National Signing Day: Tampa Bay Journal

Gator Country Senior Columnist Mark McLeod spent National Signing Day on the move, going from one signing ceremony to another in the Tampa Bay area. This is Mark's start to finish journal of a day spent with future Gators, capturing the mood and excitement of these athletes, their families, friends and coaches.

Stay tuned to Gator Country - we're just getting started and there's a lot more action on the way!

A Beautiful Start To A Beautiful Day

What an absolutely glorious day. Today's weather was obviously ordered by the Tampa Bay Area Chamber of Commerce. It was made perfect by the fact that the Gators were about to sign an incredible group of young men that seem perfectly suited to represent the University of Florida and its' ever growing alumni base so proudly.

The first stop was Hillsborough High School, which I understand is the oldest high school in Florida. I arrived early at the Hillsborough Field House, where I was graciously met by Coach Earl Garcia and his wife. Mrs. Garcia was arranging Orange and Blue balloons which rose above a photo of the Terriers' All-American Jarred Fayson. She moved down the line arranging balloons over a photo of Leslie Stirrups, who signed with South Florida and the three other players who signed today.

The only people who had beaten me into the Field House were Fayson's youth league coaches, Kenneth Underwood and Lyndon Cannon. These gentlemen were decked out in Gator attire and without hesitation stated that there is no question where their allegiance lies. They expect to be in "The Swamp" early and often. Some of Fayson's family members had also just arrived.

A large table was decorated in Terrier red, black, and white, complete with a pair of football helmets with the larger than life "H" logo. At the end of the table was a 5x7 photo of each of the players. The photo had a magnet attached to the back. She would later tell the players that they were to hang it in their collegiate locker and never forget that they will always be a part of the Terrier program. Each player had a decorative pen to sign the Letter of Intent.

Mrs. Garcia had also arranged a beautiful food table complete with Plant City Strawberries dipped in chocolate, a beautiful cake which prominently displayed a photos of the football seniors, punch, cookies, other assorted snacks, and coffee.

Coach Garcia compared Fayson's playmaking abilities to that of J.R. Reed, who had played for the Terriers alongside former Florida offensive lineman Shannon Snell. He also repeatedly stated that his longtime friend Urban Meyer is getting a tremendous person, as well as, a future star.

It wasn't long before the Hillsborough Field House filled with family members, numerous media outlets (both print and electronic), and friends. Mr. Fayson was decked out in a beige colored suit, complete with a blue shirt, tie, and orange hat emblazoned with the "F". Fayson's mother, Carla Powell walked accompanied him. She would later tell me how much she enjoyed spending time with the Tebow family and Mrs. Hornsby. She said they plan on spending a lot of time together over the next several years.

Fayson was all smiles. He was asked to pose repeatedly with coaches, family, students, friends, and teammates before the media and those close to the Hillsborough program. He never even hinted that it might be tiresome. Jarred Fayson is one happy future Gator.

The event lasted for well over an hour. A number of students, friends, and family stopped by to wish the signees well. Fayson even checked his phone to see if Union County's C.J. Spiller had indeed inked his commitment with the Gators. He figured Jefferson's Daron Rose would sign with the Seminoles.

* * *

I left Central Avenue and made the short 1.3 mile trip to Middleton High where yet a second All-American was putting the pen to paper in the form of an LOI bound for Gainesville. Linebacker A.J. Jones had just signed the letter and handed it off to assistant coach Carlos Blake. Jones was dressed in a light colored suit with tie. He too, had the orange hat with the "F". If I hadn't known better I'd have thought he were auditioning for a GQ spread.

Coach Blake told me that he had just faxed the letter to the University of Florida. He continued saying that the Gators are getting one of the most athletic and dangerous defensive players that he has ever seen in high school football.

Jones had plenty of family members from Gainesville and Alachua in attendance. They were fired up too!! His aunt told me repeatedly that the entire family will be at the Florida games and you won't have to look hard to find them … you'll hear them. Almost in unison they stated that they have always been Gators, are still Gators, and couldn't be prouder that A.J. is now a Gator himself. His aunt posed the question: "Where else would he go?"

We took several photos of A.J. with various family members and friends. They wanted someone representing the Gators (Gator Country) to take their photo with one of the newest members of the Florida team.

I then spoke to head football coach Harry Hubbard, who said that he was not only happy to send one of his players to the state's flagship university --- he hoped to do it again next year.

