University of Florida

Gatorade’s 50th anniversary: A product of sweat equity

The thirst quencher: Dr. Robert Cade, the lead inventor of Gatorade and a professor at UF, is shown in this Nov.
24, 1999 file photo in Gainesville. He died in 2007.
The thirst quencher: Dr. Robert Cade, the lead inventor of Gatorade and a professor at UF, is shown in this Nov. 24, 1999 file photo in Gainesville. He died in 2007. AP

Steve Spurrier, never one to mince words, might have said it best: “We definitely were ahead of the curve.”

The football coach at the University of South Carolina was not talking about his current Gamecocks. Nor was he alluding to his national-championship team at the University of Florida, his 10-year pro career as a quarterback or coaching flirtations with pro football.

What captured Spurrier’s imagination during a recent interview was recalling the initial experiments in the summer of 1965 that led to the development of Gatorade, a drink that not only rewrote the rules for training athletes but also extended into other medical areas with even greater scientific implications.

Fifty years later, Gatorade is acknowledged as the largest, most successful noncarbonated beverage brand in the United States, dominating its market (a 69.2 share in 2013) and growing even as other carbonated drinks decline among health-conscious consumers.

“Gatorade is very big, very successful,” says John Sicher, the editor/publisher of Beverage Digest, the respected publication that tracks beverage industry numbers in this country.

Gatorade’s totals (632 million cases sold in 2013, almost double from 339 million in 2001) underscore its growth. Its identifiable plastic bottles with the bright orange cap are everywhere, and its orange tubs being lifted and tilted to serenade a victorious coach or athlete further its favorable image.

But Gatorade’s history is less well-known other than as perhaps something from the state of Florida because, well, that’s where alligators roam.

As part of Gatorade’s 50th anniversary celebration, its early history will be relived in an ESPN documentary, The Sweat Solution, which will air Wednesday night on the network’s web platform. A future showing on the TV network is also planned.

Eight former Florida players who were involved in the original experiments were interviewed by director David Beilinson and his production team and appear in the film. Besides Spurrier, who was the Gators’ quarterback at the time, the other players are running back Larry Smith, tight end Jim Yarbrough, wide receivers Gene Peek and Richard Trapp, and defensive players George Dean, Chip Hinton and Allen Trammell.

Nine others who also had first-hand knowledge of the early events and appear in the film include three of the four original research doctors (Dana Shires, James Free and Alex deQuesada), Gators coach Ray Graves and sports information director Norm Carlson. Mary Cade, the wife of Dr. Robert Cade, the leader of the research team; Phoebe Cade Miles, Cade’s daughter; and Julie Douglas McGriff, the daughter of ex-Gators assistant DeWayne Douglas, also appear. So does Vivian Filer, a nurse who administered the electrolyte drink to second test subjects — severely dehydrated newborn babies at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, an experiment that revolutionized medical treatment for young children.

“It’s an amazing story,” said Beilinson, whose Brooklyn, New York-based company, Rumur Inc., released the acclaimed 2011 documentary, Battle for Brooklyn, about controversial events surrounding the development of Barclays Center. Beilinson, composer Brett Epstein and field producer Jeffrey Horowitz all have Miami-area roots.

Before Gatorade, water deprivation was considered a means to build “tougher, leaner, meaner” athletes, particularly in football. Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant’s two towels soaked in cold water for two-a-day drills in broiling summer heat at Texas A&M in 1954 was immortalized in the ESPN film The Junction Boys and typified the philosophy, even if Bryant thought he needed a “boot-camp” mentality to establish priorities, his Miami-based biographer John Underwood recalled recently.

But when more than 20 Florida players showed up in a Gainesville hospital emergency room for serious dehydration problems during summer workouts in 1965, some having lost more than 20 pounds in an afternoon, “it’s a wonder we all didn’t cramp up and die,” George Dean recounts in the film.

Graves’ decision to allow Cade and his associates to experiment with freshman players (who were ineligible for varsity at the time) was a turning point. When the freshmen beat the “B” team that fall in what was then known as “The Toilet Bowl,” the origin of the “Gatorade” name (which Dr. Free explains in the film) and the revolution were under way.

Florida finished 7-4 in 1965 with a berth in the Sugar Bowl. Dramatic come-from-behind victories in 1966, especially against Florida State with Spurrier and Gatorade working in sync, staked the Gators to a 7-0 record and No.7 national ranking. A stunning 27-10 loss to Georgia, when no Gatorade showed up for the game amid rumors of truck hijackings and other mysterious innuendos, is also recounted in the film.

Spurrier won the Heisman Trophy in 1966 as the Gators completed one of their best seasons at 9-2, including a decisive win over Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl (the first major bowl victory by Florida). The legend grew when Tech coach Bobby Dodd greeted his longtime former assistant, Graves, after the game and told him, “Ray, we didn’t have Gatorade.”

Much has been written about Gatorade’s financial contributions to the University of Florida (in excess of $200million). Darren Rovell’s 2006 book First in Thirst explores many of the commercial and legal machinations that followed its successful introduction, marketing and corporate journey.

For the original so-called “guinea pigs” in the experiment, that period holds a special reverence. There are annual “Silver 60” reunions of the Graves teams, the most recent last summer in Crystal River. Many of the players (most notably Spurrier, Smith, Yarbrough and Trapp) enjoyed successful pro careers. Lawyers, scientists, coaches and business executives emerged from the group, some who credit Cade with directly influencing their life paths.

A Cade Museum Foundation was established in 2004, with its vision “to foster creativity in individuals.” Cade died in 2007, but his family has already raised $4million in a fund-raising drive to expand its diverse programs into a new 21,000-square-foot building in Gainesville (another $6.8million is still needed to break ground this spring, Phoebe Cade Miles said). The original laboratory from the Gatorade experiment still exists and was included in the film.

“We didn’t even think of marketing it to the general public,” Cade says in the film after his wife, Mary, suggested a lemony taste for what was initially a solution labeled “putrid” and “awful” by the players.

Phoebe Cade Miles understood her father’s vision. “Athletes are artists,” she recalls him saying, adding, in what has become Gatorade’s mantra, “how can the athlete get the most out of what God gave him?”

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