"I really don't know. All I can say is when I saw them on TV as a kid, I just felt like they were a team I would like to play for," said the soft spoken but always smiling Haden. He added, "I just have always had a good feeling about the Gators." What many may not know is that Joe really didn't think the Gators would reciprocate and initially gave his verbal commitment to Rutgers. As a matter of fact, his first offer came quite early from the Scarlet Knights. "The recruiting process itself, at the beginning was a little overwhelming. My first offer came right after my junior year from Rutgers. My father said that once you get your first one, others will follow but I really didn't believe him… after Rutgers and once I got in my senior year I got about 35-40 offers and people were calling, texting, it was all over the place."
On his initial commitment to Rutgers, Joe said it was his visit that caused his commitment at that time. For those in Florida that may not understand the appeal of the school, this may be something to consider. Joe, and his family all liked the staff at Rutgers from Joe's recruiting coach (Barnett) up to Greg Schiano. The program is building, the facilities are nice and recruits do get a sense of belonging to something special. "Everything at the school is real nice, Rutgers was always up there," is the way Joe summed them up. As with many football families, the Hadens are all very close. If family bonds with a school or coach, odds are that is where the recruit will go. Often, as in this case, the choice isn't easy and comes down to a "feeling." The Rutgers staff, as with Florida, is considered by recruits to be made up of sincere, quality people. The kind of people you would feel comfortable trusting your child with for four of the most important years in their young lives. For Joe, it was that long time feeling that put him in the Orange and Blue.
Joe's first visit to the Swamp was for Friday Night Lights. When I asked him about it, he broke out in a big smile and his eyes just lit up. "That was at night time, that was great, the lights were on, everyone was competing real hard and the players were out there watching you, impressing them, the people that were already on the team so that was fun." "I liked how the players that were already there just came out to watch and then after would talk to you and make you feel at home." Two players that stood out to Joe as far as players were Chris Culliver of Garner, NC and verbal commit and early entrant to UF Cameron Newton. Joe mentioned that "Cam" and he also hit it off, and will be his roommate at UF. Both should be settled in at UF as of now. His comment on Cam; "I knew he could throw, I just didn't think he could run like that."
After watching those two connect on timing patters at the Offense/Defense all star game in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, Gator fans in attendance may just have been given an early preview of things to come.
Joe's next visit gave him an idea of what playing in the Swamp before the Gator Nation would be like. "The next time I was there, was for the Alabama game (9/30/06). There were just no seats left and it was so LOUD. I was trying to talk on the phone and there was just no way I could talk on the phone." Joe wanted to make the LSU game but had a conflicting game for Friendly High School.
One concern regarding Joe is his transition from quarterback to wide receiver. Gator fans know the challenges involved in such a move after watching the growth of two players, Cornelius Ingram and Jarred Fayson and their trials, tribulations and success with the move. "I've been working on the transition at my school, my quarterback coach used to be the quarterback for West Virginia and he always had me do extra work, throwing me the ball, working on routes and all of that. We work on different things like me being in the slot, or at running back – for like where they get the ball to (Florida) use Percy (Harvin)."
Will Joe be ready for the new position and life at college?
If the Offense/Defense game was any indication (5 catches 71 yards) his ability to catch the ball, run precision routes and break tackles is not in doubt. The wide receiver position in the college game also requires the ability to block downfield. Joe's wipeout block of Ryan Broyles at the O/D game, springing Culliver for a 78 yard touchdown should put many minds at ease.
Making the jump from his home town and high school to Gainesville and UF though, is another story.
Friendly High School, where Joe was the team's starting quarterback and big man on campus has about 1400 students. His home town, which is all urban, has a population of about 24,000. Compare that to Gainesville which is a suburban/rural community dominated by the University of Florida whose enrollment is about twice that of the entire population of Fort Washington.
"I've been trying to get my mind ready for all of that. One thing I do know is that the coaches will be there supporting me. So, I know that if I need any help, just ask." Joe knows it won't be easy, but is ready to use all the support the school and coaches can give him. A great indication of his state of mind is the dedication he put into academics in high school. He knew that being an early entrant would help him on the field and in the classroom.
A family thing:
When Joe came down to Florida for the all star game, he was not alone. As a matter of fact, the Haden clan was in full force. In attendance were not only mom and dad, but brothers, aunts and more. They were all clad in Gator gear. Even the Ford Escapade had a Gator logo magnet. Some say his younger brother Josh, a junior at Friendly may be better than Joe. "Josh is good," said Joe the father. "Ohio State offered him first, then Auburn," said mom. Joe added later that 12 schools have offered his younger brother, including Rutgers and Florida. Whether he is better than Joe or not, well, the question just brought smiles and laughter. One thing is for sure, Josh will be certain of where he wants to go and as far as his parents are concerned, wherever he feels best is fine with them. Florida is a possibility, as is Rutgers. Those two schools garnished the most commentary. As Josh has been with Joe on each of his visits, he already has a good idea about both of them. Whether he wants to be with his big brother or strike out on his own, remains to be seen. The kicker is that there are five Haden brothers and four play football. The "trey" in the deck is in 9th grade and already a wide receiver on the varsity team. When I commented to mom that the Haden clan may be football's answer to the Sutter brothers (Hockey) she smiled, as all the Hadens do, laughed and just said, "Could be, could be."
The Gator Nation is now hoping the younger brothers can learn to feel the love that Joe does, and make playing for the Orange and Blue, a Haden tradition. If so, the future of football in Gainesville may just be as bright - as a Haden smile.