Thousands of Panthers ‘invade the bay’ to support FIU football

By Alexandra Pecharich, Clara-Meretan Kiah and Sissi Garland

Regardless of the game’s final outcome, a trip to the Gasparilla Bowl allowed Panther Nation to show its FIU pride on the road and revel in a great season. It also made for a great excuse to enjoy the company of other blue-and-gold groupies and reconnect with old friends.

More than 2,000 Panthers – students, alumni, staff, family and community supporters – made their way to St. Petersburg, Fla., from Miami and across the Southeast to cheer for the Panthers in FIU’s first bowl appearance since 2011 (and third bowl in the history of the program).

Fans stand and cheer as FIU scores for the first time of the game.

A caravan of 10 buses from MMC and another from BBC made the 250-mile journey to the west coast of Florida.

Nowhere did the camaraderie and pure joy shine greater than at the pre-game tailgate. With hundreds of diehards packed into Ferg’s Sports Bar, FIU fans could hardly contain their excitement.

The DJ bumped reggaeton and FIU favorites like Ne-Yo’s “Let’s Go,” an anthem oft-heard at commencement ceremonies.

Girls decked themselves out in blue lipstick and glitter; while some guys showed up with their beards painted blue. Kids’ faces were painted to look like Roary the Panther.

The tailgate was briefly invaded by three Temple fans wearing crowns, regal red capes and jerseys bearing the name “Temperor” – but, in true Panther spirit, FIU showed them how to party Miami-style.

Gone bowling

The FIU Marching Band, bringing the Miami spirit to St. Pete wearing guayaberas, kicked off the night at Tropicana Field, followed by a performance by the Golden Dazzlers. The band would continue to rev the crowd from the stands with tunes like “The Imperial March” from Star Wars and “Uptown Funk” by Bruno Mars.

No. 47 Sage Lewis’ supporters: Donita Thurman, 13, Zaimah Johnson, 5, and Fran Johnson

When the team stormed the field minutes later, it marked a special moment for FIU mom Fran Johnson. Her son, sophomore No. 47 Sage Lewis, started playing contact football at age 5 with with the Optimist Club at Scott Lake Park in Miami Gardens and made his first college bowl appearance tonight.

“It’s a special moment to share with my son, to actually watch him and his team being acknowledged. It’s priceless. No dollar amount can be placed on sharing the experience.” Johnson says her son has felt the love from FIU “even from the first day of attending,” including tutoring and mentoring and life advice from the coaches. She brought along another four members of the family to cheer on Lewis, including Grandma.

Sixty-three-year-old undergraduate Mindy Spitzer, a Women’s Studies major, rode up in a bus from BBC because, as she put it, “I bleed blue and gold. I am so proud to be a Panther. Thank you, Butch Davis.”

Fans took turns taking selfies with a life-size balloon animal version of Roary. And with only three nights left until Christmas, many sported Santa hats in the stands.

Alumnus Eddie Hondal ’88, MA ’00, who was a driving force in securing football at FIU more than 15 years ago, appreciated FIU’s bowl appearance after six lean years. “This is continuing to build a football program that can make us all proud,” he said, attributing much of the success to Coach Butch Davis. And despite FIU’s being down by seven at half time – and still hopeful for a turnaround – Hondal was thrilled to be in the company of his fellow Panthers as they cheered the team on. “It’s been a great time. I’m very proud.”

Even as the final seconds ticked down on the clock and victory eluded FIU, fans said they wouldn’t have missed the experience.

FIU fans bite their nails as a crucial call is determined in the first half.

Support on the home front

Panthers also gathered at local sports bars in Miami, Broward, Orlando, D.C. and New York to watch their team fight it out against the Temple Owls.


Maria Lorenzo, who works at FIU Foundation, coordinated with her whole department to savor the moment at GameTime at Sunset Place in Miami.

Mishka Ahmad ’17, who just graduated with a master’s in international intercultural education last weekend, was there with a group of friends. “I couldn’t make it to the game because I worked today, but this is a big deal,” she said. “And I didn’t want to miss it.”

Carlos Salvat ’98 couldn’t make the trip to St. Pete because he attended his kids’ Christmas party earlier in the day, but was not going to miss the opportunity to support his Panthers. “This is the place to be,” he said. “It’s amazing to see them at the same bowl. We didn’t get the outcome we wanted but it’s always a great idea to see our guys on prime time!”