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Florida Trip
My travel partners, Neil Somers and Keith Zalaski - nightime at Tampa International Airport

Florida Travelogue - Day One: "Get Me to Florida"

Monday, December 30, 2002

My Florida trip begins with a ride to the airport in a pickup truck, courtesy of assistant athletics equipment manager Bob Derynck, also known as “Bobbo.” Bob is a 27-year veteran of Amherst College, working 15 years as a custodian before moving to the equipment room. I hope to benefit from his considerable wisdom. His pickup truck is fast, if not roomy. I hold two large pieces of luggage on my lap, which drill me on the chin every time we take a bump. The ride zooms by as Bob and his weighty right foot navigate I-91 traffic as if he were playing a video game.

As planned, I learn much about Bob along the way. He’s been married 40 years and is feeling much better after his recent back surgery. This summer he and his wife will travel the country in their new camper, visiting Iowa, Michigan and Canada among other places. He’s also taken up woodworking and has made fast friends at Home Depot, which comes in handy when it comes to deals on tools.

At the airport, my chin thankfully intact, I meet up with Keith Zalaski, a freshman on the hoop team, and senior forward Neil Somers, who turn out to be my travel partners. We’re the leftovers - the rest of the team departed on this morning’s 7:00 flight, too early for my taste. We congratulate each other on gaining invaluable hours of extra sleep. Keith and Neil are both semi-local. Keith was the all-time leading scorer at Simsbury High School in nearby Simsbury, Conn., just a nine-iron from the airport. Neil is from Monson, Mass., not far from Amherst, and is an interesting story. He tried out for the team as a first-year and fell victim to the numbers game - too many good players and not enough roster spots. In the years that followed he stayed sharp by dominating intramural hoops and playing pick-up ball. This winter he noticed that, due to injuries and other circumstances, the team could possibly use an extra practice player, so he asked the staff for another shot on the hardwood. They accepted and he finally ended up with a uniform, and has accounted well for himself. In fact, Coach Hixon noted his improvement at Friday’s practice. I pass the compliment on to Neil, who’s flattered but thinks I may be pulling his leg.

Our trek through the metal detector is an adventure. After removing my laptop from its case and placing it, along with my wallet, car keys, cell phone and wristwatch (everything I own of any value) in a basket, I beep like R2D2 under the detector, and I’m shuttled off to another line where I’m practically strip-searched (well, they ask me to take my shoes off anyway). I ask Neil to keep an eye on my stuff while security personnel rifle through his carry-on. A female security officer pulls a bible from his bag and gives him an approving nod. Maybe I should try that.

We arrive at our gate a bit early. The boys munch on hot dogs and chicken wraps while I thumb through Sports Illustrated. Our conversation turns to Keith’s career on the links - he plays on Amherst’s golf team and has developed a reputation as a long hitter - and soon it’s time to board the plane, where we’re seated in different sections.

My neighbor in Row 8, Seat E - an elderly man whose mission in life is to survive the flight without wrinkling the dress shirt he carries on a plastic hanger - tells me his life story. His wife of over 40 years passed away recently and he’s headed to Florida to “start over.” He broke out his lucky necktie for the occasion, which is emblazoned with a map of Boston in brown and tan hues. We search for Fenway Park on his tie but can’t quite locate it.

Sitting through this flight is like taking a ride in a burrito. We sweat the whole way, especially me, dressed in corduroys and wool sweater. I can’t wait to throw some shorts on in Florida.

At the airport Keith, Neil and I reunite at baggage claim. It’s 9:55 p.m. and there’s no sign of our ride. Coach Flockerzi is assigned to chauffer us to the hotel and I decide to have a little fun with him. I key the Coach’s number on my cell phone and frantically explain that we’ve been at the airport for two hours and we’re growing impatient. He says, “No way, Coach Hixon said your flight wasn’t arriving until 10:00!”

I answer, “Sure, but he probably didn’t take into account the one-hour time change.”

“There’s no time change,” he says.

“Not where you are,” I snap, “but there’s one here in Tampa.”

He knows it’s a hoax. I’ll bet he can’t believe he has to room with me for a whole week.

Our hotel in Lakeland is about a 35-minute trek from the airport. We missed this afternoon’s practice and Coach Buelow fills us in. The rest of the players are dead tired from their early flight. A late practice may be in order tomorrow.

-Kevin Graber, Sports Information Director