A Florida Gators basketball champion anxiously paces the halls of a Boca Raton hospital, intercepting family members as they arrive.
He is a bit older now — 42 to be exact — and certainly less nimble than his playing days. His pace is more measured and his once lofty “vertical” has been reduced several inches. His knees may occasionally creak or his ankles crack, but that is as much from the passage of time as it is from a sports-filled youth. There are no regrets.
“It was all worth it”, he will tell you — especially that ring and what it symbolizes.
By Brent Mechler
On his left ring finger is poised a rather ornate piece of jewelry, still shimmering and, occasionally flashing its brilliant ‘bling’ under the bright hospital lights. Like its adorner, it too belies its age.
“I can’t believe it, but yeah … it’s almost 23 years old,” says the title ring’s proud owner.
Proud he should be. A proud member of Florida’s first SEC champion basketball team in 1989.
“The ring looks so good for a reason … I take care of it. It is … well, it was my most prized possession,” said Michael Ramirez with a hinting smile.
We’ll get to that later.
Michael Ramirez, No. 14.
“People notice the ring all the time. They remember the team — not many remember me,” he laughs.
The truth is, every Gators fan remembers a “Michael Ramirez.” Every basketball fan has chanted “his” name in the waning seconds of a blowout, and roared when he tossed aside the warm-up jersey and knelt down at the scorer’s table. They held their collective breath when he touched the ball and erupted if he so much as grabbed a rebound, let alone scored a basket.
Michael Ramirez was a walk-on.
And though tendency is to group all walk-ons into the same “Rudy” category, the truth is — every one arrives on a team via a unique set of skills, circumstances and timing. This was no different for Ramirez, though his story is rather Rudy-esque.
“I was an usher in the O’Connell Center the year before,” he says. “I told my co-workers that they would be cleaning up after my games next season.
They usually laughed,” he concedes.
The next season, timing and circumstance did indeed cross paths with Ramirez’s skill set. The returning Gator squad faced tremendous attrition, having lost 4 players for reasons ranging from grade-issues to injury, the most notable being the ruptured Achilles’ heel of Stacey Poole.
“Without a couple walk-ons, 5-on-5 practices would have been impossible,”
Ramirez recalls of Coach Sloan’s suddenly thinned roster. So, Nov. 25, 1988 — promised fulfilled — Michael Ramirez sat far below the aisles he ushered and seats he swept. He occasionally offered a wink and sly smile to former co-workers from his new courtside locale.
Though his view was certainly better as a team member, his workload was far heavier, and amazingly, his notoriety perhaps far lighter.
“I think I had a name badge as an usher,” Ramirez said, erupting into laughter. “So, yeah — more people probably knew my name before I joined the team than after.”
Whether due to budgets constraints, the unexpected shortage of players or just the nature of being a walk-on, Michael Ramirez gave new meaning to the phrase, “toiling in anonymity.” Unlike those of teammates, Ramirez’s jersey lacked his name.
“If you didn’t know who No. 14 was, well, you didn’t know I was on the team,” Ramirez says. “And most people didn’t,” he laughs.
Nike, Adidas, Converse or whatever company was supplying shoes certainly did not know. Or if so, didn’t seem to care.
“They didn’t have shoes for me, so I was given a couple used pairs from the prior year’s team,” he said with an exasperated smile.
“Life was different as a walk-on,” Ramirez will tell you. “I am sure a lot has changed since my time there. I bet they get shoes now,” he jokes.
“But things will always be a bit different for a walk-on,” he continues.
As he speaks, Ramirez’s expression reveals an undeniable pride and his eyes betray a moment of fond reflection.
“I loved warm-ups. I loved running out onto the court, hearing and seeing the fans,” he recalls. “Those brief moments before the game a walk-on is like every other player — out on the court. It is great feeling.”
Virtually all athletes can make claim to a tremendous amount of work, practice, sacrifice, injury, pain and exhaustion, but few can do so with such fleeting promise of on-court glory as a walk-on. For every Scottie Pippen (yup, he was a walk-on), there are countless Michael Ramirezes. It is the walk-on, perhaps as much as any other player, who is there for pure love of the game — hearing the crowd chanting his name and waiting for the coach’s cue in the game’s dwindling seconds.
“I had heard the fans chanting. At some point — every walk-on does,” Ramirez reveals. “It’s nice, but as a competitor, you always wished you could have helped in more meaningful minutes.”
The minutes ticked off Ramirez’s Gators basketball career in a shocking opening round NCAA Tournament loss to underdog Colorado State. Ironically, it was the game in which Ramirez logged his most career minutes: two. It is also the only game that forever placed him a Florida media guide, providing the only statistic of his career: a missed field goal attempt.
“Thank goodness, statistics were never really what it was about for me,” he says smiling. “I loved playing the game, being part of the team and representing my school. The experience changed me forever… instilling a confidence and pride I never had,” he continues.
Ramirez still wears that pride. For many, his SEC Championship ring honors a great season perhaps cut short, but for Ramirez it symbolizes a short career made great by the lessons learned, virtues gained and friendships forged as a basketball walk-on.
“I told you, it was my prized possession,” a beaming Ramirez says.
He is holding his newborn daughter, Charleigh Rose Ramirez.