“The lane is long, some one has said, that never turns again, And Fate, though fickle, often gives another chance to men.” -Grantland Rice, “Casey’s Revenge” 1907
It was supposed to be a last go round. As a graduate transfer from Virginia, tight end Jake McGee came to Florida in the summer of 2014 immediately eligible to play.
As a Cavalier, McGee led his team in his senior season with 43 receptions and 395 receiving yards. Then the quarterback turned tight end was all set to bring his talents to Gainesville for one last year, spending his fifth year of eligibility improving what was already an impressive day two draft prediction.
In the Florida Gators season opener versus Eastern Michigan, McGee took the field with his whole family in their seats to watch. But before late arriving fans could even find their seats, McGee’s family was out of theirs.
In the second quarter, during what should have been a run of the mill play, right guard Trenton Brown and Eastern Michigan defensive end Deshai Powell rolled onto McGee’s left leg.
As players dispersed back to their respective lines, McGee stayed on the ground, writhing in obvious pain. Then head coach Will Muschamp and the training staff surrounded him on the field, while a quite crowd looked on.
There was a sense of fear that comes with every injury, lightened by some relief when McGee waived to the crowd but coupled with a hard dose of “you’ve got to be kidding me.”
Following an injury plagued 4-8 season, McGee (6’6”, 245 lbs.) was supposed to come in and provide an immediate target for quarterback Jeff Driskel, a safety net for offensive coordinator Kurt Roper’s new fast tempo offense, and some much needed veteran leadership in Muschamps locker room.
Instead, there he was being carted off the field in an air cast before it was even halftime.
Fans weren’t the only ones stumbling in disbelief.
Heading to the hospital with a broken tibia and fibula, McGee tried to take in what had just happened.
“I went into a little bit of a shock,” he admits.
“Just with what happened and what was going on, [and] then throughout that day as I got to the hospital and stuff it was pretty down. It’s nothing you wish on anyone and it’s not something you expect to happen to yourself. You gotta live with it and keep going…I mean it’s something you don’t expect. Playing football you know what can happen, you know injury is a part of the game. It’s sort of a freak accident and I guess once I went through the doctor evaluations and had surgery that night it was just moving forward and trying to keep a positive attitude to get healthy.”
The process to get healthy took place in Gainesville, where McGee had access to a training room, doctors and a whole lot of people. It also gave him a chance to get to know his teammates in a way that the field can’t provide.
“At home, I wouldn’t have been around as many people, which usually can make it worse. I couldn’t really move that well, so I was either in the training room all day or either at my apartment. Everyone was sort of taking care of me.”
And when he says everyone, he means everyone.
“Everyone, from Mr. [Jeremy] Foley down, checking in on me. The training staff was great. Guys I lived with, everyone on the team. You don’t wish that on anyone but it couldn’t have been better in having people there to support me.”
But the rehabilitation was only a small part of a much bigger battle, because McGee’s plan to move forward consisted of a whole lot of waiting around.
Despite the ability to go straight to the NFL, Jake says he knew he wanted to first exhaust the option of returning to college for a true final year.
During what he calls a “pretty stressful situation”, the graduate student had to write a letter petitioning the NCAA for a sixth year of eligibility.
The general statute for this case is that the student athlete must have missed two seasons because of something out of their control, i.e., medical hardship or family hardship. For example, former Florida Gators kick returner Andre Debose was granted a sixth year since he missed his freshman year and what was originally his senior year with injuries.
Generally if one of the two years missed was due to a redshirt, then the NCAA will not grant a sixth year of eligibility.
Even knowing that, McGee submitted his petition. Then came the really tough part.
“I was bugging compliance almost everyday about where we’re at, what’s going on,” he recalls.
“It wasn’t looking good for awhile. If I had to bet money I would say I wouldn’t be back here this year.”
Another person having to twiddle their thumbs with this situation was new head coach Jim McElwain.
“Well, I sure didn’t want him to leave,” says McElwain.
“I talked to him. And yet, that really was out of our hands. It was in the NCAA’s hands.”
Looking back McGee says, “it was a tough time just focusing on everything really, because you’re doing workouts not knowing if you’d be on the team or not…. for myself I’m a pretty positive person, so it was just easy to keep going and support the team and do whatever I could do to help everyone else.”
And just as Grantland Rice wrote in his 1907 poem “Casey’s Revenge”, the lane is long, and never turns again. But on January 20, 2015, Jake McGee had fate hand him another chance.
“We were sure excited,” McElwain recalls, “and he was, too. The smile on his face to be able to come back and be able to play that last year was something that was huge.”
McGee knows he’s going to be used as an example by the NCAA. An organization in desperate need of some good publicity, they can now point to the Gators tight end as an example of their generosity.
According to McGee, “I would say that, a couple years ago, even last year something like this — I wouldn’t be playing this year…they sort of — not made a new rule — but this is one of the few cases of having only one year injury that the NCAA sort of extenuating circumstances they sort of gave back to the student athlete.”
With a laugh, McGee gladly states that he’s a supporter of the much-abhorred NCAA, as he now gets that shot to show what he’s got under McElwain’s offense.
McElwain and staff aren’t able to fully see how McGee will be implemented just yet, as he’s being held out of live drills as a precaution, but the signs are there for a positive addition.
“I know this, the guy look like they’re supposed to and that’s a step in the right direction…he’s not going to be able to be in any live drills, but we’ll be able to see how he functions, and some of the combo blocking things and that kind of stuff. So I think we should get a pretty good idea how he’s going to fit to help the program next fall.”
Whatever way he does fit into the program though, McGee is pretty certain it’ll come with lots of leadership and teaching responsibilities.
Playing under his fourth offense, he says he’s picked up ways to combine the wording and concepts to translate from one set of plays to another. Now that that’s gotten easier, he can pass it on to a whole group of younger players.
“They’re all learning a new offense too but I’ve had a little more experience with being in offenses, being in stuff, so it’s fun to help them with the questions especially because they’re all talented and a hardworking group. It’s a lot easier when the guys you’re with want to be great and want to work everyday…they enjoy it, [so] you want to give them as much influence and knowledge as I have to get them as good as they can be.”
This mentorship comes home with him as well, in what McGee jokingly refers to as a master plan by the coaching staff. Because with a sixth year of eligibility, comes yet another year of an age difference between the 23 year old and the new crop of freshmen.
“I think they did it on purpose the way they set it up with the other tight ends here. I’ve got like six other freshmen here. They got me feeling a little older. They’re just getting out of high school and I’m over here on my second degree. They are talking about mandatory classes and I’m just laughing. It’s the same stuff I worried about, five years ago, six years ago… I don’t want to say dad, because then that makes me feel old, I like to say I’m like an older brother; makes me feel a little younger.”
With a rod through his tibia and six screws total, it took months to get his body feeling younger as well. But with spring practice now in full swing, McGee got to return to the field with an ever-slight hint of nervousness that was quickly dispelled.
“I mean it was a happy fun anxious. You are excited. You haven’t been out there playing football since last year, so it’s something that every part of it was exciting to go through it. Stuff you used to hate doing is really not that bad. It’s a lot better than you remember it being. I’m getting tackled a few times. It feels good. You fall like on an out route, but you can come up with a smile because you’re back running. It’s fun to be back out there. I don’t really feel any worries in my head.”
The spring period will give him time to slowly work back into full contact, but with a confidence that says he could return right now if need be, he looks forward to one more final year.
“It does feel like it’s been a while.”
He thanks Gator nation for their continued support, and then identifies with them in a way that makes fans long for fall.
Told that fans can’t wait to see him back on the field, he laughs and replies;
“Yeah, me too.”