FOOTBALL: A Time Of Renewal For Big Money

Ever since he was a little boy, Easter has been a special time for Gerard (Big Money) Warren and this year is no exception. This year, he feels there are plenty of good reasons to celebrate. Easter Sunday is just a few days away, he's now a Denver Bronco and he's thrilled of what he's seen of Coach Urban Meyer at the University of Florida. While there is Urban Renewal taking place for the Gators, there is renewal taking place for Big Money.

"I feel like this is the rebirth," said Warren Wednesday afternoon. "Easter is coming up and that means we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ which has always been special for me since I was a kid, but it will give me a chance to celebrate the resurrection of Gerard Warren's career. I've got a new start playing for an old Gator (Mike Shanahan), so I've got a lot of reasons to feel blessed and thankful for that, and we've got a rebirth going on at the University of Florida."

Warren was an All-America defensive tackle for the Gators under Coach Steve Spurrier. The third pick in the NFL draft in 2001, he just never got things going with the Cleveland Browns. He had some good games, but never was able to consistently play at the high level that's expected of a first rounder who goes in the first five picks of the draft. Recently, he and the Browns parted company. He's found the welcome mat in Denver where Shanahan, a former offensive coordinator at Florida, is trying to rework the magic that led the Broncos to two Super Bowl Championships in the 1990s.

Big Money went to the Browns expecting to be part of a team on the rise in the NFL but for a variety of reasons that never happened. He leaves Cleveland with bittersweet memories.

"I love the city of Cleveland and the atmosphere and the tradition of the Browns," he said, "but under the circumstances none of us there could put it together. I'm not used to losing and for me, losing kept breaking my morale down. I know there were a lot of guys like that. It was frustrating to the point that my mother told me a lot of times that she could see how the losing was taking a toll on me."

Gerard Warren when he donned the Orange and Blue

Armed with a new team he has a new attitude. He's working out diligently, trying to get in the best shape of his life. He's ready to play football at the level he knows he's capable of playing.

"I've got a good and healthy attitude," he said. "I'm looking forward to starting over, starting over fresh and new. It's a new team, with a new coach who I know and like, new teammates and a new city, and Coach Shanahan has told me come on out here, we're going to build a team that can win a Super Bowl. He's made me feel welcome, and he's told me that he's glad to have me out there so we can work together to do some great things."

At 6-3, 310, Warren has the kind of size to be an intimidator in the middle of the defensive line. He's also blessed with unusual foot speed for a man of his stature. At Florida, he was such a force in the middle, collapsing the center of the offensive line on nearly every play. His presence in the middle took away the center and two gaps. He's eager to get back to playing that way again in the future.

"That's what he (Coach Shanahan) said he looks forward to --- someone who can stop the run and put pressure on the middle on a quarterback," said Warren. "Things haven't gone the way I want to so far in my career, so this is a new chance for me to do what I know I can do. I feel that my best football is in the future."

Wednesday was his first chance to meet Coach Urban Meyer. Like nearly everyone who has met Meyer, Warren came away impressed. Each day of spring practice, more and more ex-players come to the UF practice field. They meet Meyer then they watch practice. They walk away impressed and feeling like they are part of the Gator family.

"I met Coach Meyer in person today for the first time and all I can say is this is one outstanding guy," said Warren. "I enjoyed talking to him and being there to see the way he's got the team attitude and the attitude of the people watching. This is like old Gator football the way I knew it, the way I think a lot of people know it. I think he's the right guy for the job and they're not going to miss a single beat. I'm looking forward to following the Gators this season. I think it's going to be a season we can all remember."

While Warren thought former Coach Ron Zook was a nice guy and he wanted Zook to succeed, he thinks Florida has the right coach at the right time now in Meyer.

"It seems like Coach Meyer has the team focused on the kind of goals that a team needs to see," said Warren. "With Coach Zook I could never really say that things were focused and channeled in one direction and that's unfortunate because I like him and he's a nice guy. Things kind of tore apart and I'm sad that he ended up getting dismissed. Things just didn't work out for him but the Gators have the right man now. This guy (Meyer) has that old Spurrier attitude

"He told me today that he loves having us old guys around and that we're really welcome. He wants us there. He wants us to be part of building the team back. He said we're part of what made Florida great in the past and he wants us to feel that we're part of what makes Florida great in the future. He says there's more to being a Florida Gator than just running out on the field four years and you're gone. He says you're a Gator for life and man and all of us old Gators look at each other and we're saying this is our guy. This is our coach."

As he drives around Gainesville in his new BMW760, he's easily recognized. Because he's always been one of the friendliest and most easily approached former Gators, he's always talking to fans and he feels the excitement they feel for Coach Meyer.

"It's not just us old Gator players getting excited about Coach Meyer," he said. "You drive around town and people are excited and want to talk about Gator football. The town is back into it and I think they didn't feel they were such a part of Gator football the last three years. That's changed. Coach Meyer's changed it."

Being a Gator has always been important to Big Money so feeling part of the Gator family again and feeling the excitement in Gainesville has given him a renewed spirit. He says that once you've run through the tunnel at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and the fans go nuts, you're a changed man for life.

"The best football I ever played was right here in Gainesville, Florida," he said. "The dollars and the luxuries you get from playing in the NFL can't make you feel the way you feel when you run out that tunnel and 86,000 people --- well, it's more than 90,000 now --- going ecstatic and the band's playing. Whenever I ran through that tunnel and those people went crazy, I wanted to play my heart out for them. The whole town made you feel great to be a Gator."

He works out at his old high school in Lake Butler. He's proud that Union County football is making a name for itself again. He was part of four state championship teams at UCHS. When he works out at his old school he makes it a point to let the players know that he was, is and always will be a Gator.

"When I work out, I keep reminding these guys like CJ (Spiller) and Kevin (Alexander) and those other great players they have at Union County that the school right up the road is a place where dreams come true," he said. "Being a Gator and getting a great education is something that was a dream come true for me and I tell them they can have that kind of dream come true, too. The best choice I ever made was to be a Florida Gator.

"I think that when these guys meet Coach Meyer and they see what he's doing, they're going to be like I was in high school when Coach Spurrier came to see me. Man, I couldn't wait to be a Gator. And if Coach Meyer had been the coach back then and he came to see me, without a shadow of a doubt, there wouldn't have been a second of debate about being at a Florida State or a Miami. I would have been a Gator."

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