GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Some of the details have been lost to time, but ask Hill Brannon about his first Florida football game, and he still winces at the outcome.
“Unfortunately they beat us,” he said.
Georgia Tech 21, Florida 7. It was the Gators’ homecoming game on Nov. 25, 1939.
Brannon made the trip from Lake City with his uncle, a diehard Gators fan. Despite the loss, the young Brannon was hooked for life.
Fast forward 76 years to early Thursday evening.
As Brannon reminisced about all his years as a regular at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium – he has been a season-ticket holder since moving back to the area in 1972 – Brannon was surprised by an unexpected knock on his door.
When he finally pulled himself up from the blue couch in what he calls his “Gators Room,” the 85-year-old Brannon felt like that kid at his first game all those decades ago.
“I didn’t know who it might be,’’ Brannon said. “I’m about to get emotional. I tell you what, that is one of the best gifts I’ve ever had.”
First-year Gators coach Jim McElwain was the surprise visitor, stopping by to say thanks to Brannon for all of his years as a season-ticket holder.
McElwain arrived bearing gifts to show his appreciation. He signed a personalized football for Brannon, gave him an autographed poster, and handed over a Gators jersey, No. 39 in honor of the year Brannon attended his first game.
“That speaks volumes about your passion,’’ McElwain said. “I just want to say thank you for your support. Those are the things that draw people here, guys like me.”
For the next several minutes, Brannon felt like the Gators’ No. 1 fan as McElwain and he talked in the living room of his condo at Tower Villas near Santa Fe College.
“I’m honored,’’ he said. “I’ve got the head ball coach here.”
Brannon recently received his four season tickets in the mail for the upcoming season, another opportunity to create Saturday memories with his two kids, daughter Leigh and son Robert. Leigh and Robert grew up in Keystone Heights and both live in the Atlanta area nowadays.
Still, they try not to miss a Florida football game with their father. Brannon’s late wife, Carolyn, passed away nearly two years ago. However, it’s easy to see how much of a Gators fan she was by looking at the framed photos in Brannon’s home.
There’s one of the Brannon family at the Superdome in New Orleans, a large scoreboard in the background: Florida 52, FSU 20.
“The first championship,’’ Brannon said. “That’s my favorite.”
Brannon grew up in Lake City, born three months before his famous classmate, former NFL player and legendary sports broadcaster Pat Summerall, who died in 2013.
He graduated high school in 1948 and enrolled at UF in ’49 following a stint in the Army. He graduated in the spring of ’54 and his love for Florida football grew during his college years.
He served as a team manager and was part of the first Florida football team to play in a bowl game when the Gators beat Tulsa, 14-13, in the 1953 Gator Bowl.
When former UF coach Doug Dickey sought to recognize the ’52 Gators on the 25-year anniversary of that bowl victory, he called upon Brannon and Charlie LaPradd, co-captain that year, to reconnect with the players and organize the event.
Brannon and LaPradd came through and the annual “Fabulous ‘50s” reunion was born.
Brannon continued to organize the event until he retired from the position in 2008. To show their appreciation for all he did over the years, UF letterwinners Perry McGriff, Joel Wahlberg and Maurice Edmonds created an annual scholarship endowment in the College of Health and Human Performance named in honor of Brannon.
McElwain paid back Brannon in his own way Thursday.
“What a great story that is,’’ McElwain said. “You spearheading that means a lot. I appreciate everything you have done for us. We are looking forward to bringing you some wins.”
Brannon choked up for a moment. Nearly overwhelmed by the unexpected gesture and surprise guest, he offered his own thanks.
“I’d like to thank the Gators for all they have done for me,’’ he said. “Coach, I surely do appreciate you coming by. I tell you what, I wish you all the success in the world.”
Shortly after McElwain departed, Brannon began to regain his composure.
Thursday nights at the Tower Villas aren’t usually so memorable.
“I’m still in shock,’’ he said. “My lord, I didn’t know we were going to have this.”
This story originally featured on The Florida Gators site. See the article here.