I try with the NFL, I really do. I own season tickets to the Redskins, and I've done my best to try to understand what Sonny is talking about. But my internal football clock was programmed in the Florida Panhandle. It was set for Friday nights at the high school stadium, and it continued all Saturday afternoon, when I would watch whatever game ABC gave us and listen to the Florida Gators on the radio. Where I came from, Sundays meant church, family dinner, highlight shows from yesterday's games in Tuscaloosa and Auburn and Gainesville, and then church again.

The Gators were the religion for my big, extended family. As soon as I unwrapped the little-kid football uniform I got for my sixth birthday, my older cousin Gary wrote "Libertore 14" with white shoe polish on the shoulder pads, in honor of Larry Libertore, the quarterback who led UF to a Gator Bowl victory over Baylor in 1960. We lived and died with each game, and on rare, precious occasions we made the eight-hour drive to Florida Field to see that year's batch of heroes.

Heroes to us, at least. The truth is, the occasional bowl victory, and Steve Spurrier's Heisman Trophy, were what amounted to Gator Glory in those days. No national championships -- heck, not even any SEC championships. Our sad lot was the last-second loss to Georgia, the ambush at Auburn, the "moral victory" against Alabama. The Orange and Blue's motto was "Wait Till Next Year."

There is something romantic and spine-stiffening about loving a team that never quite makes it to the top. It is the definition of faith. For some reason, it creates optimists instead of pessimists. And the Gator Nation was rewarded for its patience during the 1990s, when the sainted Spurrier returned to be Head Ball Coach. We won six SEC championships during his 12-year reign. And on Jan. 2, 1997, the Gators trounced arch-rival Florida State, 52-20, in the Sugar Bowl to win the national championship.

I watched this unbelievable feat in my family room with two fellow disciples. When the game reached the four-minute mark, and it was clear to us that not even the Gators could blow such a lead, we broke out the good bourbon and my buddy David Finkel turned to me with a question I'd never in my life considered:

"Now what?"

It took a few minutes for the answer to become clear: Next year.

The author is The Post's metropolitan political editor.