Jonathan Hutner, his wife Lindsay and 18-year-old daughter Emma were in Hurricanes heaven Saturday afternoon at BankUnited Center.
They came to South Florida from Walnut Creek, Calif., for a week-long Caribbean cruise, departed the ship at noon Saturday, rented a car in Fort Lauderdale, checked into a hotel and headed straight down I-95 to Coral Gables for CanesFest.
“Other than my family,” said Jonathan, a 1994 University of Miami graduate, “this is probably the most important thing in my life.”
The Hutners bought a three-game ticket plan to see the Gators, Virginia Tech and Virginia, checked out the festivities and ended the night by watching their home-team Giants play the Marlins at Marlins Park.
Naturally, dad rooted for the Marlins.
CanesFest drew more than 4,400 fans, as athletes from several teams congregated in various areas of the facility. But it was as clear as the orange and green U’s splashed on nearly everything in sight that the reason these fans came was to meet the football players.
More than 100 players — defense on one side of the room (except for main attraction Duke Johnson) and offense on the other (including equally popular Stephen Morris) — sat at long lines of tables that stretched from one end of the arena to the other.
Coach Al Golden, offensive coordinator James Coley and defensive coordinator Mark D’Onofrio sat in another area of the complex, greeting fans and signing autographs near a display of items from the UM Sports Hall of Fame.
Autograph seekers snaked endlessly around the team, most of them patient.
“This is like one big family enjoying each other,” said Erick Rodriguez, 13, a ninth-grader at Monsignor Pace, the alma mater of UM quarterback Morris. “I can’t wait till we destroy Florida!”
Miamian Nick Mallery, 19, said he got on line at 4 p.m., just so he could be there an hour before running back Johnson arrived with the rest of the Canes to sign. He then waited another 30 minutes until he reached Johnson.
“I knew it would be worth it,” Mallery said. “I’m expecting a Heisman year for Duke.”
Sherri and Carey Wright, who have traveled to the past 23 Canes games, left their home in Tampa at 8 a.m. Saturday for the long drive. Every year Sherri picks a freshman to follow, has a jersey made with his number and rotates the jerseys for each game. This year’s freshman is Corn Elder, No. 29, a jersey she already had because safety Rayshawn Jenkins, her freshman last year, wore that jersey number before he switched to 26.
“I’m blessed,” she said.
Before CanesFest, the Wrights met with a large group of fans who call themselves CanesFam, for a tailgate near campus.
“Am I psycho? Yes,” Sherri joked about standing in line forever for autographs. “I want the players to understand we might not have a huge fan base, but the ones that are here are passionate.
“It’s quality, not quantity.”
Even former players strolled the premises, including offensive linemen K.C. Jones — the current UM Sports Hall of Fame president — and Richard Mercier.
“There’s a buzz this year,” said Mercier, who brought his 3-year-old daughter Sophia and 1-year-old son Richie. “This year we’re going to be good, whereas other years you just hoped.”