Greatest Home Opener Ever

The Home Opener for 2019 at The Swamp will have no pomp & circumstance in the University of Florida’s 109th season of football. And it offers no real sizzle, glamour or FCS relevance -- given the caliber of the opponent.

As a matter of fact, the scheduling of UT Martin only continued to sap the Gators’ strength of schedule, which already took a hit last week when four of their opponents were defeated – some embarrassingly by underdogs. Tennessee, Florida State, Missouri and Vanderbilt did Florida no favors.

Nonetheless, the raising of the “Work ‘Em Silly” banner in the stadium with three names – Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Steve Spurrier-Florida Field and The Swamp – represents an exciting time, fulfilling annual rites of late summer for me: The joy of another ride from Ocala to Gainesville on U.S. 301/441 along the scenic stretch of Orange Lake/McIntosh/Micanopy to Gale Lemerand Dr.

For the most part, opening games at Florida haven’t dazzled Gator fans over the years, but if I were ranking the ones with which I familiar since the 1950s, the 1969 season home opener was far and away the best. Nothing else is even remotely close.

Context is everything. These had been the semi-dark days coming off a 1968 season and a 51-0 shellacking from Georgia which, in the end, probably cost Ray Graves his job, unofficially. Although I can’t prove it, I have good reason to believe that Graves made a back-room deal to step down as coach and step up as athletic director if he was allowed to coach one more season in 1969.

They knew nothing of the inside deal, so expectations among fans were not overblown – they were trying to find some hope to hang on to. Athough we had been hearing about these impressive summer workouts by a young, strong-armed sophomore from Tampa and a Cuban wide receiver from North Miami.

I was in my press box seat that Saturday, Sept. 20 – yes they opened the season a full three weeks earlier in those days – when the so-called SuperSophs of Ray Graves suddenly exploded on the scene in grand, bombastic fashion. Gator football was about to be escalated to the front pages and national sports shows.

A single pass floating down from a September sky was about to unleash an emancipation for all Wait’ Til Next Year Gators. The phrase “Reaves to Alvarez” was going to be tattooed into the lexicon Gator football forever.

Everything about that third play of the game against No. 7 Houston and the greatness it portended would be liberating. Hoped-for-but-yet-unforeseen greatness came to an otherwise barren wasteland of unfulfilled expectations. And it was the single most dramatic Gator football play I’ve ever seen at that moment – and maybe still is -- because of what it represented.

We had been hearing stories about strapping John Reaves from Tampa Robinson and fleet Carlos Alvarez from North Miami, the seemingly endless summer of ’69 workouts under the searing Florida sun. It was said that they kept running route trees on both sides until Carlos was exhausted.

“Carlos was a tireless worker, and if he didn’t feel like it was perfect,” Reaves once told me, “we would run it again. All I was doing was taking 5-7 yard drops and throwing the ball. He was running his butt off.”

Then came the game and The Pass: Split left, 79 Streak.

Years later in an interview, both Carlos and John told me that they suspected offensive coordinator Fred Pancoast was going to go deep early in the game – Reaves pushed for The Bomb on the first play – but it was on third down that the play unfolded.

“I don’t remember if it was signaled in or sent in by somebody,” said Reaves, who died in 2017. But in his pre-snap read, he could see the defensive back was giving Alvarez a big cushion. The safety played off in a Cover One and Reaves knew “it was money.”

The sight of Alvarez blowing by Houston defenders with the ball arcing towards him brought the crowd to its feet. Carlos said he never worried about dropping the ball, but he didn’t want to get caught from behind (there was no chance of that happening – Carlos was a track star for the Pioneers.)

From his vantage point behind Carlos, big senior offensive tackle and Captain Mac Steen was trundling down field and exhorting his teammate to “Run, Carlos, run!” He as much as anybody was experiencing the rejuvenation of Gator spirits, because he had been there in the rain when. Georgia shamed the Gators 51-0. Alvarez pulled it down and sprinted into the end zone.

Florida rolled up a huge halftime lead and the news via radio and the voice of Otis Boggs unintentionally elicited fans to drive up and buy tickets during the game. What followed was a 59-34 beatdown of a team that had been picked by one magazine as the No. 1 team in the nation.

That year Florida went 9-1-1, beating SEC champion Tennessee in the Gator Bowl, 14-13, and then hiring Vols coach Doug Dickey to replace Ray Graves. Fred Pancost was hired by Georgia. For all practical purposes it was the end of Camelot. Reaves and Alvarez never reached their potential for numerous reasons.

For a day and season, thanks to the 70-yard Reaves-to-Alvarez bomb, Gator fans had a new reality, which could only be realized with the arrival of Steve Spurrier as coach in 1990. All the reason to appreciate the comments of Alvarez several years later when speaking of the placed now called Steve Spurrier-Florida Field: “We all put bricks in the stadium.” Indeed they did.

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