Florida football is about great players stepping it up at crucial moments, and while it is not all about the stars who stole the headlines or whose career performances leave record books filled with their accomplishments, it is that legacy of great players whose names we remember long after their careers are over. This is the first of a series about great players. I am starting with the greatest thirty players in the history of the University of Florida, most of which I saw in person and many of whom I have had the chance to write about over the years. To pick just thirty players is almost sinful because there are so many who deserve mention, but here are the thirty that forty four years of watching and thirty eight years of writing about the Gators tell me are the best:
15. KERWIN BELL: A week before the 1984 season, starting quarterback Dale Dorminey injured his knee and the hearts of the Gator nation sunk to unfathomable depths. His backup? A walkon redshirt freshman from Mayo named Kerwin Bell. A week later, Gator nation knew it had something special because the Throwin Mayoan had almost beaten Bernie Kosar and defending national champ Miami. He would throw 17 touchdown passes against only four interceptions that year. With Florida under NCAA sanctions his junior and senior seasons, he played with patchwork offensive lines which offered inadequate protection so his numbers suffered. Under the physical pounding he took, he had to fight through injuries. Perhaps his shining moment was playing through the pain to lead the Gators to a comeback 18-17 win over Auburn in 1986. His late touchdown pass to Ricky Nattiel and two point conversion run gave the Gators a huge upset win. Went on to play in both the NFL and Canadian League. Was twice the CFL's MVP. SEC Player of the Year in 1984. Second team All-SEC in 1984 and 1986, first team All-SEC in 1985.
14. BRAD CULPEPPER: The son of a former Gator player, Culpepper started for three years, setting records for most tackles for loss by an interior lineman in a season (21.8 in 1991) and for a career (47.5). Quick off the ball, he was a disruptive force who led by example as well as vocally. The leader of the 1991 defense that is among the very best in Gator history. His shining moment was his stellar performance at The Swamp in 1991 as the UF defense held high scoring Florida State down in a 14-9 battle that ranks among the best Gator victories ever. Had an oustanding pro career with the Minnesota Vikings, Tampa Bay Bucs and Chicago Bears. Academic All-SEC in 1989, 1990 and 1991. National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete of the Year in 1991. Verizon Academic All-America in 1991. NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship winner in 1991 and winner of the 1991 Draddy Scholarship Trophy. Second team All-SEC in 1990, first team in 1991. First team All-America in 1991.
13. SHANE MATTHEWS: When Steve Spurrier held his first spring practice as coach in 1990, Matthews was buried on the depth chart. Two weeks into spring practice, Shane's dad asked Spurrier to just give his kid a chance. Spurrier did and from that point on, Shane Matthews was THE MAN. When he took the field in September for the Gators' first game against Oklahoma State, he promptly completed six passes in a row to lead the Gators to a touchdown en route to a 51-7 win. By the time his career ended he had led the Gators to their first official SEC championship. The career numbers are 9297 yards and 74 touchdown passes and at the time of his graduation, he held 50 school records and 19 SEC records. Currently with the Cincinnati Bengals in the NFL. SEC Player of the Year in 1990 and 1991. Three time All-SEC first team from 1990-92, second team All-America in both 1991 and 1992.
12. REX GROSSMAN: In his first start as a redshirt freshman in 2000 against a tough LSU team and with UF reeling from a humiliating defeat at the hands of Mississippi State the week before, Rex Grossman made one play that would define his UF career. With the Gators inside the red zone, the center snap sailed over Grossman's head. With three linemen bearing down on him, he calmly scooped up the ball, turned and threw what seemed to be a no-look pass for a touchdown to Jabar Gaffney in the northwest corner of the end zone. That one play solidified Grossman as the starter as he went on to throw five touchdown passes in that first start and 22 touchdown passes that season. As a junior, his 34 touchdown passes and 3896 yards earned him runner-up for the Heisman Trophy. All-America as a sophomore. He finished a three-year career at UF with 9164 yards, 77 touchdown passes and 61.1% completions. A first round draft pick of the Chicago Bears. National Player of the Year and SEC Player of the year in 2001. First team All-SEC and first team All-America in 2001.
11. BRUCE BENNETT: He came to UF a legendary high school quarterback out of Valdosta, Georgia, where he played the state championship game his senior year with his right hand covered in bandages and blisters. The night before a frying pan caught fire in the kitchen at his home. He picked it up with his bare hand, tossed it outside then put out the fire in the kitchen. Despite a hand blistered, bleeding and swollen, he led Valdosta to the state championship the next night, playing both quarterback and safety. He intercepted 13 passes in his career and made All-America in 1965, leading the Gators to the Sugar Bowl against Missouri. Two times All-SEC. He went to the Canadian League and became one of the greatest defensive backs in CFL history, making all-pro seven times.
