Meyer Has Ex-Players Feeling Welcome Again

This was the Saturday of the welcome back barbeque for ex-Gator football players, and even though the star attraction, Urban Meyer, was unable to attend because he had to fly to Texas to attend the funeral of Thomas Herrion, one of his former players at Utah, nothing could dampen the spirit or enthusiasm. Former players came from all over for this special event, bringing their wives and children to share the moment.

The barbeque is part of Meyer's master plan for Florida football, a plan that includes recognizing that Florida football was built on the sweat, hard work and dedication of its former players. It is a long overdue concept and one that has had a wowser of an effect with the ex-Gator players.

Meyer began embracing the former players the day he took the job at Florida. His letter to all the ex-players produced a positive ripple effect that was first evidenced during spring practice and along the sidelines at the Orange and Blue Game back in April. Some of the biggest names in Florida football history were on the sidelines for that game. That's the kind of thing that's been seen regularly at the University of Miami and it's been talked about in Gainesville for years. But, until Meyer came along, it was just talk and nothing more.

At every stop along his tour of Gator Clubs, Meyer made it a very big deal to talk about the former players in the audience. At each of those stops, Meyer talked it up about how the ex-players were going to form a welcome line outside the tunnel in The Swamp on opening day and he also talked up an on-campus barbeque that he wanted to become a tradition.

Saturday morning, the vision became reality. Meyer left practice early to fly to Texas for Herrion's funeral but the presence of all the ex-players was a far bigger deal than one person's absence, even if that one person was the coach responsible for making it all happen in the first place.

For one ex-Gator, being welcomed back had a little bit more meaning since ex-players had a chance to mingle with this year's team. Alvin Butler Sr., father of Gator linebacker Alvin Butler Jr. --- known to his teammates as "1600" since he aced the SAT and attends Florida on a National Merit Scholarship --- was the only former Gator player with a son on this year's team, a rather nice distinction.

The barbeque was also special because Alvin Sr. was somewhat of a pioneer back in the 1970s. Recruited to Florida out of Gainesville High School, where he was an All-State defensive back for Jim Niblack, Alvin Butler Sr. was one of the first African-Americans to receive a football scholarship to play for the Gators.

He started at corner for the Gators three years (1972-74), earning a reputation as a hard hitter who could cover. He also earned his reputation in the classroom and off the field. As a trailblazer who was opening the door for other African-American athletes to follow at Florida, he knew the pressure and he knew that white athletes had far more leeway.

"There was a different standard back then," he said. "That's something that's changed for the better. We knew that every eye was on us so we had had to be better in the classroom, better on the playing field and that off the field there was no room for any error."

He earned his stripes on the playing field and off the field he did what came naturally, which was lead quietly. He earned his degree and then stuck around to earn a couple of master's degrees. He remained in Gainesville, started his own successful counseling business and became a pillar in the community. He's supported the Gators even when there was no effort to bring the former players back into the fold.

He sees this weekend reunion of former players as another positive step made by Urban Meyer to reunite the Gator Nation.

"It makes it special for me since I have a son on the team, but I grew up in Gainesville, I still live in Gainesville and I've always supported the Gators so I would still come out anyway," said Butler. "I was here in the years before my son was here but a lot of people [ex-players] went away and didn't feel welcome coming back.

"Now they're coming back and all of us are feeling like we're part of the program again. I saw people out here at practice today that I haven't seen since I played football at Florida, so there is a lot more interest and there is a real commitment to bring people back here and a commitment by those of us coming back. This is a good thing that is only going to get better."

Probably the best measure of the impact of Meyer is felt by the support the first-year coach has from the former players who played under several other coaches.

"We're all Gators and he's taken the extra steps to make sure that being a Gator is important to us," said Butler. "He's made it known to us that it's important to him that the ex-players feel that they're an important part of the program. No one has ever done that before. I'd have to say we're 100 percent behind him."

With Meyer reaching out to the ex-players, the expectation for this new era of Florida football is growing on a daily basis. Butler said that he feels more excitement than at any time since that first time he ran out on Florida Field before a packed stadium back in 1972. He will be on the field next Saturday when the Gators take the field against Wyoming, part of the tunnel of ex-players that the Gators will run through as they take the field to a blaring band and a frenzied crowd.

"I remember those butterflies I had in my stomach the first time," he said. "I'm excited now and I can't wait for Saturday to get here. There's so much expectation and excitement because this is the beginning of a new era."

Back in 1972, Alvin Butler was helping to usher in a new era of Florida football, one in which an integrated playing field opened previously closed doors and changed the face of the Gator Nation forever.

Next Saturday night, he will be helping to usher in another new era and once again the face of the Gator Nation will be changed forever.

"The excitement level is high among the ex-players, in the community, everywhere in the state," he said. "Coach Meyer has done the right thing to get so many people involved and we just weren't getting that before. There's something different now. It's a whole new era and I think it could be the beginning of the greatest era ever for the Gators."

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