JACKSONVILLE – It was only a football game, but there was enough redemption to go around for a Billy Graham Crusade altar call and a much needed one. Urban Meyer, Steve Addazio, Will Hill, John Brantley, Chris Rainey, and Chas Henry had been to hell and back.
Henry, however, named his and claimed it as the Florida Gators rebounded back into the victory column with a 34-31 overtime win over Georgia that broke a three-game losing streak.
“I kept saying it all week – ‘it’s my redemption week, it’s my redemption week!’” Henry would say later. Having missed his three previous tries and then his first attempt against Georgia, the stage was set for his personal atonement.
In the moments leading up to his game-winning kick, Henry said he thought about “how I let my team down against Mississippi State – that was one of the hardest things I ever had to go through.” He’d had a chance that Oct. 16 night in The Swamp to send the game into overtime with a 42-yarder that was within his range, but the kick sailed wide right and Florida fell, 10-7.
Henry promised himself that would never happen again.
It may have seemed an odd way to psyche himself up for what would turn out to be the grandest moment of his college career, but he riveted on that thought of the debt he felt he owed as he lined up the winning kick against the Bulldogs Saturday.
Thus a punter who was asked to assume kicking duties after Caleb Sturgis was hurt five weeks ago had found himself back in the job again when Sturgis was unable to go. And now it was all up to him.
Being from Georgia, however, Henry had gotten quite a few chirps from back home earlier in the week.
“I had a bye week last week so I hear from all the Georgia fans and all my friends back home,” he said.
There were a few cheap shots, including the misinformed opinion two weeks ago of Lee Corso on ESPN Game Day, who had suggested Meyer “find another field-goal kicker.” Which was about as asinine as saying to your newly elected Congressman, “Go up there and get rid of the national debt your first week in office.”
For the most part people were sympathetic to the plight of Henry. “That’s a lot of pressure on Chas,” Trey Burton had said. “It’s not his position.”
Rather than wither, Henry stepped up to face the challenge and to erase the debt. “I let them down one time,” Henry said of his teammates, “and I was never going to let that happen again.”
So to have the game-winning responsibility square on his shoulders in what Meyer would call one of his greatest coaching victories was exactly what the 6-foot-3 senior from Dallas, Ga., wanted.
As he stood there near the 27-yard line peering at the spot where holder John Crofoot was going to place the ball, however, Henry knew this was his time to repay “my brothers in the locker room.”
In the press box, somebody muttered: “If there is a football god, Chas Henry has to make this kick.”
The football god must have been listening.
First, though, Georgia would use a timeout in attempt to ice Henry, but during that lull in action, Henry stayed focused by making his imaginary kick, then thrusting his arms in the air like an official signaling “good.”
Crofoot took the snap from John Fairbanks, placing it on the mark and Henry sank his toe squarely in it, but he wouldn’t allow himself to look up for what seemed an eternity.
“I kept my head down and I finally said ‘it’s been long enough,’” so Henry lifted his head to see it “going straight down the middle. I knew that I’d made it. We’d won. Beat Georgia.”
What he saw was the ball flipping end over end through the north goal-post uprights, just like a Mercedes zooming up I-95 in the middle lane, straight and true.
Raising his arm again, Henry then punched his fist in the air and began streaking toward the end zone, halfway trying to do a Gator Chomp as his hallelujah, with his teammates smothering him in hugs and pats. Then it was over to TV for the cameras and next to the shoulders of Fairbanks and a few others for the singing of the school alma mater.
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There is no sweeter nectar than the taste of redemption, but Henry wasn’t the only drinker at that fountain. Steve Addazio took a nice long pull of it, too. The much-maligned offensive coordinator who had been excoriated by fans for lack of production and unimaginative play calling reveled in the victory and, even more so, the resiliency of his team.
He talked about being “in the arena – you’ve got those ups and those downs, but you’re battling, you’re scratching, you’re clawing all together.”
It was also the offense’s best result of the season (450) yards, even though more yardage was rolled up against Kentucky – especially for a team digging itself out of a deep, dark hole.
“Amongst everything that’s out there,” said Addazio, clasping his fingers as if forming a chapel or a church, “this group of guys learned how to stick together and have faith and believe, right? And loyalty. Those are great traits that I know I learned as a little kid.
“And you watch them be rewarded for all those great traits. And that’s really cool, man! I don’t care, man. I’m telling you that’s what it is. That’s cool! That’s cool about being a football coach. That’s cool about being a competitor in the arena. That’s what it’s all about. And when you get to watch that unfold, it’s special.”
Addazio’s result was pretty cool, too, as the Gators quick-stepped their way through Georgia’s defense.
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Not much was said about the offensive numbers, but they told a story, too. Meyer said he wasn’t yet satisfied with the offense, but he especially praised Brantley for being “a tough nut – he got hit, he got whacked a few times today and made some plays that helped us win that game.”
There was a measure of redemption for Brantley, as well, because the red-shirt junior from Ocala had taken the brunt of the criticism for the falloff in the offense. Although his numbers against Georgia weren’t that impressive (193 yards on 16 completions) two of the completions could have easily been for touchdowns: His toss to Jeff Demps, who stepped out of bounds at the 4, and Deonte Thompson, who went out at the 2. Both were so close they had to be reviewed.
Meyer said there were others he wanted to mention, like Burton, Chris Rainey and Will Hill, “but I really wanted to make a big deal out of Johnny.”
Using an up-tempo technique and a flip-flopping Brantley and Burton in the same backfield, the Gator jackrabbits hoped to wear down Georgia’s defense, as Rainey flashed and dashed for 89 yards. And while Rainey still had some redeeming to do off the field, his first game back filled a huge void (neither Emmanuel Moody or Mike Gillislee made it on the field).
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As for the head coach, Meyer said of the offense, “We have to get this thing going,” but he was also drinking in the moment as well. He had dropped to his knees at the sight of Henry’s kick soaring across the bar.
After all, he was coming off the worst month of his coaching career.
Lost in the heat of battle was a brilliant call he had made to settle for the field goal that put Florida ahead by eight points.
Instead of throwing on third down and seven at Georgia’s 22 in the fourth quarter, Meyer did the math and realized a field goal and an 8-point lead was like a two-score margin for the Bulldogs to overcome. So Burton ran the keeper for six and Henry knocked in his first field goal from 34 yards out to put the Gators up 24-16. Although Georgia scored and went for two successfully to make it 24-24, it kept the game on an even margin.
Not until he was asked about the sweetness of this victory did Meyer pause to reflect on it.
In sort of a backdoor statement, Meyer called it his biggest win – maybe.
“This is the biggest win we’ve had – and I know we’ve had some great wins around here,” said Meyer. “And maybe some would say more important. I’d probably argue that one. This is the biggest win I can remember that I’ve coached in a long time. From demeanor, from recruiting, from guys in that locker room – that wasn’t an emotional locker room in there.”
Somebody asked, why so big?
“Because we got our brains kicked in the last three weeks and we needed to get this ship righted.”
It was time, too, for the players to get a payoff for their hard work.
“Our practices,” said Meyer, “are ridiculous. You’d better get something for it. That was critical.”
They got something all right – an overtime victory for the first time against Georgia, an SEC East victory, a shot to make it back to Atlanta, and most importantly, the validation of the concept that if you play and practice hard enough, stick together as what Henry called “my brothers in the locker room,” good things eventually do happen. Sometimes.
At last they happened for the Gators on this Saturday at a place called EverBank Field, hard against the St. John’s River, where one of the greatest of all 88 games in the series played out. And football souls were restored to those who had been walking in a dark, dark place for almost all of October.