Welcome Mat's Back Out For Ex-Gators

In his heart, Ray Criswell was always a Gator. There is indeed plenty of truth to that saying "once a Gator, always a Gator," but even though he wanted to feel like he's still a part of the Florida football program there was indeed something missing for quite a few years. All that changed when Urban Meyer became the football coach at the University of Florida.

Criswell and all the former Gators got a letter from Meyer last spring, inviting them to come back to Gainesville and become a part of the Florida program once again. A lot of old wounds were healed instantaneously when that letter hit mail boxes all over the state and nation, especially for the players of the Charley Pell era. Because the Gators went on a harsh NCAA probation and Pell was fired back in 1984, a lot of the players from that era never felt the welcome mat was out for them when they wanted to get in touch with their Gator roots.

"That was a special moment," said Criswell, still Florida's all-time leader with a 44.4 average on 161 punts. "Coach Meyer made everybody feel that the contributions we made counted for something by welcoming us back the way he did."

It wasn't that Steve Spurrier or Ron Zook turned their backs on the former players but there never was the same effort to bring back the ex-players that you see on the sidelines at Miami or Florida State. Whenever there is a big game, their sidelines are usually packed with ex-players. That only adds to the mystique and the game day atmosphere at both places. Meyer let the ex-Gators know that this was their team and they were welcome back any time --- for practices, for games, just to hang around with the current players.

Criswell joined a large contingent of former Gators on the sideline for Urban Meyer's first Orange and Blue Game. He also came to the August barbeque that was held for former players and their families. That led him to accept Meyer's invitation to all the former players to be on the sideline for Florida games.

Criswell remembers the atmosphere in The Swamp that first big game that he was on the sidelines. The Gators were playing Tennessee back in September and he felt the electricity that was in the air. Watching Florida's special teams play lights out, contributing three field goals, a blocked field goal and holding the Vols to only 18 net punt return yards, he got a chill thinking back to the days when he was part of Gator special teams that were the best in the nation. It was truly a night to remember.

"It was something to be standing on the sideline and right there watching Eric Wilbur (Florida's punter) warming up during the Tennessee game," he said. "I introduced myself and told him that he had like about 10 times the leg strength I have. It made me feel really good to be there and be a part of a great game with a tremendous crowd, especially when the special teams play was so good."

He was there on the sidelines for all the games at The Swamp last year and that's where he will be this fall as well.

"It kind of gives you a feel of ownership in the team, in the whole program, because you were a part of it," he said. "All the things that Coach Meyer has done are really positive and they've really united all the former players behind him. I took my family to the barbeque and we will go again this year. My 13-year-old daughter was talking about that for a long time after last year and that's all she can talk about now. She's really excited to go and be a part of it. I really appreciate the way they're trying to bring all the families together, too. It's a great thing."

Getting together with former players back in the fall led plenty of ex-Gators to join Danny Wuerffel for his golf tournament to benefit Desire Street Ministries, too. Thanks to so many of the ex-Gators pitching in to help Wuerffel, that tournament sold out and raised a lot of money for the rebuilding of Desire Street Ministries, which was practically wiped out by Hurricane Katrina last August. New friendships have been forged by players that played under different coaches and in different eras and old friendships have been renewed.

At the heart of this revival is Meyer who recently told about 700 middle school and high schoolers at his football camp, "You're here in The Swamp, one of the greatest stadiums in all of college football. While you're here, you are going to meet some of the ex-players like Danny Wuerffel, Shane Matthews and Kerwin Bell that made this place great. Treat them with respect. They are the owners of this place. They are the ones that made Florida football great."

That Sunday evening, probably 99 percent of those young kids were so excited by Meyer's speech that they would have run through the nearest brick wall. Criswell knows the feeling.

"His energy is contagious," said Criswell, who punted professionally for the Tampa Bay Bucs. "I have only spent about 10 minutes with him but he is contagious and the way he's getting everybody involved in the program again is something special. What he has rubs off on you and gets you motivated. It makes you want to come back because it makes you feel that what you did mattered."

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When he punted for the Gators, Florida's special teams were the envy of college football. Coached by Dwight Adams, now retired from coaching and scouting but still a consultant for NFL and college programs for special teams play, the Gators took special teams play to a whole new level. Adams often filled his kickoff and punt coverage units with scout teamers, walk-ons and the bottom feeders of the depth charts.

"He took some very average players and made them into great special teams players," said Criswell, who led Florida in punting four straight years (1982-85). "He took guys like Doug Drew --- this is a guy that probably runs a 5.2 40 --- but put him on kickoff coverage and he beat everybody down the field to make the tackle or bust up the wedge. He looked for those kind of guys to step up and start on special teams. He gave them a lot of pride by letting them know that they could contribute and be a part of winning games. Everybody wanted to play for him."

Adams was an innovator who was way ahead of the rest of the college football world when it came to designing coverage. He used sky kicks on kickoffs, always kicked off cross-field from one hashmark or the other to eliminate a full 1/3 of the field, had his punters work with the legendary Bobby Joe Green to learn how to kick into the coffin corner, and his punt protection packages were so good that even FSU, which annually led the nation in blocked kicks, never blocked one against the Adams-coached Gator units.

He didn't like kicking the ball straight down the middle of the field but if the opposing team had a returner that ranked high in the national charts, Criswell said Adams made exceptions.

"He would take that on as a personal challenge," he said. "He would kick it straight to him [opposing returner] but the thing was, he spent the whole week pumping us up that our coverage teams weren't going to get beaten. It's like he just dared the other team to run one back on us."

Watching Florida's special teams play in Meyer's first year this past fall, Criswell felt a real swell of pride in their play. In the three previous seasons, the Gators gave up six touchdowns on punt and kickoff returns. In 2005, the Gators allowed only 60 punt return yards on 62 punts the entire season and there were no kickoffs or punts returned for touchdowns.

"When I was on the sideline I was amazed that the athletes are so much better," he said. "I spent all last season on the sideline and the one that sticks out to me is [Chad] Jackson. We had some big and muscular guys when I played but here's this guy who is 6-3, something like 210 and like four percent body fat … all muscle. He's a starting receiver and he was on coverage teams. I look at the other guys playing special teams and even the linemen are bigger than the guys we played with and we had some big guys like Jeff Zimmerman and Lomas [Brown]. The athletes are bigger and stronger and faster and they're playing special teams. Special teams are changing now because teams are putting their best athletes out there. It's a whole new game these days. I like the emphasis Coach Meyer put on special teams last year."

Criswell never had a punt blocked when he was in high school nor was one blocked in 161 punts for the Gators. As a professional, he had one tipped once when he was with the Bucs but that's as close as anyone ever got.

"I take a lot of pride in that," he said. "You know, it was a mental thing. You really had to trust the guys in front of you. As a punter you have to trust them because your job is to get the ball off. You've got to trust the snapper and your blockers. You only have a split second to get the ball and get the ball off."

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In the years since Ray Criswell punted for the Gators, he was always loyal, always cheering for the University of Florida. He felt the pride that all Gators felt when Spurrier took Florida to six SEC championships and a national championship in 1996. But there was something missing till Meyer came along.

All that disappeared in about the same time that it used to take him to get one of his booming punts off when he played for the Gators. Now, being a Gator has taken on renewed meaning.

"I love what's happening here," he said. "I love being a part of it. I love what Coach Meyer has done. I think the best years are still ahead of the Gators."

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