In a joke at the first Florida Man Games

The idea came to Pete Melfi, a radio personality turned podcaster in St. Augustine, Fla., last year after hosting the “laziest race in the history of running,” a 0.5 kilometer beer run, and participants had a grand old time.

Wouldn’t it be fun, Mr. Melfi thought, to hold another race, this time with a big after-party? And what if the subject was nothing more than the meme that spawned thousands of headlines about his home state: the man from Florida?

His wild idea turned into a day-long competition with a series of crazy events: the mullet competition. “Duel in the mud” with pool noodles. An “evade arrest” obstacle course, with real sheriff’s deputies chasing the contestants. (But, to be clear, there were no arrests in the race. The handcuffs came from a sex toy store.)

“We understand that Florida is weird,” Mr. Melfi said. “We accept that.”

If the rest of the country — hell, the rest of the world — is going to make Florida the bottom line, then those who call it home might be in on the joke. Don’t think about it.

But Florida Man has been a cultural phenomenon for so long that some in Florida and beyond have spent a lot of time thinking about what it means, how to challenge it, and what it says about the state’s identity. Maybe the games in St. Augustine could also be an excuse to explore the evolution of memes—and Florida itself.

“For me, Florida has always been such an important barometer of where the nation is going,” said Julio Capó Jr., a historian at Florida International University in Miami, who wrote that observing the state and its people “in caricature form” is a centuries-old habit. “Yet there are very few attempts to take the state seriously – to understand its past, its present, and even less its future.”

At the height of the meme’s popularity in the mid-to-late 2010s, everyone seemed to be poking fun at the strange and unfortunate stories pulled from the state’s endless trove of police reports and tapes. The @_FloridaMan Twitter account, now known as X, has attracted hundreds of thousands of followers. The Birthday Challenge encouraged people to enter their date of birth and “Florida Man” to see what bizarre headline published on their birthday appeared.

But questions soon arose about pushing ordinary people into the harsh public eye, especially if they suffer from addiction, mental illness or poverty. Other states have also had strange incidents – if fewer involving alligators. Why choose Florida?

Author Lauren Groff, who moved to the state 18 years ago, recalled another Florida meme, in which someone sees the state hanging from a map.

“It’s a huge and incredibly complex country that has been reduced to something profoundly stupid,” she said.

The prevailing theory about how Florida Man became popular goes like this: the absurdity of the state’s 2000 presidential recount turned Florida into a late-night joke. Strong state public records laws have made it easy for everyone to obtain police reports. The Internet and social networks caused a sensation.

But Ira P. Robbins, a law professor at American University, found in 2021 that other states had as broad or broader access to public records than Florida. “Why don’t we have a New Mexico Man or a New York Man or a Massachusetts Man?” he said in an interview.

Craig Pittman, author of “Oh, Florida! How America’s Weirdest State Affects the Rest of the Country,” he noted, noting that Florida has been producing strange news since before it became a state in 1845. “When we were a territory, we were known as an outlaw’s paradise,” he said. “Half the people were scalawags and robbers, and the other half were their penniless victims.”

But now many newspapers have stopped publishing the photos. The owner of the account, @_FloridaMan, pulled it in 2019, citing discomfort with making fun of people’s behavior on what is often one of the worst days of their lives. In his newsletter that highlights unusual stories from around the country, Mr. Pittman does not include anything about Floridians who are involuntarily committed to psychiatric care or who are apparently suffering from addiction.

However, none of this meant the end of Florida Man. The phrase entered the political lexicon, transforming from a generic term for a non-public figure — a Florida man like John Doe — to a stand-in for former President Donald J. Trump. “A man from Florida publishes,” the New York Post reported in 2022, when Mr. Trump announced his re-election campaign.

While that particular Florida man lives in a gilded Palm Beach estate, regular Floridians face real struggles that outsiders, including some who have flocked to the state in recent years, may not understand, said Tyler Gillespie, a writer from St. Their attitude is, “We can do whatever we want and we can leave,” he said of the newcomers.

“My family is here, so I’m pretty rooted,” said Mr. Gillespie. “But there’s hardly anywhere affordable to live.”

As incongruous as it may seem, St. Augustine, where Mr. Melfi lives and hosted the Florida Men’s Games, is the state’s oldest continuously inhabited city and a place steeped in history.

The first-ever Florida Man Games were held at the historic district fairgrounds, and tickets were $55 each on Saturday. Sponsored by a Florida apparel company and others, including an auto dealership and a gym, the contest awarded $5,000 to one winning team, based on its performance in the day’s events.

Hundreds of people came to enjoy the relaxed Florida of it all. Overalls without a shirt. “Merica” ​​hats. Mullets! They didn’t think too much – and neither did this journalist, when she settled down to watch.

The North Tampa team, the Red Eyed Gator Huggers, brought a mascot: a five-year-old green iguana named Mikey. “What’s more Florida than a stinky iguana?” said CJ Mays, Mikey’s owner, as she patted his back.

The contestants knocked down a huge pile of pork with their bare hands. “Everything I do is for Florida and America!” Dylan Mullaney of Jacksonville exclaimed as he consumed.

Women dressed in pinup style competed for the title of “Florida Ma’am”, including one sporting a beer can as a hair roller. Organizers were forced to improvise for the mud duel after someone “mowed down” the plastic pool in which it was to take place, Mr Melfi said.

“I heard they have New York plates on the car,” he joked about whoever was responsible.

The pranks were created for Instagram and TikTok, the platforms that primarily spread the word about the event. the emcee was a TikTok personality. One of the teams had a guy famous for holding a large American flag while the hurricane was blowing.

Among the competitors — all male, mostly white — was Joshua Ryan, a 37-year-old from Citrus County, whose three-man team was named the Cooter Commandos, after the local river turtle. Each member of the team created the ultimate persona to promote the team on social media. Mr. Ryan was Captain Cooter, “based on early ’90s wrestling, WWE, a little ‘Macho Man’ Randy Savage,” he said. To compete, he wore a flashy tank top and cutouts.

“You have to rely on the joke and the absurdity of it,” he said.

Mr. Ryan’s Florida, he said, involved growing up riding bikes and being in nature. One of his team members was his friend since first grade.

In recent years, a lot of new people have moved into Citrus County, on the state’s west central coast, he said, causing resentment among locals who “don’t want Northerners to move there — they want things to stay the way they are.”

“We’re, like, just getting our first Chick-fil-A and Target and Starbucks,” he said.

Mandy Millam, 37, whose husband was also one of the Cooters, said it’s still too often misunderstood by people outside the state.

“Florida has a wild heart,” she said. “We have a wild nature. But people see us as abandoned. We don’t cross that line as much as people think we do.”

She added: “I love this place so much.”

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