10. ERRICT RHETT: It was 1993, the first weekend of November and the opponent was the Poodles in Jacksonville. It rained so hard there were huge puddles on the playing field of the Gator Bowl. Rhett was doing cartwheels and somersaults into the puddles, standing at midfield laughing at the Poodles who were wondering what he was doing. Then he went out, carried the ball 41 times for 183 yards and led the Gators to a 33-26 win, the critical game in UF's march to the SEC title. He cried on signing day in 1989 when FSU didn't offer him a scholarship. So he signed with UF and became 100% all Gator. He redshirted in 1989, then succeeded Emmitt Smith at tailback. He finished his career with 4163 rushing yards, best in school history, and 153 pass receptions, third best in school history. Played in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Bucs, Baltimore Ravens and Cleveland Browns. All-SEC first team in 1991 and 1993 (second team in 1992) and first team All-America in 1993.
9. LOMAS BROWN: When you talk about great Gator offensive linemen, the conversation has to begin with Lomas Brown. The anchor of the Great Wall of Florida from his left tackle position in 1984, Lomas won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the best lineman in the SEC. He didn't just block people. He buried them. UF didn't keep records for pancake blocks back in those days, but if they had, the numbers would have been staggering. He decleated people. Five time All-Pro in the NFL with the Detroit Lions, Arizona Cardinals, Cleveland Browns, New York Giants and Tampa Bay Bucs. Destined for both the college and NFL halls of fame. Second team All-SEC in 1983, first team in 1984. First team All-America in 1984.
8. RICK CASARES: How good an athlete was Rick Casares? He missed part of the 1952 season because of the Korean War. He went straight from the war to the football field without practice to help the Gators into their first bowl game. He won the MVP of the Gator Bowl football game on a Saturday (UF's first bowl game ever, a 14-13 win over Tulsa, then on Monday and Tuesday, started as a forward on UF's basketball team and won the MVP of the Gator Bowl Tournament even though he hadn't practiced. He was a powerful running back who punished tacklers. Had a superb pro career with the Chicago Bears. Second team All-SEC in 1952.
7. CARLOS ALVAREZ: On the third play from scrimmage of the 1969 season opener against number one ranked Houston, The Cuban Comet made two quick moves then turned on the jets to blow by the Cougars All-American cornerback. John Reaves hit Carlos in stride for a 78-yard touchdown pass that set the tone for what was at that point, the greatest Gator season in history. Alvarez caught 88 passes for 12 touchdowns his sophomore year. He still holds the records for 172 career catches and 2563 yards. Knee injuries his junior and senior years killed the speed of the former 9.5 100-yard sprinter, keeping the numbers from being among the greatest in the history of college football. Three times SEC All-Academic. Two time member of the Verizon Academic All-America team, he is a member of the Verizon Academic All-America Hall of Fame. He won the NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship Award in 1971. First team All-SEC and All-America in 1969.
6. JACK YOUNGBLOOD: He came to UF as a 190 pound fullback from Madison County. When he left UF, he was an All-American defensive end, tall, fast and mean, known for his toughness. He excelled at rushing the passer. Teams tried to run the ball away from his side, but he excelled at running plays down from behind. Although a defensive lineman, he was often the first or second tackler on plays well past the line of scrimmage. If sack records were kept during those years, he would rank among the all-time leaders in school and SEC history. He played at 6-4, 220 his senior year at UF and at 245 during a pro football career with the Los Angeles Rams. In both the college and NFL Halls of Fame. How tough was he? He played the entire Super Bowl in 1980 with a broken leg. Didn't miss a play. Chosen to the All-Time All-SEC team, selected for the first 50 years of the SEC. First team All-SEC and first team All-America in 1970.
5. EMMITT SMITH: It really didn't matter how many defenders stacked the line in 1989. Emmitt Smith was still going to get the ball and he was going to find a crack or a crease to hammer out the yards. He was Florida's entire offense and despite facing eight and nine man lines, he still ran for 1599 yards, the best single season in UF history. He was also the Gators top pass receiver that year with 21 catches. For his career at UF, he had 3938 yards, that in spite of leaving early for the NFL draft and having to endure the Amadee-ville Horror, the trying 1988 season when the genius offensive coordinator Lynn Amedee decided Emmitt was more valuable as a decoy. Emmitt had 988 yards on only 187 touches for an offense that desperately needed him to carry the ball 30 times a game. He burst onto the college football scene as a freshman with five straight games of 100-plus yards including a Herculean 224-yard effort against Alabama. The all-time leading rusher in the history of the National Football League, Emmitt willl one day be enshrined in both the college and pro halls of fame. SEC Player of the year in 1989. Three times All-SEC, consensus first team All-America in 1989.
