TAMPA — In the final few frames of this movie, with the sun about to drop into the nearby Gulf of Mexico, Urban Meyer bade goodbye to football, at least for now, and was dispatched to his new career with a going-away victory over college football’s winningest coach.
Beating Joe Paterno’s Penn State team in his fifth post-season win at Florida may not have been as impressive as winning the BCS title, but the 37-24 Outback Bowl victory over Penn State took on a special meaning. Senior captain Ahmad Black tied a big red bow on it with his second interception of the day, which he returned 80 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. Florida finished the season with a disappointing 8-5 record, but on an up note.
“It’s been a long season, a rough season,” said Black. “With a lot of ups and downs. I’m just glad we could send coach Meyer out on top. And the senior class out on top.”
It was certainly a fitting going away present for Meyer, who achieved his 65th victory in six seasons at Florida and 104th overall as head coach.
The fact that his team played hard through more than three quarters of offensive malaise and then pulled it out with excellent special teams, kicking game and a big-play defense no doubt added a measure of sweetness to the toasts later Saturday night that were bound to be made among Meyer’s disassembling staff.
The Urban Meyer Era is over.
Let the Will Muschamp reign begin.
* * *
In his final address to the media, Meyer was clearly grateful for the showing by his players and gracious in his comments, calling Black “the best safety in college football” and opposing coach Joe Paterno “the greatest coach in college football history.”
Magnanimous though the gesture may have been, Meyer might not be off all that much, because certainly Paterno will have the wins to prove it: 40, with 24 of them bowl victories.
As for Black, he added the Outback Bowl MVP trophy to his collection of awards, which already included a good bit of championship loot.
The best safety in college football? If you want to count all his bling and well as his gold-plated work ethic, Black’s resume is pretty impressive, but it didn’t come easy.
Almost overlooked as one of the “Lakeland Seven” who committed to Meyer four seasons ago, Black labored in development his freshman season, which he admitted, was stunted by his poor attitude, work habits and nutrition.
It was Chuck Heater who found the diamond in the rough, confessing that Black was “too slow, the short — too everything.” But in the end, he was just too good a football player to be kept down.
For a player who delivers and catches so many big blows, Black has displayed amazing resiliency and durability, both on special teams and in the secondary. He almost never misses a play and you rarely see him take himself out as he did on Saturday.
The first time he got hit in his thigh while helping make a tackle. He was on the sideline — “I just needed to walk it off a little bit” — and then he was back on the field. Except that he got hurt again on the very next play.
“They threw a pass across the middle to one of their big receivers,” said Black, “and I broke my helmet. So I came off. They (the officials) were arguing with me to ‘keep your helmet strapped up.’ It was broke. I busted my mouth and I busted my nose, but I was all right now.”
What he didn’t know what that he was hit from behind by one of his own teammates. But it wasn’t enough to take him off the field for his appointed rounds as the game’s hero.
* * *
While Black leaves with a national championship ring, the legacy of his consistency and tireless effort in these tumultuous times shines even brighter. Each time when the need arose for a big play, it seemed that No. 35 was in the neighborhood. A touchdown-saving tackle, a fumble recovery, a pass play broken up, an interception, or maybe just a well-timed word of encouragement to a struggling teammate.
So the script was already there and Black played it like Bogart in Casablanca. Game in doubt, Penn State threatening a possible winning drive in the final 55 ticks of the Outback Bowl, quarterback Matt McGloin launching what looked like an on-target pass to tight end Kevin Halpea on crossing route at the Gator 20.
As he has so many times before, the 5-9, 190-pound Lakelander who hits with the power of linebacker, arrived just in time, swooping in front of Halpea as if he were the intended receiver, pilfering the ball and streaking down the sideline 80 yards for the score. It was his 14th all-time, placing him fourth on the list of Gator robbers.
The play looked almost seamless, as he he’d rehearsed it many times before, and Black seemed to run faster than he’d ever run in this closing act. And fitting, perhaps, that it should end this way for the player who never quit playing hard in a season which some of his teammates lost heart. He had taken the unspoken oath of his captaincy as a vow to “lead by example.”
That example was to always keep the flame of eternal optimism burning and the binding of teammates tight.
Even right down to the very end, Black raised his pom-poms to encourage those he leaves behind for the new coach:
“Me and a couple of the older guys instilled in the younger guys, ‘This is going to be a great coach (Muschamp). Mr. (Jeremy) Foley brought in the best guy for the job. I know he wouldn’t have brought in somebody who would be bad for them. So keep ‘em positive and keep encouraging.”
* * *
In the epilogue, that football which Black toted for the touchdown would wind up being placed in the hands of young Ian Lockwood, who is suffering from brain cancer and was visited by Ahmad and several friends after undergoing brain surgery in Shands Hospital recently.
Lockwood was called to the podium by Urban Meyer and presented the football by Black, who stood behind his friend, rubbing his back for support, as Ian tried to find the words of appreciation.
“That was our goal and objective — to win the game for Ian,” said Black.
No wonder Black ran so swiftly, like a man on a mission, because he was.
The allegory concludes with this message: If you keep on trying hard enough long enough, he says, something good will eventually happen. It did for Ahmad Black, his teammates, his friend and his and coach in the final minute of his college career.
And in typical Ahmad fashion, just at the right time.