Gator football common ground in diverse Gainesville

Thursday, August 16, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 4:08 p.m. CST, Thursday, March 7, 2013
Gainesville, Fla., is a mix of Bible Belt, alternative rock, visual artists and fraternity row. Weaving its way through each of those circles is Florida Gator football.

Editor's note: This is part of the Missourian's "SEC Road Trip" special section.

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — One hundred and fifty-five days away from football season, the gates at the University of Florida’s football stadium are open.

The grass of "The Swamp," as it’s known, is unpainted save for the faded imprint of last year's stencil. Its bare silver bleachers shine in the noon sun. Yet students at the University of Florida pound their way up its 95 steps at a grueling pace.

Freshman Dante Frisiello heaves and claps as he reaches the top of the stadium, finishing his workout the way his fellow students have done all morning.

Doubled over and catching his breath on the highest step, he looks down on the empty field and pictures the Florida Gators charging into view to the tune of AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck.” He feels the wall of sound that hits him as Florida alumni scream “Blue!” in echo of the student section’s cries of “Orange!”

“Every time I come here, I imagine a game is being played,” he says. “And it’s magical.”

Eight weeks a year, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, as it’s properly known, hosts the roar of a crowd that rivals the size of Gainesville’s population. The rest of the year, the stadium stays open, sitting in the heart of campus. Like the team it's home to, it's a small piece of common ground in a diverse and otherwise disjointed city. Love them or hate them, everyone in Gainesville deals with the Gators.

Lacking unity

There’s a little bit of everything at the University of Florida, and none of it is hard to find. A stroll through Turlington Plaza in the heart of campus provides a glimpse of impromptu foursquare games, political activists, club promoters and preachers of the nigh end.

Like much of the campus, Turlington Plaza is built of red brick and draped in Spanish moss — an eerie, flimsy plant that hangs from trees found in southeastern states. During school hours, Turlington Plaza sees more foot traffic than the gates of Disney World.

The University of Florida, which didn’t admit an African-American student until 1962, is now just outside the top 50 most diverse universities in the country — largely the result of decades long, court-ordered integration programs. The university boasts more International Baccalaureate students than any other university and ranks in the top five for degrees awarded to African-Americans and Hispanics.

Nearby at the expansive Plaza of the Americas, Krishnas serve up the vegetarian and vegan lunch that has become famous at the university.

But for all the different groups represented, Florida’s campus remains quietly segregated.

“If you look at Turlington, you see black people here, Hispanics there, Filipinos there, and the different groups all keep to themselves,” says Erinn Afflick, a senior biology major at the University of Florida, who is African-American. A section of Turlington plaza known as “The Set” has become the main gathering place for many African-American organizations on campus, he says.

“People choose to segregate themselves. This was something my cousin, a former graduate of UF, told me a few years ago and it's pretty evident. I wouldn't say that this is for every single person, but for the majority.”

Afflick points out that many university organizations are trying to bridge the gap between groups on campus, but “that is an effort to bring unity, versus unity that naturally flows.”

Football isn’t an equalizer on Florida’s campus, but it does create the more natural unity students such as Afflick are seeking.

Florida’s athletic programs have dominated the modern college sports scene. Its football team is the winningest in NCAA Division I since 1990. Under coach Urban Meyer, now at Ohio State, the Gators won national titles in 2006 and 2008. Three bronze statues outside Ben Hill Griffin stadium immortalize the Gators’ Heisman trophy winners: Tim Tebow, Danny Wuerffel and Steve Spurrier, who returned to Florida as a coach and helmed its first-ever national champion team in 1996. Wuerffel quarterbacked that 1996 team.

Florida’s men's basketball team has two national championships in the past decade, and its softball, baseball and gymnastics teams are ranked third, second and first in the country, respectively. All that success has forged an attitude in Gator fans they know isn’t appreciated elsewhere.

Before Dante Frisiello enrolled at the University of Florida and spent his spare time in Ben Hill Griffin stadium, the Satellite Beach, Fla., native didn’t understand Gator fans, either.

“If you’re not a Gator fan, you hate the Gators because we’re so up front about who we are,” he says. “It comes across as arrogance, but it’s not arrogance. We’re just very proud of what we do.”

Gator pride, Gainesville scenes

Few places flaunt that pride better than Midtown, a section of Gainesville that sits across from the stadium and neighbors a row of fraternities on University Avenue, where students, dressed in Gator orange and blue, play drinking games on the front lawn of houses. Midtown is where you’ll find restaurants such as The Swamp and bars like the Salty Dog Saloon and Grog, all of which are jam-packed with students. In Midtown, even the churches — of which there are no shortage in Gainesville — are plastered with Gator signs.

