The outcome of Saturday’s game with Western Carolina in The Swamp was never in doubt, just the final score. Florida’s 62-0 win turned out pretty much as expected, a chance to say good bye to the seniors and take a long look at the young guys that are the future for the Gators. What wasn’t expected was a feel good story that puts the entire college football experience in the right perspective.
Florida’s senior starters played three series in the first half and then made a one-play cameo on the first play of the third quarter. Florida’s freshmen and redshirt freshmen got an extended chance to show what they could do and they offered an impressive view of the future. Still, this was the big-time football bully picking on the small-time football bottom feeder, the mighty Gators, who are ranked third nationally and in contention for a national championship, against the lowly Catamounts, who came to Gainesville with no hope of winning. All Western Carolina wanted was a payday that will help them balance their budget. The best way to describe the game was carnage and as bad as it was, it could have been worse. Florida could have scored more points except that Urban Meyer played just about everybody that was breathing and wearing a uniform.
But this is where the story gets really good.
One of the seniors that got to run out that tunnel Saturday afternoon was Tim Higgins, a walkon from Michigan who is the president of Florida’s chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. He’s a National Merit Scholar. His dad Kevin is a former assistant coach with the Detroit Lions and now the head coach of The Citadel.
Tim Higgins is all of 5-7 and 162 pounds, a history major that plans to teach history and coach football after he graduates from the University of Florida in December. He’s spent the last four years as Florida’s answer to Rudy. He’s the little guy that’s done whatever the coaches have asked of him. He’s been the human equivalent of a blocking and tackling dummy that never lost hope that someday he would run out that tunnel at The Swamp with a stadium jammed full of Gators.
When you’re a walkon at a big time football school like Florida, odds are you’ll never see the field even once. You go to practice. You bleed. You sweat. You get hit. Over and over again you go through all the pain and all the dirty work and most of the time nobody ever tells you how much you are appreciated. Most walkons last a year, maybe two. Higgins stuck it out four years and he never complained. He knew he would never challenge one of the scholarship players for playing time but he always did his best to help the scholarship players do what they needed to do to get ready for Florida’s next opponent. Every day he knew he was going to get hit so hard that he would be looking through the ear hole of his helmet but he always jumped up and came back for more and that got Meyer’s attention. This fall Urban Meyer rewarded Higgins by putting him on a football scholarship for the fall semester.
“I saw a young guy that did everything asked of him,” said Meyer, who couldn’t hide his pride in this young guy that had the folks at The Swamp feeling good when they left.
Getting a scholarship was just the opening act of this story, though.
Earlier in the week, friends began a campaign to get Higgins in Saturday’s game. Higgins knew he was going to dress out and hear his name called as one of the seniors but friends and teammates wanted more for him. A letter appeared mysteriously on Meyer’s desk urging him to give Tim a chance. Flyers were passed out before the game urging fellow students to start chanting Higgins’ name. They held up “We Love Higgins” signs.
Meyer got the hint. Higgins got the news at halftime.
“At halftime they said I am going to get to go in on a kickoff for the second half,” said Higgins, who was fighting away the tears.
Just getting in on a kickoff was a thrill. Then, late in the fourth quarter Meyer outdid himself.
Higgins recalled, “Before the last drive Coach Meyer said ‘Higs get with Tebow’ and then Tebow told me ‘you’re going in at tailback. Here are the steps you have to take.’ “
He followed the offense up the field, waiting for a chance and then came the call he’ll never forget — “Higs you’re in on the next play.”
He ran on the field and fans that were clued in to this feel good story went crazy. He admits he was nervous but Tebow made sure he knew what to do.
“He kind of had to line me up a little bit,” said Higgins.
He took a handoff and got back to the line of scrimmage.
The stats will show that Tim Higgins carried the ball one time for no gain in his college football career, but if you think this was a no gain, you’re sadly mistaken.
No, he didn’t get a single yard on the play but just getting on the field and getting the ball in his hands one time made a statement that college football isn’t always about the fastest and the strongest and the guys with all the stars after their names. It’s about blood, sweat and tears. It’s about hard work, pain and determination. It’s about getting back on your feet when you’ve been knocked down. It’s about giving maximum effort even when the odds are against you.
For every star in college football there are 20 guys that treasure every minute of playing time they see and for every 20 of those guys there are 20 more who can only hope and pray that someday they’ll run out of a tunnel, dressed out with all the guys that go to school for free because they’re bigger, stronger, faster and more athletic. The flip side is that for every one of those 20 guys that appreciates the chance to play, there are far too many that think they are bigger than the team, greater than the program just because they can do something with a football in their hands or maybe because they are so big they can put the hurt on other folks.
In this 10-1 season that could take the Gators all the way to Glendale, Arizona for the national championship game, we’ve heard far too much about Marcus Thomas and not enough about guys like Tim Higgins. Marcus Thomas could have been an All-American this year. Because he couldn’t follow the rules he may end up being the guy that costs the Florida Gators a national championship. Too bad he never had the heart of a Tim Higgins. Marcus Thomas was given every chance in the world to right his listing ship but in the end, it was all about Marcus. He got every break imaginable and way too many chances but it didn’t matter. Marcus Thomas did what Marcus Thomas wanted to do and it didn’t matter to him that coaches and teammates stood up for him and gave him second and third chances.
Can you imagine if Marcus Thomas had the determination of a Tim Higgins? Can you imagine if Marcus Thomas thought it’s a privilege to be out here, not a God-given right?
“I didn’t deserve to be a scholarship but Coach Meyer gave me a scholarship for this year,” said Higgins. “I don’t deserve to get on that field and play but I got a chance to play on Senior Day and I definitely don’t deserve to get the ball in my hands but Coach gave me a little carry today. It’s been a dream come true for me this whole ride and I’m so thankful for it.”
Meyer beamed when he spoke of Higgins, telling the media after the game, “I love young people like that because you watch what Tim Higgins is going to do the next 20 years. He’s going to be a success and he’s going to always come back to Florida and be a part of this great environment and great tradition.”
Remember the name Tim Higgins. Remember it not because he got no yards on one carry but remember it because he’s everything that being a Florida Gator is all about. We hear Urban Meyer talk about getting kids invested in the program to the point where doing the right thing is instinctive. Then we see a Tim Higgins and see a young man that not only does the right thing but wants to pass along the lessons he’s learned.
“It’s really been awesome having relationships with the coaches,” said Higgins. “Just the values and stuff he [Meyer] has taught us since the beginning … I just want to teach and coach when I’m done. Learning all that stuff and how it’s done the right way and how to invest in and develop young people has been meaningful.”
And meaningful is what Saturday became because of a 5-7, 162-pound walkon that proved that if you hang in there — determined to stick it out to the end, always doing the right thing — good things will happen. Tim Higgins stuck it out and never gave up his dream. Saturday, he shared his dream with the entire Gator Nation.
If you remember only one thing about Saturday’s game with Western Carolina, remember the name Tim Higgins. He won’t have the stats to prove it, but he will always be a star in the Gator Nation.