Nowadays it seems like every college or university has some sort of nation. There’s GatorNation, DawgNation, WolverineNation and the list goes on and on. But what does it really mean? When a student-athlete’s playing days are done how much interest does the fan base still have in that person?
Well, the Florida Players Network and the University of Florida are trying to show that the GatorNation is real and that there is some meaning behind the saying “once a Gator, always a Gator.”
The Florida Players network is a new organization created by former University of Florida football players with the sole purpose of taking care of former football players once their playing days are done.
Mike Pearson, who was back in Gainesville to be inducted into the Florida Athletic Hall of Fame, took time out of his schedule to be apart of the FPN’s weekend and believes that the organization can make a difference.
“I think it’s one of those networks that is really long overdue. Hopefully a lot of other schools are staring to do the same thing.” Pearson said. “It’s one of those deals where you lose touch with some of your guys that maybe you weren’t the closest friends with. You know, friends with but not as close. Some of those guys are hurting, some of them are doing great. If you can form a bridge and bring those guys together, I think it’s always beneficial, especially with this unique football fraternity that we have. We have the ability to help our guys out. It’s an awesome network that as we get going and I feel as more guys find out about it, it’s really going to be beneficial.”
On the player’s side, Chris Doering has really spearheaded the organization and is working to make FPN a successful, reliable outlet for former players to be able to network with each other and help former players who have fallen on hard times.
“The fraternity of guys who played football here at the University of Florida, while there’s 100 years or more of Florida football, there’s only around 2,500 guys who are around that can say they had the opportunity to put the orange and blue on and run through those tunnels.” Doering continued. “So obviously, we’re very fortunate to do what we did on the football field but that’s only three, four, five years of your life and there’s a lot of life that goes on after those football days. While fans see only the guys who are out there on the field, there are a lot of guys who don’t have as much success off the field as they did on the field.”
And that is something that fans need to know. While the casual fan can turn on the television on a Saturday afternoon and watch their favorite football team, a lot of those players may never make it to the NFL and may not find the same success off the football field as they did on it.
The FPN focuses on several aspects in an effort to educate players on what to expect when their playing careers are over.
“What we’ve tried to do is focus on a couple different aspects of post-football life. One is a transition from guys as they get out of playing here at the University of Florida or after they get done playing in the NFL for 10-11 years, trying to transition into what their life is going to be like once those playing days are over,” Doering said. “So that mentoring program is a very important aspect of what we’re trying to do with the Florida Players Network. And also trying to raise some money to help guys that maybe haven’t had as much success afterwards. Guys that are having health issues or guys that are out of work or guys that are trying to go back to school or guys that are homeless. So it’s an important mission that we have and I think if we’re not going to help our own guys, nobody else is.”
It’s hard to imagine former football players living paycheck-to-paycheck, jobless or even homeless in some cases. It’s a fact that may not be common knowledge to most fans but something that the FPN is trying to raise awareness for.
Foundation manager, Kimberly Haynes, spoke about how the FPN is trying to raise awareness for these issues.
“We’re definitely getting a lot more visibility and exposure as people come out to our events, as they see printed releases as we do interviews, they really grasp what we’re about. The guys have a consistent message and all the guys who are apart of the Florida Players Network are really genuine to the commitment of the organization.”
And the FPN is getting a lot more exposure in their second year. Head football coach Will Muschamp made an appearance at the Blue Carpet event to show his support for the organization.
“It’s Gators helping Gators and it certainly shows the leadership of the former lettermen.” Muschamp said.
The organization has enjoyed support from some high-profile former Gators such as Fred Taylor and Lawrence Wright.
“If you can go out and lend a helping hand to those that have hit a little road bump, they’re not down and out, but people tend to hit a little road bump and life is tough. To be able to go out and support them and to be able to have fun while doing it is a win-win,” Taylor said.
Wright, the only Gator player to win the Jim Thorpe award, expanded on Taylor’s sentiments.
“You have to establish something like this to keep the family together. We’re a nation as a university but the guys have built comradery around football. It’s a good thing that we’re trying to keep that bond together and keep that unified,” Wright continued. “And to have a cause and purpose for our community to outreach and to help is a real, real blessing.”
With the help of former players, fans and businesses in the community, the Florida Players Network is on a mission to make a real difference in the lives of former Gator athletes.
“I think we have the opportunity to do something special,” Wright said. “And any time when you have an opportunity to do something special you have to keep building upon it and keep on exploring and at the end of the day you have success and that’s what we’re used to around here.”
For more information about the Florida Players Network and to find out how you can help their cause visit their website, Floridaplayersnetwork.org.