“For Greeks it's an extension of themselves,” Ryan Butler, a senior journalism student at Florida and a member of Delta Chi fraternity, says about football. “The Gators’ success becomes part of their success. Greeks want the Gators to win because they then feel better about themselves — by UF winning, so does the Greek.”

Travel a little more than a mile east on University Avenue, to downtown Gainesville, and the scene changes. Buskers occupy every third or fourth street corner, filling the air with a mixture of spoken word, jazz and acoustic guitar. A painter has erected an easel and blank canvas, and has launched into a new project in the middle of downtown. Joining him is a group of musicians and various folks snared by the moment — they dance, they hula hoop and they watch the artists at work. Photographers have scattered their portfolios on the steps of the Hippodrome Theatre, a converted post office that hosts film screenings, art galleries, plays and 10 different festivals each year.

In their own right, both scenes are equally charming and equally Gainesville. The city, like the university that put it on the map, has a group for everything. But those groups are connected by little beyond geography and football.

“I'd say that the different groups mix like oil and water,” Butler says.

T.C. Hinson, a 23-year-old Gainesville native and aspiring graphic artist, works at the Pita Pit in Midtown — a scene that doesn’t fit her. She’s been approached in the Salty Dog Saloon just a few doors down and asked what she was doing there, she says.

“Midtown is just frat guys, everyone knows you don’t go midtown unless you want to be around that group,” Hinson says. “And you don’t go downtown unless you want to be around hipsters, you want to be around artsy people.”

Between stints of guitar strumming on the porch, Hinson and roommate Jeff Jones recall all the discrete circles that endear Gainesville to them, from the art community to the gay scene to the influence of the Bible Belt.

Jones, who says he is very much a product of Gainesville, was home-schooled and raised in the church his parents helped found, the Family Church of Gainesville, where “before we talked about the Bible we would talk about football,” he says. But neither the football nor the church seemed to fit him.

He dropped out of the University of Florida last year after he came out as gay, a traumatic experience he says caused a rift between him and his parents. He’s worked six different restaurant jobs in the past year to try to pay off a debt to his parents.

Jones found his own niche as a vocal leader in the gay community, a musician and variety-show host at local venues, putting both his theater and voice training to use. He’s a staple at many of his favorite clubs, so much so that he can’t remember the last time he’s paid for a cover charge or a drink.

“But at the same time,” he says, “there are certain circles — I can’t show my face at my old church. I can’t show my face where I went to high school. I can’t affiliate with a lot of people I knew growing up.”

Growing up, Jones was dragged to Gator games. His parents never missed an event. Perhaps that’s why he loses no love on them now, he says. Yet neither he nor Hinson would have a place to live or money for food without their service industry jobs in Midtown, and they know it. And both are well aware neither of those jobs would exist if not for Gator football.

“You can’t escape the Gators in Gainesville,” Jones says. “The Gators is the one thing that everyone has in common whether they like it or not.”

It’s one thing Gainesville’s wealthy neighborhoods, the University of Florida campus, Midtown and downtown all have in common with the area east of downtown, where 65 percent of the population lives on an income below the city average.

That’s where 67-year-old Gator fan Joe Williams waits beneath his blue canopy, next to a tarp-covered fishing boat, and watches a torrential rain bounce off the street.

It hasn’t rained like this in a long, long time Williams says. He’s lived in Gainesville his whole life. He’s seen it change from a town with racial segregation by policy to a city with covert economic, racial and cultural divides by default.

Football has been a constant through it all. Williams began following the Gators when he was a produce manager at Winn-Dixie, and he and his buddies used to meet in a back room of the grocery before work and place bets on the Gators’ games. He still goes to games from time to time, most recently last year’s homecoming game.

“It’s a blast, going down there and seeing all the people,” Williams says. “You’re all for the Gators. It feels like everyone is together.”

The rain continues, off and on, for hours. The streets flood and the town reverts into itself, a ghost of the vibrant night before.

South of campus, on a bluff overlooking the swampy expanse of Lake Alice, a select few are out enjoying a break in the storm, prowling the jungled trails and scenic bluffs that outline the lake. Alumni often get married there. It’s a beautiful last stop in Gainesville.

It’s also a place where people can see alligators. The gators have us surrounded here. One, roughly 4 feet long, is lounging on a rock at right, another, closer to 6 feet, is sprawled across the bank at left. Neither is more than 6 feet away. At least three more are lurking in the water.

As the rain starts up again and the joggers and students who frequent Lake Alice have left, only the travelers are left, too entranced by the reptiles to turn away. We came from different parts of the world. We don’t speak the same language. Greetings are exchanged, but little is understood as we snap photos and watch the water get riddled with raindrops.

We know only two things about each other.

The gators drew us here. And they’re making it hard to leave.

Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.

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