It they were to write a song about how Chris Doering's Florida football career began, they might entitle it, "Somewhere, Under the Rainbow." All-State in football, basketball and baseball coming out of high school at P.K. Yonge in Gainesville, Doering was there when there were no scholarship offers for the tall, skinny kid who grew up dreaming that he would be the next Cris Collinsworth or Tyrone Young at the University of Florida, something that the passage of time allows him to call "a blessing in disguise."
In the spring of 1991 there was no internet with its bevy of scouting services offering all the latest on anyone that even remotely resembled a college football prospect. That the Gators weren't recruiting him probably factored into why there were no scholarship offers forthcoming.
"Other schools, I think, figured that if Florida is not recruiting him and he's in their back yard then he must not be worth us spending any of our time recruiting him," Doering said. "It doesn't seem like that long ago, but it was like 100 years ago as far as the evolution of recruiting goes."
In this day and age, Doering's height, weight, 40-time, stats and other vitals would have circulated nationally thanks to entire networks that devote large amounts of money and human resources to scour the country to try to rank every potential Division I prospect. As his career proved, Doering was certainly good enough to command scholarship offers coming out of high school but nobody had really seen him play. He camped at Florida in the spring of 1990, Steve Spurrier's year on the job and played well, just not well enough to get a scholarship offer.
In the fall when a P.K. Yonge assistant coach delivered film to a graduate assistant football coach at Florida, the feedback was discouraging.
"One of our assistant coaches brought some of my tapes to a GA on the [Florida] staff," Doering recalls. "I think you might have heard Coach Spurrier tell the story. The guy told my assistant coach that this guy is not good enough to play at Florida and he will never play anywhere in Division I football. Coach Spurrier ended up finding out about that after the fact and ended up letting him [the graduate assistant] go."
There was a glimmer of hope, however. Florida State offered Doering an opportunity in the form of an invitation to come to Tallahassee as a preferred walk-on. It wasn't where he wanted to be, but it was a chance, which was all he wanted.
Then came a call from Steve Spurrier that changed Doering's life forever. Doering wasn't home at the time but Spurrier left a message on the telephone answering machine, offering preferred walk-on status.
"It wasn't a scholarship offer but it at least validated that I had some value to them," Doering recalls.
Even so, there was a bit of resistance that had to be overcome. FSU wasn't Florida, but the Seminoles offered first. It took a conversation with running backs coach Carl Franks to convince Doering he needed to stay where his heart had always been and be a Gator.
Doering remembers, "I was thinking about walking on at Florida State and Coach Franks told me, ‘I came from the ACC at Duke and playing in front of half empty stadiums is not what you want to do.' He was adamant on me coming to Florida."
Franks closed the deal and the first chapter of one of the great from nowhere to somewhere stories in Florida football history began, but Doering knows things could have been different. Much, much different.
Had there been internet scouting services in 1991, Chris Doering probably would have signed a scholarship to play football somewhere other than Florida.
"I probably would have taken something had I been given the chance to go to some other school where they were going to pay my whole ride," Doering said. "I'd have felt more appreciated and I probably would have accepted that. I probably would not have had that chance from the Gators. It definitely could have altered my future and I could have ended up playing elsewhere."
The Florida recruiting class of 1991 included three scholarship receivers – Jack Jackson, destined to become the SEC Offensive Player of the Year and a first team All-America selection in 1994; Sorola Palmer, who caught 19 passes for 274 yards and four touchdowns in his career; and Ed West, who never caught a pass nor lettered at UF. Doering made his presence felt instantly in August by winning the conditioning test on the first day of practice. He took a redshirt as did all three of the freshman wide receivers and it didn't take long for him to figure out he had sufficient talent to compete at this level.
He certainly didn't mind the redshirt season. If anything, he thrived.
"I don't know if it's my mental makeup or if things were better for me than they were for everybody else, but I think playing receiver is a lot more fun than being an offensive lineman or a linebacker," Doering said. "I went around catching balls and since the majority of guys who had been signed were on redshirt it's not really like I was behind anybody."
The next step in Doering's development came in his redshirt freshman year of 1992 when Spurrier landed quarterback Danny Wuerffel. The two became fast friends and had their chances to contribute something in the fall. Wuerffel took a redshirt but dressed out and signaled in the plays to Matthews from the sideline. Doering was good enough to make the travel squad. He actually caught a pass, good for 13 yards, in Florida's blowout loss to Tennessee in Knoxville.
Where Doering began to make his mark was on Mondays after the starters and backups finished practice.
"We used to do those Monday night scrimmages," Doering said. "All the guys who had played [the Saturday before] were wearing shoulder pads and helmets and just out there trying to run some of the bruises off. We [those that hadn't played] went out there in full pads and we'd have a full practice. I caught a lot of balls from Danny in those Monday night scrimmages and in the scrimmages in the spring and we developed a lot of chemistry together."
Chemistry paid off in the spring of 1993 when Doering and Wuerffel hooked up frequently during scrimmages. They were always on the same page and Spurrier took note. When practice began in earnest for the 1993 season in August, Doering was rewarded for his hard work with a scholarship.
"When we started two-a-days I was still a walk-on and one morning Coach Spurrier called the team up and made an announcement that I was going to receive a scholarship," Doering said. "So, all of a sudden I went from being a walk-on to achieving one of my biggest goals which was to be a scholarship player at Florida."
