A cold, rainy December night in Florida. 1986. I was home from college. Should have been out carousing with friends or staying at home carousing with friends – doing those things that college co-eds do when home on holiday break. But I wasn’t. My slightly surly self was with my parents, my dad resplendently sporting a dusty yellow sports coat, at The Big Sombrero. In rain gear. All to watch the very first major bowl game played in Tampa Bay.
Boston College versus Georgia. The inaugural Hall of Fame Bowl. Tampa Bay had hit the bowl circuit.
I went to the game at the request of my dad, who was on the bowl organizing/steering committee. They wanted a good turnout for the first game and I was another semi-warm-mostly-damp body with a ticket. I was a little nonplussed by the game itself, still being in school up in Gainesville, but the halftime show artist piqued my interest. The Godfather of Soul. James Brown. Not bad, eh?
However, due to the constant rain and the Hardest Working Man in Show Business’s more pressing interest to stay inside and dry, the halftime show was cancelled. Even the fireworks were cut.
Color me disappointed. We left at halftime, the rain getting the better of us and my dad’s official duties done. I sat in the backseat of the car on the drive back over the Howard Franklin, singing "I Got You (I Feel Good)" loudly, with the emphasis on Mr. Brown’s signature "Heh!"
The bowl game’s come a long way since that first game. It’s moved to a regular spot on the New Year’s Day football schedule. Hosts the third pick of teams in the SEC and Big Ten Conferences. It’s big time. And the area does a marvelous job as host.
I have a special place in my heart for this game. I’ve been in the stands for many of them in all kinds of weather and physical conditions. I’ve sat through rain and heat and cold to watch some good, some bad, always entertaining football. And the 11 am start time also provided its own share of excitement. A morning game the day after a big night out – Happy New Year!!! – makes for some interesting states of mind and being. Ah, youth.
The Outback Bowl has become a warm and welcoming part of the Tampa Bay community. Enthusiastic fans come and make a holiday of it – good for them, great for our economy. It’s a low-stress sort of game, with teams playing for honor and for fun. It’s a nice way to both end a season and start the year. Although this year’s matchup – the Florida Gators versus the Penn State Nittany Lions – does bring a bit of a brighter spotlight with it, as it features two notable coaches, one retiring very publically and one an indisputable legend.
And as I watch the game Saturday, cheering loudly for my Gators, I’ll smile at halftime, thinking about what might have been way back when at that first game. Then I’ll probably put on some James Brown and dance around my living room, singing loudly.