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On the Ground: My Jacksonville Gator Bowl experience, brought to you by Southwest Airlines

| Monday, January 2, 2023

Editor’s note: All four Observer staff members on this trip were 21.

The story of my trip to Jacksonville begins days before I even left my house. It was a cold December day, and my family was huddled around the TV watching “Glass Onion” on Netflix. At some point during the two-hour runtime, I was made aware of a small issue going on with Southwest (this small issue being them canceling over 60% of their flights).

Now, as somebody who was scheduled to fly Southwest in two days, I was understandably a little nervous after hearing this news. I went to check my flight status, and sure enough — canceled.

Learning you’re about to potentially miss your final football game as a student photographer is enough to send anybody into a spiral, but I take pride in the cool, calm and collected manner I took on to handle this information. (I sent our faculty supervisor about 20 manic texts and emails in the span of half an hour). My supervisor assured me that she’d get in contact with the travel agency and do whatever she could to get me on a flight. So naturally, I took a more hands-off approach and let her handle the situation. (I spent the next 24 hours frantically searching for other flights and asking her about the possibility of me making the 12-hour drive from Maryland to Florida).

Flash forward to about 18 hours before my original flight, and I get a call about another seat on an open United flight out of Dulles Airport. I immediately accept it and feel the weight being lifted off my shoulders. I tell the group of writers also traveling to Jacksonville, and funny enough, they pointed out that not only was I put on the same flight as Aidan Thomas, one of the writers flying out of Virginia; even funnier, my new seat was FIRST-CLASS!

As somebody who’s never flown first class, I felt extremely out of place the second I reached my seat. While we waited for the plane to take off, a flight attendant came up to my seat with a tray and asked me, “Water or sparkling wine?” Sparkling? Wine? I was like, “For free?” and the flight attendant said, “Yes. This is first class.” I cautiously accepted my sparkling wine and waited for the flight to take off. The first-class experience was nice. It felt like the attendants personally cared about you, which is an experience I’m unfamiliar with as a lifetime economy flyer. After a relaxing two-hour flight, and roughly 430 words into this article, I finally landed in Jacksonville.

Aidan and I were the first people to arrive in Jacksonville by about an hour, so we headed to the Enterprise to pick up our rental car. We picked up the other two writers when they landed, and then hit the road to our hotel. Not even 5 minutes into our trip, we were driving down a one-way street, and out of nowhere, another car came barreling towards us, clearly going the wrong way. Aidan let out a sigh reminiscent of the numerous ones I heard while he was driving us around in LA.

After arriving at our hotel, we went to eat at a local brewery. The food was good and the atmosphere was fun. Families and groups of friends all down for the game sat around us as other bowl games played on the TVs.

A local Jacksonville beach bar hosts an army of Gamecock fans the day before the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl between Notre Dame and South Carolina. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer

The next day we went to the beach, where the Irish hosted their pep rally. The first thing we saw there was a bar swarming with South Carolina fans. Not a very welcome sight for a group of four Notre Dame students. We walked down that street and were met with a flurry of “GAME!! COCK!!” chants, since we weren’t decked out in deep red and black. The pep rally itself was played by the Notre Dame Marching Band, and it was nice to hear them again after a one-month hiatus. After that, we went to an alumni and friends event at a local bar, where they played live Irish music.

The Observer | The Observer Irish fans gather to watch the pep rally hosted by the Band of the Fighting Irish and the ND Cheer Squad. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer

That night, we went to eat at a taco place (which was immaculate) before spending the night at Myth Nightclub. They offered anybody who got there before 11 p.m. free entry, so we got there around 9:45 p.m. to avoid the $10 entry fee. Shockingly, the space was empty at 9:45. Who could’ve predicted that? We left and came back later, and it was much more crowded than before, but minimal dancing and low song recognition sent most of us home pretty early.

The Observer | The Observer Irish and Gamecock fans gather for FanFest before the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl between Notre Dame and South Carolina. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer

We left for the game around noon on Friday morning and explored the tailgating scene a little bit. It wasn’t bad, but the official FanFest festivities TaxSlayer set up for the game felt a little underwhelming (definitely wasn’t as bad as the tailgating scene in Vegas though). Again, a Gamecock-heavy scene left us without much to do or look into.

The Observer | The Observer South Carolina fans swarm the stands during Notre Dame’s victory over South Carolina in the Gator Bowl Friday night. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer

The atmosphere of the game itself was great. The South Carolina fanbase definitely had a majority, and there was nothing more disheartening than watching them wave their white towels while Notre Dame was down 21-7. Fortunately, the Irish were able to rally. Being a photographer is such a great experience because I get to be on the field and soak in the energy from all sides. During the game, Leprechaun Ryan Coury stole my camera right off my shoulder and started taking pictures with it, which was pretty funny. I was definitely really happy with how my own pictures turned out, and I think I had some of my best work during this game.

Jacksonville was a great experience and I left with the realization that it’s a super underrated city. I went in with really low expectations, but I had a lot of fun at the game and through all the events surrounding it.

All in all, I’d just like to say thank you so much to Southwest Airlines for having a major breakdown the one week out of the entire year I chose to fly through their airline. Really came in clutch there.

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