Former Florida Gators 1987 first-round NFL Draft pick Ricky Nattiel was in an operating room somewhere near Gainesville on Wednesday when he saw his phone flash.
It was his good buddy and former Denver Broncos teammate Melvin Bratton, a Miami Hurricanes legend who won national titles in 1983 and ‘87.
“I wish I could talk now but I can’t,’’ whispered the former UF receiver. “I’m in the OR.’’
“I got the Miami Herald on the line,’’ Bratton insisted. “She wants to know about Saturday’s UM-UF game.
Less than a minute later, Nattiel, 53, a medical device sales rep, was outside the OR and dialing up Bratton and the Herald.
“I still have Melvin’s teeth when Jarvis Williams knocked him out on the 50-yard line!” Nattiel said defiantly, referring to the 1985 UF victory in Miami that included the vicious hit that left Bratton cursing in a stupor while being carried off the field.
Added Nattiel: “Don’t forget — ‘83: Florida 28, national champions 3!”
Oh, no one will forget, at least not the thousands of Hurricanes and Gators fans preparing to tune in at 7 p.m. Saturday (ESPN) for the Camping World Kickoff season opener in Orlando, the next installment of one of the nation’s most bitter in-state college football rivalries that ended its annual run in 1987, but has been played six times since then.
Unranked Miami (7-6 in 2018), the underdog to No. 8 Florida (10-3) by a touchdown, leads the series 29-26. It began in 1938 and was suspended one year when Florida didn’t field a team in 1943 during War World II. And the 1983 game of which Nattiel spoke? The Gators dominated a redshirt freshman and future NFL quarterback named Bernie Kosar, whose Hurricanes would get the last laugh by winning the next 10 games to claim their first of five national titles, to UF’s three.
Kosar is one of about 100 former Hurricanes who will gather at Camping World Stadium — close to a couple dozen will be allowed on the sidelines — to cheer on the Canes, who will also be led by a redshirt freshman quarterback, Jarren Williams, making his first career start.
The former Canes expected include Pro Football Hall of Fame members Ray Lewis, Ed Reed, Warren Sapp and Michael Irvin; former Heisman Trophy winner Gino Torretta; and fellow greats Devin Hester, Reggie Wayne, Eddie Brown, Bryant McKinnie, Edgerrin James, Clinton Portis, Jon Vilma, current NFL end Calais Campbell and honorary UM captain Vince Wilfork.
The Gators are expected to have an equally huge contingent of former players, with at least 20 on the sideline. A UF spokesman said they include NFL first-round draft picks Brandon Spikes, Gerard Warren (more about him later), Jevon Kearse, Lawrence Wright, Fred Taylor, Reidel Anthony and honorary captain Lito Sheppard.
Among those watching in person or on TV Saturday will be a select group of former players and/or coaches who have represented both programs, the most notorious, or celebrated (depending on if you’re a Gator or Cane) being quarterback Brock Berlin.
Berlin, now 38 and a father of three in his hometown of Shreveport, Louisiana, was the 1999 Gatorade National Player of the year who in 2000 and 2001 played with the Gators and then transferred to Miami in 2002. Not only did Berlin beat the Gators as a Hurricane in ‘03 and ‘04, orchestrating in ‘03 one of the great comebacks in UM history, he also was on hand for the well-documented “Bourbon Street Brawl’’ on Dec. 27, 2000, when trash talk turned into punches just six days before the Sugar Bowl.
According to witnesses, the altercation started on Bourbon Street, where a group of Hurricanes were standing when a group of Gators came down the street in the same direction. Gator defensive end Alex Brown left with a swollen eye and 6-4, 308-pound defensive tackle Warren was handcuffed and taken to the nearby police station. Canes safety Al Blades, who died in a 2003 car crash after celebrating his 26th birthday, “just kept running off his mouth,’’ former Gators linebacker Andra Davis said after the fight. “We tried to avoid him, but you can take so [much].’’