4. DANNY WUERFFEL: In December of 1991 he capped an undefeated high school season by leading Fort Walton Beach to the state championship at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. In the locker room after the win, he sang "Amazing Grace" as his coaches and teammates cried. It was a prelude of things to come. After a redshirt year at UF, DW became the most prolific passer in the history of UF, winning the Heisman Trophy and leading the Gators to the national championship in 1996. As talented as he was on the football field, his football accomplishments paled in comparison to Danny Wuerffel the person, a humble, caring young man of true character. The numbers are staggering, too — 10,875 passing yards, 114 touchdown passes, four Southeastern Conference championships. Four times All-Academic SEC and twice the national GTE Academic All-American of the Year. The 1996 winner of the National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award and the Draddy Scholarship Trophy as the nation's premier scholar-athlete by the National Football Foundation and the College Hall of Fame. All-America first team in 1995 and 1996. SEC and National Player of the year in both 1995 and 1996. First team All-SEC and All-America in 1995 and 1996.
3. WES CHANDLER: Had he played in the Spurrier coaching era, when the Gators were throwing the ball all over the yard, he would have put up Star Wars numbers. Instead, he played in the Doug Dickey era when the Gators ran the wishbone. His career numbers are 92 catches for 1963 yards and 22 touchdowns. The 21.3 yards per catch is still best in Gator history. To watch Wes Chandler run a pass route was to watch poetry in motion. He was so fluid that he didn't look like he was going all that fast, but he simply blew by defenders. He ran a 9.5 hundred yards in high school. As a senior at UF, he became THE offense. Against the Poodles, he played wide receiver and tailback, scored three touchdowns and led the Gators to a 22-17 upset victory. He had a brilliant pro career with New Orleans and San Diego, and is a likely candidate for the NFL Hall of Fame in the future. All America 1976 and 1977. All Academic SEC in 1977 and a member of the Verizon Academic All-America team. First team All-SEC and All-America in both 1976 and 1977.
2. WILBER MARSHALL: He used to stand at midfield and taunt opponents before a game. The Seminoles were his personal whipping boys. He took an entire side of the field away from opponents. Those that dared to run at him, he crushed. Those that tried to go away from him, he ran down from behind. He was the 1983 national defensive player of the year and without question is one of the five or six best linebackers to ever play the college game. He turned the big hit into an art form. After Florida's 53-14 win over the Seminoles at Florida Field in 1983, a game in which he delivered several punishing blows, several FSU players admitted he hit so hard that it made them cry. He came to UF as a tight end and he actually spent the 1980 season on the offensive side of the ball. When he moved to linebacker, it changed the Florida defense and a monster was created. He was the most dominating defensive player in the nation for both the 1982 and 1983 seasons. He won Super Bowl rings with the Bears (1985) and the Redskins (1988 and 1992). All-Pro three times, his career was cut short by knee and ankle injuries. At some point he will be a member in both the pro and college football halls of fame. National defensive player of the year in 1983. Three times first team All-SEC, he was first team All-America in 1982 and 1983.
And last, but not least...
1. STEVE SPURRIER: In 1966, with time running out against Auburn on a sunny Homecoming Saturday, Steve Spurrier attempted the only field goal of his college career. It was a 40-yarder, considered a considerable distance in the pre-soccer style kicker era. Shade Tree Barfield had range to about 30 yards and 40 was just too far. Spurrier told Coach Ray Graves that he could do it, then went out on the field and drilled the field goal that not only beat Auburn 30-27, but sealed the Heisman Trophy. He was the stuff that legends were made of. In 1965 against FSU and the Gators trailing 17-16, he calmly passed the Gators down the field in less than a minute. Rolling to his right he saw Charley Casey open on a square out pattern, but Spurrier waved Casey to cut off the route and head for the end zone. Spurrier lofted the perfect pass that Casey caught for the TD as the Gators pulled out a patented come from behind victory, routine with SOS at the helm. He was a passing quarterback who was the most feared player in college football. He changed the way the game was played at Florida, and his notoriety truly changed Florida from a football backwater into a football program on the move. Played in the NFL with the San Francisco 49ers and Tampa Bay Bucs. A member of the College Football Hall of Fame. SEC Player of the Year in 1966. First team All-SEC and first team All-America in both 1965 and 1966.