Gainesville, FL – 1969
Nine years after the ferry from Havana to Key West, everything changed in about four seconds on the third play of Florida’s game against number one ranked Houston.
The Florida offense had run the ball twice, smashing into the line for a few yards. On third down, my dad lined up wide, hesitated for half a step, then broke past the defense toward the open field along the west sideline. The crowd rose to its feet as the football spun through the sky, but my dad only saw the stitched seams and leather grain racing toward him, the spiraling ball riding a sea of air over forty yards of grass. The crowd’s roar faded into silence as the world beyond the ball fell away.
There was nothing but the ball and his outstretched hands reaching for it, closing around it. He was alone, even among all those people, fifty-five thousand of them, screaming at him. But he couldn’t hear them, there was only the sound of his cleats ripping across grass and air rushing in and out of his lungs. His feet never stopped moving, barely touching the ground as the ball fell from the sky and he charged toward the goal line.
“Run,” he thought. “Don’t get caught. Run!”
The crowd loomed up again in total chaos as he crossed into the end zone, a frenzy of raised arms and orange and blue pompoms appearing out of nothing. Cheers returned to the world, popping through the silence in a full, deafening roar, as if someone flipped the switch on a sound system.
He stood for a moment, alone in a sea of people, before the flood of his teammates hit him. None of them quite believed what had happened.
Radios across central Florida sparked to life. A voice broke through the static and dragged good old boys out of their seats as if they were in the stands watching with their own eyes.
“Reaves to Alvarez!” the radios screamed. “Reaves to Alvarez!”
Houston never saw it coming and had no answers. Gator fans were still buying tickets at halftime just to say they’d been there.
“Is this seat taken?” the man asked me.
“No,” I said.
He sat down, fully one-and-a-half times bigger than the seat. The two of us squished together like sardines in a can as the Greyhound rolled east.
“I’ve got to tell you one thing,” the man said. “I always get a little car sick.”
“Only nine more hours on this bus,” I thought.