Crossing Hart Bridge a sight to behold for both teams

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Jon Halapio has been on hundreds of bus rides to football stadiums.

Crossing Hart Bridge a sight to behold for both teams
Michael DiRocco

Most of them are pretty boring. Players joke with each other, listen to music, nap or talk quietly. Nothing happens. Get on the bus, sit down for a while, get off the bus.

The ride to EverBank Field, however, is different.

The trip from the team hotel in Ponte Vedra Beach takes the parade of Florida’s buses over the Hart Bridge. Once the green girders come into view, players crane their necks to look out windows to get a view of the stadium and the spectacle around it.

It’s a sight like no other.

“When you cross over that bridge and all you see is red and black and orange and blue, RVs everywhere, Georgia flags, Florida flags everywhere, that’s when it really hits you it’s the Florida-Georgia game,” said Halapio, a redshirt sophomore offensive lineman for the Gators.

Players and coaches, whether they’re in their first year or fifth, still get awestruck by the rush of color, the throngs of people, the smoke from hundreds of tailgates, vendor tents and the stadium all smashed together. It’s something that never gets old, no matter how many times they see it.

“There’s no question that when you come over that bridge it charges you up,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp, who experienced it four times as a player at Georgia and is looking forward to it again for the first time as a head coach. “I get goose bumps talking about it.”

Florida receiver Frankie Hammond said it’s kind of like childbirth: You can describe it, but you can’t really understand it until you experience it.

“Oh, it makes an impression, no doubt, when you come over the hill over the bridge and see everything,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who will be making his 11th trip over the bridge. “You see the stadium, you see the water, you see the RVs and the tents and the colors, and then when you get closer you see the people. You see their faces. You see their emotion.

“It’s very easy to tell who’s happy to see you and who’s not. It’s what college football’s all about.”

By now, the players are amazed at the size of the crowd. Most on-campus stadiums don’t have that much open space around the stadium, so it’s rare for the players to see that many fans gathered in one spot.

“I remember coming over the bridge and seeing tailgates set up everywhere, people walking around, and the festivities going on,” Georgia center Ben Jones said. “I’m like, ‘Wow! It’s 12 o’clock in the afternoon. How long have they been out here doing this?’ ”

The players and coaches who have experienced it before try to prepare the first-timers. A lot of times their descriptions are met with doubt.

Until they cross the bridge.

“Coach Richt always tells everybody who hasn’t played in the game this is the closest you’ll get to the SEC championship game or national championship game scene without being in the game,” Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “Just seeing all the people tailgating, the red and the orange, and how many people that are there, it’s amazing.”

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