A journey from hell

John Reaves has a story to tell about his journey back from hell and how the very same demons that successfully lured him away from 20 years of sobriety into a nine-year descent that cost him nearly everything in life he holds precious are still lurking, still doing everything in their power to draw him back into a lifestyle that he knows will kill him if he gives in even one time. “Just one drink,” his demons tell him. “One little drink won’t hurt.” Many of the demons, Reaves can tell you, are cleverly disguised as his friends.

“They call up and say, ‘C’mon John, it’s only one drink’ but I can’t do one drink,” Reaves says. “I can’t do one drink. I can do 20 doubles. I can do that. But I can’t do one.”

The reason he can’t do one is because one always leads to that second one and a second to a third and that means he’s out until he can’t drink anymore. He is an addict and his drug of choice is alcohol, preferably chased by pain pills. They were the drugs that led him into his first rehab at Hazelden in 1980 and they are the same drugs that set him off on a nine-year bender that began in 2000 and ended only recently.

John Reaves had been clean and sober for the last 87 days when I spoke with him on Thursday. He does not expect you to believe the tough times are a thing of the past nor does he want your pity or need your sympathy. He has compartmentalized life into living one day at a time and working a 12-step plan that he hopes will continue to strengthen him and prevent punching another ticket to hell on earth.

He has a story to tell and the only thing he asks is that you take a few moments from your busy schedule to hear him out.

“If there is only one person out there who’s going through a bad time and he’s thinking about taking a drink again … if there’s one person out there thinking about how bad he hurts and how a few drinks and some pain pills would make him feel better for a little while then it’s worth it to me to tell this,” Reaves said at a mini-reunion of teammates from Florida’s 1969 football team at the Gainesville Hilton Conference Center.

* * *

It only took one play to secure John Reaves as a genuine legend in the heart of the Gator Nation. He was the hotshot sophomore quarterback from Tampa Robinson who felt he was born to be a Florida Gators.

“I read Tom McEwen’s columns in the Tampa Tribune about the Gators and Larry Libertore and Tommy Shannon and Steve Spurrier and I listened to Otis Boggs on the radio talking about high end-over-end spirals,” Reaves said. “This is where I grew up wanting to be. Being a Gator was my dream come true.”

His 70-yard touchdown pass to Carlos Alvarez on the third play of the first game of the season in 1969 was the beginning of a dream season that would be considered the best in Florida football history for years and years to come. “THE Pass,” as it is remembered by the Gator Nation, was on a play called “79 Streak” that was game-planned back in the spring and perfected in the summer months by Reaves and Alvarez who rarely missed a day playing pitch and catch.

“We ran that play so many times I think we could have done it blindfolded,” Reaves said. “I knew all I needed was enough time to make my drop and get the throw off and Carlos was going to catch it.”

Alvarez lined up four yards wider than normal and the Gators set tight end Bill Dowdy on the same side to occupy the safety. All Alvarez had to do was turn on the jets (he ran a 9.6 100 yards in high school) and there was no way the safety could get there to help in time. Reaves delivered the perfect pass, a spiral that cut cleanly through the air without a hint of a wobble. The ball traveled approximately 55 yards on the fly. Alvarez was 10 yards behind Houston’s corner who could only watch Alvarez sprint down the west sideline of Florida Field into the north end zone.

They had practiced the play so many times over the summer that there was no way the sure-handed Alvarez wasn’t going to catch the ball. “I wasn’t worried about dropping the ball,” said Alvarez. “I was just worried about getting caught from behind because I knew John would never let me live it down.” Of course, they didn’t.

Houston never recovered. The Cougars, predicted by at least one publication to win the national championship, lost 59-35 to the Gators, who were in the preseason Bottom Ten.

One play made John Reaves a legend and jump started a magical mystery tour that ended in a 9-1-1 record that was the best in school history for years to come.

* * *

One play made Reaves a legend. One drink sent him barreling down the road toward alcoholism. He was only 15 when he took his first drink and he liked it. He liked the way it tasted, liked the way it made him feel.

“I thought having a drink is what it took to make you one of the boys and when I had a drink, I drank to get drunk,” Reaves said. “I wasn’t drinking socially. I already had social down pat. I drank for the effect and that was to get drunk.”

By the time he came to the University of Florida in August of 1968 was already skilled in the art of navigating to the bottom of a beer can. He thought he was simply a party guy.

“Everybody knew I liked to drink and have a good time and there was always a party going on,” he said. “Somebody wrote that Florida was the number one ‘party team’ in the country. Well, I was the number one party animal.”

He was also an alcoholic without the slightest understanding that he was genetically inclined toward the disease. He had no idea that having an alcoholic father substantially increased the odds that he would be alcoholic, too.

Heredity proved too great an obstacle for John and both his siblings.

“My father was an alcoholic and died of cirrhosis of the liver and a heart attack at the age of 42 … separated from my mother when I was a baby and I never knew him,” Reaves said. “My brother was an alcoholic and chain smoker who died of a heart attack at 45 and he had cirrhosis of the liver. My sister was too although she quit cold turkey.  Now she’s retired and living in Inverness. Caroline is in remission from cancer, God bless her.”

* * *

When Reaves graduated from the University of Florida in 1971, he was college football’s all-time leading passer with 7,549 yards. That’s fallen to sixth on Florida’s all-time list and it will soon be seventh if Tim Tebow has the season that is expected in 2009. In Reaves’ era, that was a remarkable total. He was the first round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in the spring of 1972. From 1972 until he landed at Hazelden Foundation rehab facility Minnesota in 1980, he drank, got addicted to painkillers and discovered cocaine.

