FOOTBALL: A Game Tailor Made for Gene Ellenson

If ever there was a game that was tailor-made for Gene Ellenson, this is it. <p> It's the last game of Ron Zook's coaching tenure at the University of Florida and it's in Tallahassee against a Florida State team that will be favored because of a defense that many consider the nation's best.

Florida will bring a 6-4 record into the game, good enough to earn the Gators a bowl game that will be announced shortly after Saturday's game, but certainly not good enough to save the job of Zook, who will end his three-year run as UF's football coach.

In most seasons, the fact that this is Florida-FSU would be plenty enough motivation, but this year is different. The Gators are so close yet so far away from being 10-0, but the same can be said for the Seminoles. The only difference is that Bobby Bowden's job is secure. He's 75 years old and if he chooses to coach until he's 100, that's his choice. You earn the right to go out on your own terms when you've lifted a football program by its bootstraps from obscurity to national prominence as Bowden has done.

Zook won't have that kind of luxury. He's been a lame duck since Florida's loss to Mississippi State in game seven, and though his team has rallied behind him for a couple of good wins in the past two weeks, there's that feeling that the Gators will need just a little bit more Saturday evening against the Seminoles. Will winning one for the Zooker be motivation enough, or will the Gators need the kind of lift that Ellenson was famous for during his many years in Gainesville?

Ellenson was the master motivator whose creativity often bordered on sheer genius. During the 1960s when he was the defensive coordinator under Coach Ray Graves, Ellenson came through time and time again when the Gators needed an emotional lift with something extraordinary to motivate them from the brink of disaster. When Steve Spurrier returned to coach at Florida in 1990, he would often bring in Ellenson to deliver motivational speeches the night before big games.

Many Gator fans remember Ellenson's 1969 prank which motivated Florida to a 21-6 win over highly favored FSU. FSU had an All-American quarterback in Bill Cappleman and one of the best defensive lines in the country. That was the year of Florida's Super Sophs, led by John Reaves and Carlos Alvarez. Mysteriously, on the night before the FSU game, a Gator helmet was delivered to the Florida offensive line. There was a tomahawk in the crown of the helmet and a note that said "We're going to kill your quarterback" and signed "the FSU defensive line." Florida dominated the game on both sides of the ball the next day, fired up by the helmet, which of course, had been sent to them by Ellenson who delivered an impassioned speech, challenging the team's manhood as he held up the helmet with the tomahawk in the crown.

It wasn't a prank that provided Ellenson's greatest motivational moment. It was a letter he wrote to the team the night before the Texas A&M game in 1962. Florida had lost two straight games and was expected to make it three in a row against the Aggies. The team was so down and discouraged that Ellenson, a decorated war hero during World War II, wrote the folllowing letter on Thursday night before the game, and read it to the team on Friday evening:

Dear __:

It's late at night. The offices are all quiet and everyone has finally gone home. Once again my thoughts turn to you all.

The reason I feel I have something to say to you is because what you need now more than anything else are a little guidance and maybe a little starch for your backbone. You are still youngsters and unknowingly, you have not steeled yourselves for the demanding task of 60 full minutes of exertion required to master a determined opponent. This sort of exertion takes two kinds of hardness. Physical, which is why you are pushed hard in practice --- and mental, which comes only from having to meet adversity and whipping it.

Now all of us have adversity --- different kinds maybe --- but adversity. Just how we meet these troubles determines how solid a foundation we are building our life on; and just how many of you stand together to face our team adversity will determine how solid a foundation our team has built for the rest of the season.

No one cruises along without problems. It isn't easy to earn your way through college on football scholarship. It isn't easy to do what is expected of you by the academic and the athletic. It isn't easy to remain fighting when others are curling around you or when your opponent seems to be getting stronger while you seem to be getting weaker. It isn't easy to continue good work when others don't appreciate what you're doing. It isn't easy to go hard when bedeviled by aches, pains and muscle sprains. It isn't easy to rise up when you are down. The pure facts of life are that nothing is easy. You only get what you earn and there isn't such a thing as "something for nothing." When you truly realize this --- then and only then will you begin to whip your adversities.

