PART ONE OF A SERIES
I distinctly remember the welcoming dinner for freshmen, as everyone's parents came to drop them off to not only a world wholly different than anything else we had ever known but also to embark on the great adventure of playing college football for the Gators. The dinner was in Touchdown Terrace in the North End Zone facilities. All the incoming freshmen were there, some with their parents and some whose parents were unable to attend. I walked in with my parents in awe of my surroundings. Shortly thereafter I was greeted by Jamie Speronis, Director of Football Operations. Mr. Speronis then introduced to me to one of the most revered Gators of all time, Coach Steve Spurrier. I knew who Coach Spurrier was ( I would not deem to call myself a Gator if I left out the fact that I was completely awestruck by his presence) but I never expected to be introduced to him, let alone have him know my name and greet my parents. I was even more astounded when he recalled my father, as he was a senior when my father joined the team. The new freshmen were then treated to a dinner and the schedule for the coming week was laid out for us.
All incoming football players arrive in Gainesville a week before the second session of the summer begins. That week is usually spent in meetings with coaches, academic advisors, and support staff to acclimate the new athletes in the manner in which our college and athletic careers would play out. Some of the guys already knew each other from visits and I was a little jealous and intimidated because I did not know a soul. I can recall waiting in the academic advising center to meet with a counselor when another guy approached me. I checked out his name tag and it read "Roderick Royal." I would later learn to call him Wodi (pronounced whoa-dee, a name he picked up being from Louisiana, from a rapper there). Rod asked me if I played baseball.
Slightly embarrassed I replied that "No I did not, I was there for football."
He laughed and said, "Oh, I'm sorry man didn't mean to embarrass you like that, you must be one of the quarterbacks."
As my embarrassment scale shot off the charts I then informed him of the rare and little known ability to long-snap.
Then to my even greater chagrin he asked, "They give scholarships for that?"
Once again I started to realize how out of my element I was.
"No, man I'm a walk-on."
I thought that was it and my dirty secret was out before I even had a chance, that none of these guys would talk to me now. Rod and I talked for another thirty minutes. I slowly was put at ease as we discussed how weird it was not to know anyone, and what it would be like to be away from home, and I had a realization: these kids were all just like me. Once you took away the sublime athletic ability and the swagger, these were kids about to embark on the same adventure as I and so many other freshmen were going to undertake. I would later come to call Rod one of my friends. He left the University of Florida after two years but he helped me more than I think he ever realized and I still thank heaven I met him. At the end of that day I rode my bicycle to the bookstore just to get an Athlon sports magazine so I could figure out the types of guys that I came in with. I was blown away. What was I doing among the ranks of these blue chip athletes and what were they even doing talking to me? The class of 1999 will always be my favorite recruiting class, because even though I was never recruited or written about those guys accepted me, and we had one of the greatest summers I'm sure I'll ever experience
After that it was easier to talk to people. There were so many meetings about classes and life skills throughout that week that I soon came to meet more than just the football players. I met most of the freshmen athletes and we would come to form a group much akin to a fraternity because we were all in the same boat and had similar schedules and goals.
That summer I learned a lot about people and life, I came to meet friends that I will have for life. In fact I'm in one of my freshmen friends' wedding this coming June in Indiana. Throughout that week guys start to form circles of friends. At first you pal around with the guys you live with, then the guys in your sport, and finally the guys you are most alike. Its like the first day of elementary school all over again except since there is no teacher to help you out, you do it all on your own.
Much as every parent and coach would hope, there is no handbook for an incoming freshmen athlete on how to handle the new life. We went out on our own to the clubs and bars and to get food and tried to figure out the crazy new college life we were released into. Most of that first week though was just spent hanging out in front of the dorms and just talking.
The University of Florida does a wonderful job of educating new athletes on the many situations they might find themselves in. Some might call it damage control. As annoying those first meetings were though, looking back they did really help us. We learned the repercussions of underage drinking and missing class. We ran through the whole gamut of what a college athlete might face.
Soon we were introduced to the weight room and the practice field for conditioning. As we all entered into the weight room to do individual testing I was incredibly nervous. We did a myriad of tests such as height, weight, body fat and vertical jump and then went right into the heavy stuff. I held my own in high school when it came to the weights and had the highest bench in my school, but I could only hope not to embarrass myself here among giants. I watched as guys loaded up the bench with 275 pounds then proceeded to rep it out more times than humanly possible. I did all right. I fell right around the middle, just enough to not look soft, but I remember talking to some of the guys and realizing just how genetically superior they were. Some of them had never even lifted weights in high school. I remember Bobby McCray had the physique of a mythological god and he astounded me when he said they didn't really work out all that much back home. All I could think was dear God what am I doing here?
The conditioning runs were another story, an insight of what we had to deal with in the coming years. I won't lie about it. It was brutal and there was a lot of vomit. Personally, I did okay because I could always run, but by the end of that day all anyone could think of was bed. I saw guys looking as if they were really second guessing about this football thing. In actuality, it is hard for some guys to adjust to the level of commitment required for this level of football but right off the bat you also see the leaders step up and start to try and help others and motivate people. From day one the team bonding started and I was happy to be apart of it.
I have so many more stories and I hope to relay them to give a little insight as to what these incoming freshmen might be going through. Despite the coaching changes over the years, the way in which freshmen have to learn and adapt to the new environment has changed very little. It's a shock to the system which is hard for some to digest, I can recall calling my parents and telling them how depressed I was and that I missed home and my friends, and how I didn't know if I could go through with this. Later that week I got into a conversation with Marshall Schaap and when we started talking about being away from home, we both opened up. I found out other guys had talked about being homesick. The way we got through it was with each other. That's what builds teams and relationships that last forever. We were all young and learning.
While some of my old teammates are now on NFL rosters and making the big bucks, I still talk to them sometimes and I talk to the other guys that have moved on to jobs. Everyone speaks with reverence and a smile when they think of their freshmen year. The good and the bad rolled together made our entrance into the Gator world and while everyone may not have gotten what they expected out of it everyone walked away with some new outlooks on life. I have two regrets with my experience at the University of Florida: one being that it is over and the second is that I could not share that experience with everyone. I can do something about the second.
Photo courtesy of UF Sports Information.