The Return Of Cool Hand Leak

Chris Leak is more than capable of leading Florida to victory this Saturday in the Cocktail Party, more than up to the task of putting the Gators in position to steal the SEC East from Georgia.

Why? Because he already did as much two years ago.

While older Gators rightfully remind younger Gators this week about the primacy of this rivalry --- not Tennessee or Florida State --- in the life of the University of Florida's football program, it's important for younger Gators, and frankly all Gators, to also be aware of recent history, which --- in its own twisted way --- can often seem more distant than the distant past. While remembering 1980 or 1984 like it was yesterday, the more recent past can get caught in between the more passionate extremes of our emotions, lurking in the netherworld of our minds. The recent past brings to mind the phrase, "so close, and yet so far away." It's close enough to taste, but distant enough that it lacks the romance of a long-ago triumph or the heartbreak of a long-ago radio call from Larry Munson.

Yet, all of history is within our ability to remember. More importantly, all of history serves as a teaching tool for us. So it should be with Florida football.

Hating Georgia can, should and must be rooted in long-ago days, but winning this Saturday's staging of the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party must be rooted in a recollection of the 2003 game between Florida and Georgia. It seems so close to 2005 in the progression of history, so near to us in the march of time.

But it seems so far away, too, doesn't it?

While some remember 1968 or '80 or '82 this week, it's 2003 that points the way toward a resurrected team and rejuvenated quarterback.

Chris Leak became a man when he played Georgia in 2003. It does seem far removed from the collective communal memory, but it was, is and always will be true. Leak need not worry about his performance level this Saturday, because he knows he can come through in the Cocktail Party. In a defensive battle that teetered back and forth, hinging on so many close plays and agonizing field goal attempts (a likely foretaste of what we're going to see this Saturday), it was Leak who drove the Gators to gridiron glory in the final moments, throwing a 20-yard pass to Ben Troupe to help set up Matt Leach's winning field goal with 33 seconds left.

On that day, a wide-eyed freshman became Cool Hand Leak, the same man who would scorch Florida State later that season and be deprived of a legendary victory only by an ACC officiating crew that did more than anyone else to make instant replay a reality in college football.

On that day, Cool Hand Leak left Georgia fans shaken, not stirred, in the wake of a Cocktail Party where happy hour wore Orange and Blue once again... and the folks from Athens cried in their cheap beer.

On that day, Florida football saw the promise and potential of a born leader who could, on occasion, surmount and rise above the poor coaching and systemic fluctuations that marred way too much of his first two seasons in Gainesville.

This year, the adjustments have continued for Leak, a quarterback who has had to endure more high-level change than any other quarterback in recent college football memory. But with a bye week, an appreciably healthier body, and a fresh perspective, Florida's quarterback has a chance to fully restore a career, a reputation and a season that could lead his team to Atlanta.

This year --- this Saturday --- Cool Hand Leak returns to Jacksonville, the place where he made his first great drive under pressure and etched his name in the annals of Florida football lore.

It seems so long ago, but November 1, 2003, is the day and the moment one noble Florida quarterback needs to carry into battle this Saturday afternoon. 2003 points the way toward another Gator triumph over Georgia in 2005... and to the return of Cool Hand Leak.

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