GAINESVILLE | Florida football fans, many eager to see Kurt Roper’s new offensive scheme, got an impressive show all right.
But it came from Mother Nature, not football.
A series of serious thunderstorms forced the first postponement of a Gators game since the 2004 opener against Middle Tennessee State. No makeup date was announced by Florida, but both teams have Oct. 25 listed as a bye week.
The season-opening game between the Gators and Idaho was delayed by 2 hours, 48 minutes. Florida’s Valdez Showers -- a fitting name for the only player to touch the ball -- finally got a chance to return the opening kickoff 64 yards to the Vandals’ 14 yard line when lightning was detected close to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.
Ten seconds into the delayed season, teams were headed back to the locker room by more rain and lightning. At 10:40 p.m., the game was called off for “unsafe field conditions.”
The entire day was a display of some of the state’s most extreme weather conditions.
As fans arrived at Florida Field for the season opener against Idaho, they were greeted by sweltering 97-degree temperatures with a 105-degree heat index.
A half hour before kickoff, many were scrambling for cover with lightning turning the late summer skyline into a striking, but dangerous, laser show.
Then it got worse.
Massive storms pushed the start of the game to 9:48 p.m. During the delays, fans were encouraged to go next door to the O’Connell Center to escape the danger. Some heeded the warnings; others didn’t.
Even as lightning sparked collective “oohs” and “aaws,” the student body section eventually broke into an “orange-blue” chant.
The Southeastern Conference has a policy for inclement weather before the game that calls for at least a 44-minute delay if lightning is detected within eight miles of the stadium. With every bolt, the public address announcer kept pushing back the kickoff. By 9 p.m., the constant delays sounded more like a broken record.
The reason for the 44-minute period is for a 30-minute break clear of local lightning strikes, a 10-minute warm up for the players and a four-minute pre-game show.
The stadium video board displayed a weather map throughout the delay. It was filled with tie-die colors of green, orange, red, purple and yellow that were more reminiscent of a Grateful Dead t-shirt.
One of the biggest flashes of lightning came at 8:10 p.m. near the northeast corner of the stadium. Minutes later the rain began to subside.
That’s when some of the drenched fans started a new chant, “Let’s play football! Let’s play football!”
But the calm didn’t last long. An even-more daunting line of storms moved east-to-west in another version of Mother Nature’s “Fire and Rain.”
The Gators didn’t give up. A local flash of lightning at 8:37 created yet another delay.
Then the heavy rain returned at 8:48. Along with more lightning.
A very loud crack of lightning and an instantaneous boom of thunder came exactly at 9 p.m.
By then only a handful were still waiting it out.
According to Weather.com, it rained 1.75 inches at the stadium Saturday.
Driving rain turned Florida Field into an actual swamp with ankle-deep puddles on the playing field. For some fans, it was a relief compared to the oppressive heat earlier in the afternoon.
The Gators were prepared for the heat. They handed out fans and there were several city buses parked around the stadium so fans could sit in air conditioning if they were overcome by the heat.
Nothing could prepare either team for the thunderstorms.
The delays stirred memories of the last lightning delay at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. It came in the season-opener Sept. 1, 2007, against Western Kentucky. There was a 62-minute delay in the game for bad weather, and then both teams and game officials agreed to call off the final 8:23 with Florida ahead, 49-3.
What most fans remember of that game, however, was that it was Tim Tebow’s debut as the Gators’ starting quarterback.
The last time a Florida game was postponed was in 2004 when the Gators were scheduled to open against Middle Tennessee State at home. Hurricane Frances prompted that game to be moved to Oct. 16. Florida eventually won 52-16.