It’s Senior Day, Show Your Appreciation

To paraphrase a line made famous by Dennis Hopper, Western Carolina has two chances to win this game against the Florida Gators Saturday — no way and no how. The Gators will win this game Saturday and it will be their tenth win of the season, reason enough to make the trek to Gainesville since that isn’t done so often. But there is a better reason to be there. It’s Senior Day.

Barring a miracle of Moses proportions — and believe me, the only way the Catamounts win this one is if Charlton Heston stands on top of the north end zone scoreboard, holding a staff with his arms outstretched for the entire game — the Gators have win number 10 in the bag. Florida’s only won ten games in the regular season in school history three times before, so that’s a good reason for making it to the game. It promises to be an old-fashioned blowout, too, just what you expect when a really good Division I team plays a really bad Division I-AA team. The Catamounts have a resume’ that includes a win over the mighty Chowan College Braves, those same Braves that lost to the Newport News Apprentice School. They have lost eight straight games including a squeaker to Citadel. This one will be over before the first quarter has ticked off its last second.

So the real reason to make it to the game is the seniors. These guys have been through a lot here at Florida and they deserve a tremendous sendoff. It’s not their fault that they have to say good-bye to everybody on a day that the opponent is one that would have difficulty beating a decent high school all-star team here in Florida. Don’t blame them for the schedule. They aren’t the ones that made it and they shouldn’t be punished by fans staying away from The Swamp just because it’s a really bad game.

Here are just a few reasons why you should be there:

CHRIS LEAK: Three offensive coordinators in four years hasn’t exactly helped his cause, but he’s been a real trooper. Whatever he’s been asked to do, he’s given it his best shot. Maybe he didn’t always gut out the longest yard and maybe he didn’t always remember the cardinal rule that you don’t throw into triple coverage, but can anyone doubt for a second that he’s given it his best shot? Can anyone ever doubt that he has been the real trooper and hasn’t complained? And while you’re about it, check the Florida record books. It’s not an accident or a misprint that you find his name etched in all the important passing categories. It’s also not a misprint when you read that GPA — it’s above 3.0 for his college career at UF, proof that you can work hard at football and in the classroom and have success in both. When he runs out of that tunnel, he deserves a long, loud ovation.

JEMALLE CORNELIUS: He’s one of my favorite Gators of all time. If you were a father and you could ask the folks up in heaven to do a made to order son, you’d be very wise to consider asking for one just like this kid. Anyone on the team with a problem goes to JC first. They talk it over with JC and if they need someone to go with them when they go talk to a coach, JC is right there with them. The seniors look up to him. The rookies are in awe of him. Character? He redefines it. There will be Gators in the future that maybe are faster or more talented, but I have a hard time believing there will ever be a Gator with more character. Urban Meyer calls him “The Face of Florida Football.” I can’t agree with him more.

EARL EVERETT: I have a hard time imagining Florida’s defense without him next year. I guess he’s been starting at linebacker so long that it only seems like he’s been here since 1992. The Gators use him in so many ways that sometimes we don’t see his worth in the stat sheet. He’s the linebacker that goes into coverage and he’s so good at covering tight ends and backs out of the backfield that they rarely get thrown to. He’s so fast that a lot of his tackles are to cover up for someone that missed one. As for Earl, he never misses tackles. He’s so good that other teams avoid him and probably at least half his plays are ones he makes that someone else didn’t make. In four years, I can’t remember him ever ducking a tough question from a reporter, either.

STEVE RISSLER: He’s one of these guys that probably should have been born in that era when nobody had a face mask on their helmet. That’s how tough he is. He plays hard and he plays smart, but mostly, he plays tough. He’s one of those guys that if it hurts, he rubs some dirt on it and he goes back to the huddle and forgets about it. Florida’s offensive line was supposed to be the weakest link this year. It’s not going to conjure up memories of The Great Wall in the 1980s, but it’s been very good and the reason is Rissler in the middle. Because there is no backup center ready to go, he’s known since day one that no matter how bad he hurts, he’s got to play. And play he has. He is my choice to be the All-SEC center.

RAY MCDONALD: He committed to the Gators back when Steve Spurrier was coaching, stuck with his commitment when Spurrier resigned and Ron Zook became the head coach, and he’s played through three surgeries. He’s played tough and he’s played hurt. He plays in constant pain. Thirty years from now he’ll be walking with a cane because of the sacrifices he’s made to be a Gator. He’s played outside at defensive end and inside as a defensive tackle. Whatever he’s been asked to do, he’s done it without complaint. And he’s going to have a college degree in December.

STEVE HARRIS: He’s had his share of difficulties but when I think of determined Gators, this is a guy that comes to mind. He’s fought through some off the field issues, and he’s been forced to grow up and be a man by Coach Urban Meyer and his position coach, Greg Mattison. Through it all, he’s learned to be responsible for his own actions and how to be a better person on and off the football field. In December, he gets his college degree and he’ll have a head start in life to help support his kids. He’s one of the reclamation projects of this coaching staff and his story is a good one that should be appreciated. I like Steve Harris a lot. I’ve watched him grow up in the last two years. I have no doubt that he’s going to find success in life because he’s never ducked from the hard work it’s taken to grow up and be a man.

DALLAS BAKER: When it comes to Urban’s reclamation projects, Dallas Baker’s story is my favorite. He had to go to prep school and then take a redshirt year at Florida because of his academics. He was the classic underachiever on and off the field until Meyer arrived. Meyer convinced him that he wasn’t dumb and that he could make good grades. I’ll never forget how his eyes welled up with tears when he talked about calling his mama to tell her he’d made a 97 on a micro-economics class and how proud he was when he got to call her and tell her that he had a better than 3.0 GPA. Since Meyer’s been here, that’s where his GPA has remained. And there is a correlation between on the field performance and good grades and living your life right. People think that Urban wants a bunch of Boy Scouts at Florida but just look at Dallas Baker and you’ll see that it’s probably a good idea. He goes into Saturday’s game in the top ten in school history in receptions, reception yardage and touchdown pass catches. With this game and at least three others on the agenda, he could leave here in the top four or five in all those categories. The classic underachiever is now an achiever and that’s reason to give him a great sendoff.

I could go on and on here, but I think you get the message. Don’t miss this game. Come watch the Gators play if for no other reason to send these seniors off the right way. Let them know they are appreciated. Let them know that because they are Gators there is always a place in your heart for them.

When their names are announced as seniors playing their last game, give them the ovation they deserve. And when they leave The Swamp for the last time, make sure you’ve saved something to make that ovation one they’ll always remember.

And yeah, cheer on the rookies, too. They’ll be playing a lot Saturday and they’ll be scoring a bunch of touchdowns, making a lot of tackles, etc. The final score is going to be something like 59-0 or worse, but on this day, the final score is the least of the concerns. Cheering on the seniors and making their day special should be the biggest and most important concern of all.

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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.