Berlin, Hester: Reminiscing on a Rivalry
By Camron Ghorbi
Here are the ingredients:
- Two (2) in-state archrivals ranked in the top 25
- One (1) primetime early season kickoff
- 79,932 screaming fans
- One (1) quarterback who began his career on the opposing sideline
- Four (4) different kinds of touchdowns (kick return, fumble return, pass and rush)
- 23-point deficit [important: add with fewer than 20 minutes remaining]
- One (1) epic comeback
Mix it all up in a paella pan – you know, the ones you used to see in Little Havana tailgate lots just outside the Orange Bowl – and stir for 60 minutes. Smell that? It’s the perfect recipe for another installment of one of college football’s most historic rivalries.
You can still hear the emotion in the voices of both Brock Berlin and Devin Hester, who were making their OB debuts as Hurricanes on that fateful September night, as both players discuss adding their names to the chapters of Miami-Florida rivalry lore.
“To have the opportunity to play against the Florida Gators in a night game, for my first time stepping on the field, man, the jitters and bugs going through my belly,” Hester said. “Getting the opportunity to be the first person to touch the ball, I wanted to make a play.”
More on that later.
“That was definitely one of my greatest memories in college football, playing against my former teammates at Florida,” Berlin said. “It was a neat experience, my first start in the Orange Bowl, the OB, for it to be against my former team – it was pretty special.”
They come from two distinct backgrounds, Berlin and Hester. There’s Berlin, a 6-foot-1 pocket passer from Shreveport, La., who started his career in Gainesville, of all places, before transferring to Miami prior to his junior season. Then there’s Hester, who enrolled as a two-way threat and one of the nation’s top-rated recruits out of Riviera Beach and would later set records as the NFL’s pre-eminent returner.
That’s the thing about this series. Regardless of any differences in background or upbringing, the excitement in the voices of both Berlin and Hester, as they recall their roles in an iconic matchup of college football titans, is palpable.
It’s just different, and it always has been.
“As a kid, in the recruiting stage, you’d get chills just from watching those guys perform at the OB,” Hester said. “There was something special about that stadium. Every kid getting recruited by the University of Miami, when they’d go watch a game at the Orange Bowl, that stadium alone sells guys committing there.”
Berlin said he recalls the same energy coursing through the crowd as Miami mounted its unlikely comeback.
“Once we started to get in a swing and catch some momentum,” Berlin said. “That’s when you really started to feel the sideline start to get some energy. You started to feel the OB starting to rock a little bit. The next score, the next score…it was a very special moment in that stadium.” More than 15 years later, both Berlin and Hester have retained their near-mystical reputations, born in a rivalry that has seen just three matchups since that September night, two of which resulted in Miami wins.
79,932 may have been the listed attendance in the official box score, but half of Dade County claims to have been at the Orange Bowl that night – and with good reason.
Hester, after all, returned the game’s opening kickoff 97 yards on his very first touch as a Hurricane at the OB. Hester said he promised then-Miami strength coach Andreu Swasey he would score during pregame warmups, knowing the Gators would not kick towards his return mate – none other than Sean Taylor.
“Before the game, I said, ‘Listen. I’m going to take the kickoff back, and I’m going to take my helmet off going into the end zone.’
“He said, ‘You do that. But then make sure you don’t do it again after that. You can get away with it one time, but don’t do it again.'”Despite Hester’s early theatrics, Miami found itself trailing, 33-10, with fewer than five minutes remaining in the third quarter. No player executed a bigger role in the miraculous comeback than Berlin, who overcame two interceptions and a fumble that was returned for a Gators touchdown.
Berlin finished the night 27-for-41 for 340 yards in his first – and most memorable – home start as a Hurricane.
“I think for us, that first two and a half quarters were horrible for us on offense,” Berlin. “We put the defense in some really bad positions. We kept them on the field. They were tired. We weren’t playing to [a level] that we were capable of doing.”
That all changed, when Berlin’s 26-yard touchdown pass with 4:10 remaining in the third quarter ignited a stretch 28 unanswered Miami points and, ultimately, a 38-33 win. The winning touchdown was a 12-yard touchdown rush by Frank Gore with 1:51 left.
“There wasn’t one person in that huddle that didn’t think we were about to go down and score,” Berlin said of the winning drive.
The Hurricanes carry a slim lead in the all-time series, 29-26, but have won seven of the last eight matchups dating to 1986 and 11 of 15 since Howard Schnellenberger became head coach and birthed the modern era of Miami Football in 1979.
To fans of both teams, this rivalry represents more than just geographic bounds, the 350-ish miles that separate Coral Gables and Gainesville. Way more.
This is Darth Vader vs. Luke Skywalker. Spider-Man vs. Venom. Jon Snow vs. Cersei Lannister.
Good versus evil? It may sound like hyperbole, but the passion in this rivalry runs deeper than most in the Sunshine State.
100 days until Miami – Florida LVI. The countdown is on.
“It’s one of the greatest football rivalries in college football, it really is,” Berlin said. “The guys that have the opportunity, like myself, to be a part of it are truly blessed.”