“In 1980, I had serious problems and I took a couple of DUI’s and had a couple of other problems,” he said. “The court ordered me to go into rehab and the Minnesota Vikings arranged for me to go to Hazelden for a 27-day program and I became a member of AA (Alcoholics Anonymous).”

He spent the next 20 years sober, raising his daughter Layla (Florida graduate and married to Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin) and sons David (Tennessee quarterback coach) and Stephen (backup quarterback for the Toronto Argonauts in the Canadian Football League). He played three years in the USFL for the Tampa Bay Bandits, throwing for nearly 10,000 yards and 73 touchdowns. When the USFL folded, he caught on for a couple more seasons in the NFL. He coached at Florida for Steve Spurrier and for Brad Scott at South Carolina.

Then in 2000, he got a divorce, his mother died, his stepfather died and he lost his coaching job. His heart was broken and he got bitter.

“The divorce broke my heart,” he said. “There I am living in an apartment with rented furniture and there she (ex-wife) is living on Bayshore (in Tampa), driving a Mercedes. That’s when my friends started calling me up, bugging me to go to happy hour.”

At first he said no, but as he sat alone night after night in his apartment watching television he got to thinking that what harm could a couple of drinks do? After all he had been through he thought he was strong enough to handle it.

He couldn’t. Within six months, he was back to drinking until he couldn’t drink anymore.

“I had that first drink and within six months, I’m back to drinking 20 doubles and then I’m picking up Vicodin and Percocet to help me get around because I’ve hardly been able to get around because of the various injuries I’ve had,” he said. “Then I went out and found some other illegal things and before you know it I had bottomed out.”

* * *

Nine years later John Reaves was at rock bottom, wondering how he was going to get through another day. The phone rang and it was old friend Larry “Moose” Morris, a backup center and long snapper for the Gators back in Reaves’ day and now a prominent attorney in Pensacola. Morris, who already knew about Reaves’ nine-year path of destruction, asked a simple question.

“He wanted to know how I was doing and I told him well I just sold my mother’s silverware so I could have money enough to pay the light bill,” Reaves recalled. “Then he said, ‘John, I’m coming to see ya’ and he drove all the way from Pensacola to Tampa and that’s no easy drive.”

When Morris got there he told Reaves he would pay for it if Reaves would spend the next 30 days at the Talbot Rehabilitation Center in Atlanta. Reaves turned him down and told Morris that he “didn’t give a damn; thanks but no thanks.”

Laying in bed that weekend, Reaves stared at the ceiling and in the throes of his misery, asked God to give him the courage to call Morris to take him up on the offer. The next morning, a tearful phone call was made.

“I said Moose if the offer’s still good I’ll take you up on it and he said, ‘I’m so proud of you, John’ and then he flew me to Atlanta,” Reaves said.

* * *

That was 87 days ago and since then, John Reaves has remained sober. Some days are easy. Some days it’s a struggle but he is determined to stick with the plan. It’s a one day at a time existence and in those moments when he feels most vulnerable he makes it quickly as he can to an AA meeting, which he had done Thursday just before arriving at the Hilton Conference Center in Gainesville to see his former teammates.

The 12-step plan isn’t easy to follow. He admits he’s working his way through step four which is to get rid of all resentment. He found it easy to forgive everybody else that had wronged him in his life including his ex-wife. Like most people, the tougher part has been to forgive himself for all the things he’s done.

“I had all the God-given talent in the world,” he said. “I have no one to blame for my own situation except myself. I gave it all away.”

He came to Gainesville Thursday to share some time with teammates from the best year of his life when he felt like the king living in Camelot. Just making the trip up from Tampa wasn’t easy. He’s got a bulging disk in his back that makes it tough to sit or stand and there was also the memory of his last visit.

That was two years ago.

“I made a fool of myself at a special event and I got a reprimand from the AD (Jeremy Foley) and the president (Bernie Machen),” Reaves said. “It was with much trepidation for me to come back today and I’m sure they had trepidation about me showing up but I’m a different man now and I hope people will see that. It’s one day at time and with God’s help and by God’s grace, I’ll make it another day.”

One day at a time. It may not seem like much, but when you’ve been to hell and back, it’s a precious gift, one to cling to with all your heart.

Another precious gift is friends who will never give up on him. He knows he couldn’t have made it without them.

“Moose, Mac Steen, Mike Rich, Andy Cheney, David Peek, Carlos Alvarez and Steve Spurrier, too… they are my brothers who came to my rescue,” Reaves said. “That song that says ‘in all kinds of weather we all stick together’ … well, I’m living proof that it’s true.”

John sat and laughed and talked for two hours with Steen and Alvarez and Rich, which led Steen to say: “It was so good to see John, feeling good about himself again.”

So John tells his story, hoping that maybe someone with an overwhelming problem will seek help before the problem takes away everything precious. He smiles a lot and keeps a positive attitude and he cries, too, particularly when he sees those friends who never gave up on him.

“I’m not saying I’m a saint and I don’t expect anyone to believe me but I have 87 days of clean, sober living and if I can live another day and tell my story so that somebody who has a big problem will get some help, then it’s worth it,” Reaves said. “Whatever you do, get some help.”

Previous articleGoals are attainable for den Dekker
Next articleGators open with victory at Miami
Franz Beard
Back in January of 1969, the late, great Jack Hairston, then the sports editor of the Jacksonville Journal, called me on the phone one night and asked me if I wanted to work for him. I said yes. The entire interview took 30 seconds. It's my experience that whenever the interview lasts 30 seconds or less, I get the job. In the 48 years that I've been writing and getting paid for it, I've covered Super Bowls, World Series, NCAA basketball championships, BCS championship games, heavyweight title fights and what seems like thousands of college football, baseball and basketball games. I'm a columnist and special assignments editor for Gator Country once again, writing about the only team that ever mattered to me, the Florida Gators.