The Swamp survived Irma, visit from Vols

The Swamp survived Irma, visit from Vols

September 17th, 2017 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - College

Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks celebrates with fans after he threw a 63-yard touchdown pass as time expired in the Gators' 26-20 win against Tennessee on Saturday in Gainesville, Fla.

Photo by John Raoux

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Former Tennessee punter Ron Widby never faced Florida during his three years (1964-66) as a member of the Volunteers' varsity.

But because his nephew, Will Widby, and Will's son, Seth, take one road trip a year to watch the Vols away from Neyland Stadium, Saturday afternoon found father and son readying to enter the Swamp, as the Gators' home stadium is affectionately known by fans in orange and blue.

"Early in the week we were worried it might be rescheduled," Will said of the momentary uncertainty of this year's Tennessee-Florida game due to Hurricane Irma, which struck Gainesville on Monday. "We'd heard they might move it to either Atlanta or Birmingham."

But by Tuesday morning, the game was on for its scheduled 3:30 p.m. kickoff with CBS carrying the national broadcast as planned. And by Saturday morning, it was difficult to find a trace of damage on the Florida campus, particularly near Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

"Everybody, our campus maintenance people, the police, the power companies from states as far away as Kentucky and North Carolina, everybody has done an amazing job getting us to where we are today," Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin said hours before the Gators stunned the Vols 26-20 on a last-second, 63-yard touchdown pass.

"Our campus looked a lot different on Tuesday. But we were lucky, too. The wind came in at around 60 miles an hour, and while it was around for a long time, the initial reports were that it would be much worse than that. The worst part was probably the gas shortages, and those started three or four days before it hit and didn't ease up until Thursday. A lot of pumps were either completely out or the line looked like the 1970s. It's a lot better now."

It certainly looked better to Tennessee fans Tony and Becky Cutler than they feared it would when they made the 10 1/2-hour drive from their home in Memphis, with an overnight stop in Tallahassee.

"I didn't think there would be any leaves left on the palm trees after the hurricane," she said a few hours before kickoff as she viewed palm trees that still looked perfectly normal. "Until we got close to Gainesville, everything we saw looked a lot better than expected. Once you got near Gainesville, you saw a lot of debris."

The Cutlers had expected to spend Friday night in Jacksonville rather than Tallahassee because that's where Tennessee's Pride of the Southland marching band was supposed to stay. Their two children, Chelsea (piccolo) and Zachary (mellophone), are both band members.

"(The band) was supposed to have a day at the beach in Jacksonville," Tony Cutler said. "But their hotel (in Jacksonville) was underwater and the beach was under mud, so they went to Tallahassee."

Susan Heggie drove the 90 minutes from her home in Clermont, near Orlando, to watch her son, Brett, start on the Gators' offensive line. She never doubted the game would be played in the Swamp, though she was "worried about flooding and tornadoes. Fortunately, all we had was a lot of debris."

Will Widby said his Uncle Ron still lives in Dallas, where he long starred for the Cowboys after also playing pro basketball in the American Basketball Association after earning All-America honors in both sports with the Vols. He wasn't at the Florida game, nor was Will's dad and Ron's brother Robert.

"He did come to Knoxville a year or two ago to celebrate his mom's (Louise Widby) 90th birthday," Will said.

On Saturday, Will and 10-year-old Seth were more concerned with how the current Vols would do against the Gators, as well as if they'd have to use cash or credit cards to pay for their road trip.

"We were told to bring cash in case the credit card machines were out, and scope out which gas stations seemed to have plenty of gas," Will said. "So far, we haven't had any problems, though."

At least they didn't until Tennessee's defense had a very big problem it couldn't solve on the very last play of the game.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com.


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