If you'll bear with a little story, I'll try to prove my point. One midnight, January 14, l945, six pitiful American soldiers were hanging onto a small piece of high ground in a forest somewhere near Bastogne, Belgium. This high ground had been the objective of an attack launched by 1,000 men that morning. Only these six made it. The others had been turned back, wounded, lost or killed in action. These grimy, cruddy six men were all that were left of a magnificent thrust of 1,000 men. They hadn't had any sleep other than catnaps for over 72 hours. The weather was cold enough to freeze the water in their canteens. They had no entrenching tools, no radio, no food --- only ammunition and adversity. Twice a good-sized counter attack had been launched by the enemy, only to be beaten back because of the dark and some pretty fair grenade heaving.

The rest of the time there were incessant mortars falling in the general area and the trees made for dreaded tree bursts, which scatter shrapnel like buckshot. The attackers were beginning to sense the location of the six defenders. Then things began to happen. First, a sergeant had a chunk of shrapnel tear into his hip. Then a corporal went into shock and started sobbing.

After more than six hours of the constant mortar barrage and two close counter attacks, and no food since maybe the day before yesterday, this was some first-class adversity. Then another counter attack, this one making it to the small position. Hand-to-hand fighting is a routine military expression. I have not the imagination to tell you what this is really like. A man standing up to fight with a shattered hip bone, saliva frothing at his mouth, gouging, lashing with a bayonet, even strangling with his bare hands. The lonesome five fought (the corporal was out of his mind) until the attackers quit.

Then the mortars began again. All this time the route to the rear lay open, but never did this little group take the road back. At early dawn a full company of airborne troopers relieved this tiny force. It still wasn't quite light yet. One of the group, a lieutenant, picked up the sergeant with the broken hip and carried him like a baby. The other led the incoherent corporal like a dog on a leash. The other two of the gallant six lay dead in the snow. It took hours for this strange little group to get back to where they had started from 24 hours earlier. They were like ghosts returning. The lieutenant and one remaining healthy sergeant, after 10 hours of sleep and a hot meal, were sent on a mission 12 miles behind the German lines and helped make the link that closed the Bulge.

Today, two of the faithful six lay in Belgium graves, one is a career army man, and one is a permanent resident of the army hospital for the insane in Texas, one is a stiff-legged repairman in Ohio, and one is an assistant football coach at the University of Florida.

This story is no documentary or self-indulgence. It was told to you only to show you that whatever you find adverse now, others before you have had as bad or worse and still hung on to do the job. Many of you are made of exactly the same stuff as the six men in the story, yet you haven't pooled your collective guts to present a united fight for a full 60 minutes. Your egos are a little shook --- so what? Nothing good can come from moping about it. Cheer up and stand up. Fight an honest fight, square off in front of your particular adversity and whip it. You'll be a better man for it, and the next adversity won't be so tough. Breaking training now is complete failure to meet your problems. Quitting the first time is the hardest --— it gets easier the second time and so forth.

I'd like to see a glint in your eye Saturday about 2 p.m. with some real depth to it --- not just a little lip service --- not just a couple of weak hurrahs and down the drain again, but some real steel, some real backbone and 60 full fighting minutes. Then and only then will you be on the road to becoming a real man. The kind you like to see when you shave every morning.

As in most letters, I'd like to close by wishing you well and leave you with this one thought. "Self-pity is a roommate with cowardice." Stay away from feeling sorry for yourself. The wins and losses aren't nearly as important as what kind of man you become. I hope I've given you something to think about — and remember, somebody up there still loves you.

Sincerely, Gene Ellenson

Florida's very motivated and vey determined Gators dominated the Aggies 42-6 the next day and a week later, the Gators pounded undefeated, fifth ranked Auburn, 22-3 on their way to a Gator Bowl berth where they beat a great Penn State team, 17-7.

Saturday night, the Gators will face a tough Seminole team in Tallahassee, a venue where Florida hasn't won since 1986. The Gators will be playing for a coach they love but one whose career at UF will end shortly. The players have taken Zook's dismissal quite personally, and there is that chance that many will feel down and discouraged at the thought that Zook's gig is up. My hope is that when the Zooker encourages them to play through the adversity and pain that they will respond with the kind of effort that can bring about victory. This is a good time to win one for the Zooker.

And if Zook needs a motivational tool, I hope someone will suggest Gene Ellenson's letter. It worked in 1962. It could work again.

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