries to compose herself. During the national anthem, the tears had come pouring out. A former high school cheerleader at Ransom Everglades near Miami, where she also lettered in four sports, Lisa has been around football all her life, but she had never felt its power like this.
Hours afterward, as Ed relived his moment of glory in the locker room, Lisa, with one-year-old son Luke in her arms and an ambivalent smile on her face, tried to make sense of it all. "I was thinking about what Ed's been through the past year, but it was bigger than that," she said. "I can't think of the injury without thinking of September 11." She put down Luke and dropped the smile. "I guess mat will always be there."