A Plymouth Champ, Bernie Kosar, Noriyuki Morita, Kerwin Bell and thunderous cheers in a mall highlight one of the most memorable sports days of my life.
Every time the University of Florida plays the University of Miami, my mind returns to the end zone seats at Tampa Stadium and relives the awe as a little-known quarterback making his first start almost upended the defending national champions.
That my two UF friends — Collist and Big Mike — joined me to witness the Sept. 1, 1984, game is almost as miraculous as Bell’s rise to prominence in his first collegiate game.
It started the night before with a question that ignites many a college student’s adventure: What are we doing tomorrow? In an inexplicable development, we actually had enough cash to invest in something beyond driving to Dairy Queen in Alachua or going dorm hopping and foraging for food from culinary female chefs in the lounges.
“Let’s go to Tampa for the game.”
Had we ever been to Tampa? No. Did we have tickets for the game? No. Did we have enough money for a hotel? No.
Did we care? No.
All we knew is that injuries pressed a true freshman from the tiny town of Mayo into the starting quarterback role, and Miami entered the season after an epic 31-30 Orange Bowl victory over Nebraska that gave the Hurricanes their first national title in 1983.
Collist grew up in Gainesville and always cheered for the Gators. Big Mike, a Miami native, wanted nothing more than to see Florida upset the ’Canes. Plus, he had a friendly wager on the game with a guy back home.
So, it was settled.
We woke up with little sleep and left early, eager to find someone selling tickets. I remember driving across the Kennedy Boulevard Bridge, looking at the UT minarets for the first time and feeling good about the day.
Somehow — you know a 35-year memory can be a little foggy — we ended up at the Marriott on West Shore and found some Miami fans who sold us three tickets. Great, right? Just one problem. It was 11 a.m. and kickoff wasn’t until 7:30 for the first night college football game televised live on ESPN.
So, we went to every mall in Tampa. It didn’t take as long as you might imagine. Tired and sleepy, we came up with the idea of buying tickets to a movie and napping in the theater. One problem: We picked the wrong movie.
The Karate Kid sounded boring but of course, Daniel and Mr. Miyagi had us on the edge of our seats. Wax on, wax off.
After the movie, still a bit bleary eyed, we parked at Tampa Bay Center next to the stadium, got pizza somewhere in there and watched as Gator Nation took over the mall. “Orange!” “Blue!” The cheers echoed on both floors.
In hindsight, the wisdom dispensed by Mr. Miyagi proved applicable to the challenge facing Bell and the Gators.
“You trust the quality of what you know, not quantity.”
Bell found his quality in the closing minutes of the game, completing a 5-yard scoring pass to Frankie Neal with 41 seconds left to give the Gators a 20-19 lead. Kosar brought Miami right back and threw a touchdown to Eddie Brown to put the ’Canes up 26-20 with six seconds remaining.
Big Mike didn’t care. He had Florida plus seven points in that bet he had made. He was good. Until his high school classmate, defensive back Tolbert Bain, returned a Bell pass for a touchdown as time expired and a 32-20 Miami victory.
Mike stood in the stands with his mouth agape. We literally had to drag him out of Tampa Stadium. I started yelling at Miami fans that it didn’t matter because we could beat them in golf.
They just smiled.
I laughed, too, because I knew Florida didn’t wilt despite the odds.
Said Miyagi: “It’s okay to lose to opponent. It’s never okay to lose to fear.”
I’ll always appreciate that the Gators, and especially Bell, showed no fear.
The Plymouth Champ, my beloved first car, took us home, and today I crave the spontaneity that delivered that day. It seems like I have too many responsibilities, too many obligations, too much work to just take off on a random Saturday.
But maybe I’ve still got one more trip in me. After all, “Balance is key. Balance good, karate good.”
That’s all I’m saying.