There are maybe a handful of musicians who exist outside of their time. Their music is too personal to the audience to fit any particular genre — the music belongs just to you. College Gameday proved on Saturday that Tom Petty is one of those artists.
The show was broadcasting from University Park, Penn., on Saturday for the No. 10 Penn State “White Out Game” against No. 22 Auburn. But the show took a detour down South to visit The Swamp in Gainesville, Florida — the home of the Florida Gators and birthplace of Tom Petty.
Local legend says he worked as a groundskeeper at the University of Florida as he nurtured his dreams of stardom. Though Petty never attended UF, he’s a staple of the school all the same.
And his music his song “I Won’t Back Down” is now a tradition at UF football games. Players on the field join in and even Florida coaches will sing along with the crowd.
The school played it for the first time in 2017 just after Tom Petty died unexpectedly. The Gators wanted to honor the hometown hero by kicking off the fourth quarter with the song. It’s been a tradition ever since.
The school wasn’t planning on that, but Petty’s song is so immediately recognizable and personal that the more than 88,000 fans began singing along unprompted, The Florida Times-Union wrote at the time.
And the song seems tailor-made for a jock-rock anthem. “You can stand me up at the gates of hell, but I won’t back down,” could have been written by a college coach trying to inspire his team. But that’s the beauty of a great songwriter like Tom Petty. Because as inspiring as “I Won’t Back Down” is, the song has a tragic backstory.
Tom Petty Wrote ‘I Won’t Back Down’ After Near-Death Experience
One morning in 1987, Tom Petty, his wife, and their 5-year-old daughter were eating breakfast when they smelled smoke. Their Encino, California home was on fire. Petty and his family escaped the flames without injury, but a housekeeper was burned in the blaze, local news reports at the time said.
Tom Petty lost everything in the fire. Only his basement recording studio survived. But worse, someone intentionally set the blaze, and police never caught the arsonist.
They rebuilt the house, but the fire rattled Petty. He spent months hiding out in hotels and staying with friends, afraid the arsonist could strike again. And the fire is the subject of much of his Full Moon Fever album, according to SongFacts.
“I Won’t Back Down” was his way of addressing his fears. But he almost didn’t release the song. He said the lyrics felt so nakedly honest that it scared him.
“That song frightened me when I wrote it,” Petty told HARP Magazine in 2006. “I didn’t embrace it at all. It’s so obvious. I thought it wasn’t that good because it was so naked. So I had a lot of second thoughts about recording that song.”
Lucky for us, he decided to take his advice from the song and included it on Full Moon Fever.