Florida Times-Union – Mark Woods – The name was there when he bought the dealership. But he was more than happy to keep it. He’s been a University of Florida football fan since he was growing up in Jacksonville in the 1960s.

You could say he’s been a fan through good times and bad times. And you could be talking about the past year alone – good times for the Gators, challenging times for Gator Chrysler.

That’s part of why this football season – and what will happen tonight at Dolphin Stadium – has been a memorable one for Gators fans.

It’s not just that Florida will play Oklahoma for college football’s national title. It’s the backdrop for the season, the days surrounding the Saturdays.

“We’re all looking for that bright light every day, especially in the car business,” Kelly said. “And we have a lot of Gator fans here. So it gives us something upbeat to talk about at work.”

There are, of course, more important things than sports. Nobody needs a reminder of that, especially after 2008. The year was a big bailout-sized reminder, crammed so full of talk about serious issues that sports seemed even more trivial.

And yet, somehow sports also seemed more cherished.

The Super Bowl produced record ratings, drawing an average of 97.5 million viewers – more than watched coverage of the presidential election night. More than 211 million Americans watched the Beijing Olympics. And on a Friday night in August, typically a tough time to attract viewers, the Games’ tape-delayed opening ceremonies had 34.2 million Americans in front of their TV sets.

Now this. The BCS game. Times might be tough, but you wouldn’t know it from the way Gators and Sooners fans gobbled up their allotted 16,000 tickets and made the trek to South Florida.

“We were coming, even if we had to eat peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and sleep on the beach,” said Jason Johnson, a 43-year-old Sooners fan from Oklahoma City.

Howard Jacobs, a Gators fan from Knoxville, Tenn., traveled to eight games this season. He was hanging out Wednesday at a cafe on South Beach, looking forward to the ninth.

“I gave up a few things,” he said of following the Gators this season. “I sold my bass boat and my truck. I gave up one toy to do something else.”

All of this probably shouldn’t come as a surprise. Go back to the Great Depression, to a time when a nation turned its lonely eyes to Joe DiMaggio, Joe Louis and Seabiscuit.

“In 1938, near the end of a decade of monumental turmoil, the year’s number-one newsmaker was not Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Hitler, or Mussolini,” Laura Hillenbrand wrote in her book, Seabiscuit: An American Legend. “The subject of the most newspaper column inches in 1938 wasn’t even a person. It was an undersized, crooked-legged racehorse named Seabiscuit.”

When Seabiscuit raced War Admiral, trains full of fans came from all over the country and an estimated 40 million people listened on the radio.

That’s not to say that Tim Tebow or Sam Bradford – the two Heisman-winning quarterbacks playing in tonight’s game – are the modern-day version of Seabiscuit. But they certainly are modern-day diversions.

Talk to a man named Gator Bray, 60. That’s his real first name. Gator. He lives in Margate, in northwest Broward County. And, yes, he’s a Gators fan.

Ask Gator about football and what it means in these times and he brings up the past. He talks about how, once upon a time, people went to the movies for a diversion. But now, he says, going to the theater is expensive. So people watch sports at home. They invite friends and family.

“That room will be packed for the game,” he said, pointing to his living room.

And that scene will be repeated in living rooms all over Florida, Oklahoma and beyond.

Take an hour drive away from Dolphin Stadium, west to the sugarcane fields near Lake Okeechobee. There are few poorer places in America than Belle Glade (population 15,000). There also are few places more passionate about football. Dozens of local players, including former Gator and current Jaguar Fred Taylor, have ended up playing in the NFL.

Talk to some kids playing a pick-up basketball game. You don’t even have to ask them if they’ll watch the game tonight. The whole town of Belle Glade will be watching. They might not be rooting for the Gators – even if receiver Deonte Thompson is from Belle Glade – but they will be watching.

“Football is big here,” Keavon Staples, 17, says in the understatement of the week.

Call up a sports psychologist who lives on the other side of Palm Beach County. Ask John Murray about where sports fit into America during tough economic times.

“We need an outlet,” he says. “People want to escape. And one way to do that is to be a fan for three hours.”

With that in mind, he doesn’t say people need to keep sports in perspective. To the contrary, he suggests that fans embrace the craziness.

Of course, doing so opens the door for a potential letdown. And if the Gators lose tonight, Murray says, it will hit fans even harder than usual – and he’s not just speaking from a detached perspective.

He went to UF – got three degrees there – and now owns a Tim Tebow jersey.

Being a fan, he says with a laugh, isn’t completely rational. But that’s OK. There’s enough reality in real life.

“And I think it’s only going to get worse,” he says.

Maybe so. But Kelly, the Gator Chrysler dealership owner, hopes that 2009 begins the same way 2008 ended. Partly because the dealership had its best month of the year in December – and partly because the Gators beat then-No. 1 Alabama to earn a spot in tonight’s game.