The Tigers had a reception area with plenty of food and drinks. Unfortunately, I wasn't able to stay, as it was (A) time to prepare for another drive across town and (B) I didn't want to play the role of Santa Claus --- Oops! We've moved into football recruiting season --- okay, Phil Fulmer, and eat at every stop along the way.

* * *

Hide The Reese's Cups!

Another stop, another All-American. I was met at the door of Berkeley Prep High School by several ladies in the administrative area who were more than happy to say Go Gators and sing the praises of their signee, offensive lineman Jim Barrie. The PR representative, Heather, is a Florida alum as is her husband.

The first thing that caught my attention was a beautiful Florida basket decked out with many Florida Gators goodies. The basket was delivered for Jim. I'm certain that he removed all of the Reese's Cups that were also stashed into the basket. He made a statement to Coach Frank Sullivan that (Florida strength and conditioning) Coach Mickey Marotti wouldn't like seeing all of those Reese's Cups.

Big Jim said that the coaches at Florida want him to report at 290. If the whole Santa Claus/Phil Fulmer thing hadn't been weighing on me, I would have offered to do the honorable thing and remove the Reese's Cups from the area. Personally, I think Big Jim was going to apply his business acumen and put them up for auction on E-Bay. That would certainly please Marotti. He also probably notified David Lamm via E-mail that they were available. Regardless, the basket was a gift from a young lady, who was wishing him well.

The Barrie family and many well-wishers showed up at the ceremony. The staff at the school was very excited for Jim, who many privately told me was just an exceptional individual. He is obviously a leader on campus. Barrie is hilarious. His sense of humor will be a perfect fit with this club. One of the funniest moments was courtesy of the headmaster at Berkeley Prep, who during the passing of the football (after Barrie had signed it for the school) took the ball and gave Barrie a shot as he tried to run with the ball by him.

Barrie, who hopes to major in medicine, had a terrific time in California as a player in the CaliFlorida All-Star Game. He said that he got to hang around with the very Tampa Bay players (Fayson and Jones) that I had visited earlier. He also spoke highly of Tim Tebow.

His parents were just elated that Jim would be playing for Florida. They were dressed ready for the Gators season to begin today!! Wonderful people who are excited and ready for it all to begin.

* * *

A Great Ending To A Great Day

The drive across the Courtney Campbell Causeway was beautiful along the waters of Tampa Bay. I was heading into Pinellas County for the Clearwater Central Catholic signing day party at the Dogwater Café in Clearwater. I was running a little late. The traffic and construction on U.S. 19 didn't help things.

Riley Cooper had already signed his LOI and faxed it in to the coaching staff at Florida. The place was still crowded with the Marauders faithful, many of whom were staying throughout the 4-7 p.m. event.

In the corner was Terry Bowden, doing his radio show live from the event. Televisions throughout the Dogwater displayed highlights of CCC's season, many of which were filled with Cooper and teammate Colin McCarthy. Still other sets had the "Countdown to Signing Day" crew from Atlanta.

I told Riley that Florida fans definitely want to know that the MLB draft isn't a cause for concern. He replied honestly, "I'm going to leave my options open. But, I want to go to college and play baseball and football. That's been my dream."

His favorite MLB team is none other than the New York Yankees. Get your phone calls, letters, and E-mails out to "The Boss," George Steinbrenner, and hope that he won't pull the trigger on Cooper, if given the opportunity. Yeah, right.

Cooper said that he would probably call Coach (Pat) McMahon a little later tonight. He wore a bright blue Florida T-shirt. McCarthy wore a bright green Miami shirt, and Kevin Young wore a South Carolina T-shirt. There were several photos of the players and flags representing the teams flown in the area.

Cooper said that Meyer calls him "Tough Ass." There is no question in my mind that Meyer knows Cooper is woefully underrated and just what kind of special athlete that he has in the Gators fold. Cooper is deserving of a five star rating.

Cooper and McCarthy remained until probably 6:30.

It was a pleasure making the jog from ceremony to ceremony. You get a tremendous sense of the appreciation from the high school coaches, staff, teammates, and the athletes themselves. I hope to follow Florida's top-rated 2007 class. I can't reveal everything that I witnessed, because some will be on our '06 Gator Country Signee DVD and others will be included in features due out in next month's edition of Fightin' Gators Magazine. But, I do hope that the journal shed a little insight into the day's events. As was overheard at every event…It's Great to Be a Florida Gator!!


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