Blades’ son, Al Blades Jr., is now a UM sophomore cornerback.
“It wasn’t a fight, it was a riot,’’ the manager of Gateway Mardi Gras Pizza, which had a window shattered, told the Herald afterward. “People could have gotten killed. They were beating on everything around the place. Throwing. Punching. Kicking...’’
Berlin, who said this week that he’s “a Hurricane through and through, and will be for life,’’ was with his Gators buddies down the street. “It was real messy there for a minute until the police got there. It was kind of like one of those old westerns, people jumping backwards and shutting doors on Bourbon Street. It was pretty wild.’’
The Canes won that Sugar Bowl 37-20.
In ‘03, the Canes were down 33-10 with 3:35 left in the third quarter, before Berlin rallied them to a 38-33 victory. After the game, Berlin sprinted in glory on the Orange Bowl turf doing the Gator chomp as the stadium, he said, shook.
“For me it was pure fun,’’ he said. “The Gators fans razzed me, so I razzed them back.’’
Berlin not only beat Florida twice, he also beat Florida State three times — which brings us to another curious UM-UF rivalry trait: It seems a lot more hostile, with the word “hate’’ often thrown around, than the intense UM-Florida State rivalry.
“We have a love-hate rivalry with Florida State,’’ Bratton, a former fullback who is now an Atlanta-based sports agent with MB5 Sports Group, said. “But those people in the middle of the state, we don’t like them at all. Back in the day we’d go to Gainesville and take the Gators’ girlfriends out. That’s how much we hated that team.’’
The animus between the Gators and Canes go way back.
Old-time Hurricanes know that former UM player and coach Walter Kichefski, who was an assistant for nearly 30 years and went 2-7 as the head coach in 1970 after Charlie Tate resigned, spawned the “Gator Hater’’ phrase. Kichefski played in that first game at Gainesville in 1938, a 19-7 UM victory, and refused to refer to Florida’s football team as anything but “The Gator.’’
Years later, the fire was fueled by the 1971 “Gator Flop” fiasco, in which UF defenders fell to their bellies so UM could score toward the end of the game, thereby giving UF enough time for quarterback John Reaves to break Jim Plunkett’s NCAA career passing mark.
UF coach Fran Curci was so enraged that he refused to shake UF coach Doug Dickey’s hand, calling it “the worst thing I’ve ever seen in football.’’
UF won 45-16.
“Let me ask you this,’’ former UM center Don Bailey Jr., now 58, said of the Gators nearly 19 years ago, “If the McCoys moved out of town, would the Hatfields stop hating them?”
Bailey snapped to heralded quarterback Jim Kelly and is a longtime member of UM football’s radio broadcast team. He played his last UM season in 1982, when Miami lost 17-14 to the Gators.
This week Bailey said that the 1982 loss to UF “up until that point of my life was the worst feeling I ever experienced.”
“I thought I had suffered heartbreak, thought I had suffered bad things, but losing to them was the worst. Looking back, the rivalry felt like it had been going on since the beginning of time. If you went to Miami you were raised that the Gator was your rival. Period. It wasn’t that we hated the players or coaches. You just hated the Gators.”
But you also sometimes loved the Gators, Bailey said.
“In all honesty my brother went to Florida, my high school coach — both of them — went to Florida, even my offensive line coach at Miami who I still talk to every month, played for the Gators. I wouldn’t be the man I man today if I didn’t have Gators in my life.
“But you still gotta beat ‘em.’’
Three of Bailey’s close friends — Gators great and former UM offensive coordinator Kim Helton, former long-time Hialeah-Miami Lakes High coach and Gators running back/guard Mike Uspensky and former Gators linebacker Tom Abdelnour all graduated UF in 1970.
Uspensky, 71, who was on scholarship but never played in a game, is “the only letterman in the history of Florida football whose last name begins with a U,’’ he said. “That’s still my distinction.”