In game one of the 1993 season, a 44-6 win over Arkansas State in Gainesville, Doering caught four passes, a nice start to what would be a season in which he caught 43 passes for 553 yards and seven touchdowns. A week later, life as he knew it changed forever when he made what Florida fans still call "The Catch."
Perhaps it was a sign that all of Doering's stars and planets were in complete alignment, but just before the Gators took the field to warm up for game two against Kentucky in Lexington on September 11, 1993, Steve Spurrier told Doering that he had earned a chance to start.
"Just before the game Coach Spurrier tells me that I'm going to have the opportunity to start," Doering said. "Now, all of a sudden I've gone from walk-on just a few weeks earlier to scholarship player to now I'm starting a game in the SEC for my beloved Gators. Little did I know that early in the fourth quarter I would catch my first touchdown pass which I thought was the pinnacle of everything I had ever dreamed of."
That first touchdown catch wasn't anything close to the pinnacle. The pinnacle happened with three seconds left. In a game in which Terry Dean and Wuerffel had combined to throw seven interceptions, the Gators only trailed Kentucky, 20-17 with time remaining for one more play. There were eight ticks left on the clock and rather than risk a 45-yard field goal, Spurrier elected to go for the end zone on third and 10 from the Kentucky 28, ironically with the exact same play he called the play before.
On the previous play, Doering got held up at the line of scrimmage and once he made his break, couldn't come up with a low throw from Wuerffel. "If I had pulled it in, most likely the time would have been running and maybe we would have ended up running out of time," Doering said. Spurrier called the same play with Jack Jackson out wide and Doering in the slot. As soon as the ball was snapped, the deep safety sprinted to the sideline to help cover Jackson. Doering only had the strong safety to beat and he blew by him about eight yards down the field.
With no help in the middle it was simply a matter of Doering hauling in the pass for the game-winning touchdown – "I thought it hung in the air forever" – which set off Florida play-by-play announcer Mick Hubert on a "Doering's got a touchdown!" frenzy that ranks with the greatest radio calls in modern college football history. There were three seconds remaining in the game but the Gators had proven they could win in spite of themselves in a tough game on the road and Doering had become a celebrity for the ages in Florida football lore.
"Coach Spurrier still talks about that game as the course changer for the program," Doering said. "Losing to Kentucky on the road would have been a pretty low point for us but winning that game not only showed that we could bounce back from adversity – seven interceptions in that game combined between Terry and Danny – and that we were a legitimate team that could go on the road and win in spite of adversity. It helped build a swagger and arrogance that carried on during that period when we were dominating the SEC."
The Gators finished 11-2 in 1993, winning the first of four straight Southeastern Conference championships. Doering was there for the first three. He caught 35 passes for 496 yards and seven touchdowns in 1994, then came back his senior season to catch 70 balls for 1,045 yards and 17 touchdowns, making first team All-SEC, second team All-America and setting the SEC career record for touchdown receptions (31) along the way.
His career numbers were 149 catches, 2,107 yards and 31 touchdowns. "Not bad for a slow, skinny white kid who nobody wanted coming out of high school," Doering quips.
He still holds the SEC record for career touchdown catches, but wherever he goes, nobody wants to talk about the other 30. They only want to talk about "The Catch."
"Any time people can remember exactly where they were and what they were doing at any given moment in their lives, those life marking events are few and far between," Doering said. "Every time I go to speak at a Gator event or I'm around a bunch of Gators, I can't tell you how many guys come up to me and tell me ‘I was here doing this when you caught that pass against Kentucky.' It's always been amazing to me how many people remember that moment like it was yesterday. This year it's been 21 years for me ... I know I still think of it like it was yesterday, too."
Because he started his career as a walk-on, Doering has an appreciation for Florida head coach Will Muschamp. Muschamp spent most of his formative years growing up in Gainesville. He played football for John Clifford at Oak Hall School before moving with his family to Rome, Georgia. Clifford went over to P.K. Yonge where he used to rave constantly about Muschamp.
"One of the things that pissed me off a lot was Coach Clifford had coached Will at Oak Hall and when he came over to PK all I heard about was what a great athlete that Will Muschamp was and what an amazing guy Will Muschamp was and on and on," Doering said. "It was like Will Muschamp was Coach Clifford's little pet so I was always pissed off that he was talking about Will Muschamp instead of talking about me."
Muschamp broke his leg before his senior year in high school and ended up walking on at Georgia where he earned a scholarship and became the team captain. He was a hard-hitting safety who Doering remembers for a couple of hard shots in Florida's 52-14 win over Georgia in 1994.
"I caught a couple of passes on him but he got me good with a shot to my ribs on a little shallow cross that I caught," Doering said.
Muschamp never beat the Gators as a player and now that he's the head coach at Florida, he's never beaten Georgia in three tries. That fact doesn't faze Doering, who thinks Florida has the right guy at the right time to take the football program forward.
"He has that same love for the University of Florida that I have and he knows what it's like to be a player in this conference and he appreciates what it takes to be successful here," Doering said. "There is a similarity in our backgrounds that we had to walk on and because of that he doesn't take anything for granted. The way we had to come up, we had to earn everything we got through hard work. Will will do the hard work it takes to win here and I'm very happy that he's the football coach at the University of Florida."
Looking back on his Florida career, Doering understands just how close he came to not being a Gator. Were this 2014, it's almost certain he would have gone somewhere else.
"We didn't have Friday Night Lights or any of those elite camps and we certainly didn't have the internet which let everybody know everything about you," Doering said. "If someone had actually offered me a scholarship back then, I probably would have taken it but nobody knew who I was. So much has changed since then."