“Of course I’m a UF fan,’’ said Uspensky, who will be in Orlando for the game. “But I’m not a stick-it-in-your face Gator. I don’t dish it out, so I don’t get it back.’’
Helton, a former center in the Florida Athletic Hall of Fame, was a longtime NFL assistant and University of Houston head coach after his stint at UM during Bailey’s career. His son Clay is the head coach of Southern Cal and son Tyson is the head coach of Western Kentucky, where Kim serves as an offensive analyst.
“I am a Florida graduate and Florida Gator lover and I am a former Miami coach and have a passionate attachment to Miami,’’ Helton said. “I coached a lot of great men and you just don’t get over that. So I have attachments to both ends of the state, which makes it a very big week for me.
“To lose this game is a bad loss. The guy that wins this game is just glad he didn’t lose it.’’
The third Gator in this trio, Abdelnour, grew up in Miami and used to sneak into the Orange Bowl with his brother in the 1950s and ‘60s to watch the Hurricanes. “I was a big fan,’’ he said, “but I was a walk-on and UM said I couldn’t walk on without paying the $1,000 a semester tuition. UF’s tuition was only $125 a semester.”
Abdelnour became so good that he was ultimately awarded a UF scholarship and worked his way to captain. He still cherishes a green-and-orange UM throw blanket that a UM captain gave him before the pregame handshakes in the center of the field in 1969, when the Gators won 35-16 in Miami.
“As much as that BS goes back and forth,’’ Abdelnour said, “we still respect each other.’’
Most would disagree — like the UM players, coaches and cheerleaders who were pelted with frozen oranges at Florida Field in 1980 toward the end of the game. “It was like a war zone,’’ former UM coach Howard Schnellenberger once said, “with hand grenades catapulting out of the 75th row and hitting innocent bystanders.’’
The Canes were already romping, but an infuriated Schnellenberger sent out his kicker for a 25-yard field goal on the final play. Canes 31, Gators 7.
The Gators had reasons to loathe the Hurricanes as well.
UM Sports Hall of Fame executive director John Routh doubled as Miami mascot Sebastian the Ibis from 1984 through 1992, which included the 1984-87 games. The 1985 game was the last UM loss before the record 58-game winning streak in the Orange Bowl, and the 1987 game, the only one UM-UF game coach Manny Diaz remembers attending, was the last game until the 2000 season’s Sugar Bowl.
Sebastian the Ibis, a well-loved mischief maker, made the end of that 1987 game fitful for UF fans and hilarious for Hurricanes when, with about 30 seconds left, he “took a giant inflatable alligator and strung it up on the goal post in the open end zone of the Orange Bowl.’’
Sebastian “punched it a couple time and then jumped on it,’’ Routh said, before the goal post started shaking and “a nearby Miami police dog lunged at the inflatable gator and began destroying it.’’
“The Miami fans went crazy,’’ Routh said. “The Gator sideline was just staring, like, ‘I can’t believe that just happened.’’’
Miami won 31-4.
Former UF athletic director Bill Arnsparger told Miami in 1988 that the Gators no longer would schedule UM after their Southeastern Conference schedule had been expanded, prompting the “Gator chickens’’ phrase by UM fans.
Fast forward to Saturday, when the Gators will have their own laughs if their more experienced team, led by the NFL-caliber arm of quarterback Feleipe Franks, wins as most prognosticators believe.
But former UM running back Alonzo Highsmith, the Cleveland Browns’ vice president of player personnel, insists the world will not end if Florida wins.
Highsmith, who won that first UM national title with Bratton and Kosar after the opening loss to the Gators, is driving to Orlando after his Browns’ preseason game Friday night at Tampa Bay.
“Understand that yes, this game is a big-moment type game in your football career,’’ Highsmith said, “but it’s not the ultimate moment. You can’t go into this game with the season-on-the-line mentality.
“I don’t think winning or losing will take either team out of the national championship picture.’’