Avery Atkins is dead. I really don’t want to believe it even if I do know it’s true. I’m still feeling high as a kite from this thrill ride of the last 16 months that has the Florida Gators sitting on top of the college sports world. I really don’t want and really don’t need this stiletto length hat pin bursting my championship balloon. I don’t want to hear the loud pop. I just want Avery Atkins to be alive and fighting for one more chance to make up for all the bad dreams he’s had. That’s what I want but I know I won’t get it.
This should have been the best summer of Avery’s life. He should be out on the Florida practice fields sweating like a hog and loving every second of the endless one-on-one encounters with Florida’s receivers. He should be laughing out loud when Bubba Caldwell or Percy Harvin puts one of those out of body encounter swivel hips moves that fry him. He should be pointing fingers and saying I told you so to Cornelius Ingram after playing the ball perfectly and picking it off. He should be turning on the jets, running past Tim Tebow and flipping the ball nonchalantly, telling him this is what happens when you pick on Double A.
He should be getting ready for his third season as a Florida Gator corner. He should be getting ready to make All-SEC and All-America. He should be getting ready to show the NFL scouts that he’s got first round written all over him.
That’s what he should be doing. Instead, Avery Atkins is dead at age 20 and that just doesn’t seem right.
Yeah, I know, he made his own choices and he made way too many bad ones. That’s why he’s dead and not getting ready for that third college football season that propels him into a position to do what he always wanted to do, which is take care of his mama, his aunt and his grandma, the three women that raised him to be a polite, thoughtful kid.
Given all the information that’s out there right now about him, I’m sure I wouldn’t have recognized Avery in these last few months. Maybe I would have recognized the face, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have recognized the behavior patterns that got him into so much trouble that life came to a sad, tragic end.
You see, the Avery Atkins that I knew when he was a senior at Mainland High School and that first semester at the University of Florida isn’t the kind of kid that would have gotten in that quicksand mess that was so bad that every time he turned, he only sunk deeper. That kid would have never done all those things. He wouldn’t have gotten into the drugs. He wouldn’t have smacked his girlfriend around after she gave birth to his son.
Trust me. The Avery Atkins that I knew wouldn’t have done those things. Let me tell you a little bit about the Avery Atkins I knew.
When he was playing high school football for Daytona Beach Mainland, he was everything you could have asked for in a kid. He worked harder than anybody on the team. He was a great teammate for everyone. He cared about those kids that weren’t nearly as talented as he was. When he came off the field, he always acknowledged those young kids who could only hope that someday they might do a tenth of what they saw Avery Atkins doing on the football field. He was as explosive a running back as there was in the state but it was on defense that he really made his mark. He didn’t just cover his man. He put him in a straight jacket and cut him off completely. He was that good.
I was on the sideline at Citizen’s Field the night Mainland came to Gainesville and destroyed Buchholz. Avery gained over 100 yards like there was nothing to it and on defense, he took an entire side of the field away.
When he would come off the field for a few plays, he would see me and grin. If you ever saw Avery Atkins grin, you’ll never forget it. He had a grin like Corey Brewer. He could light up an entire room with that smile.
And when he smiled at you, you smiled back. Automatically. It was infectious.
After the game, he ran up to me and asked me how I thought he did. I told him that one day he was going to play in the NFL and he smiled back at me and said, “Yeah, I am … and I’m gonna take care of my mama and my family.”
I remember that like it was yesterday. Avery was already one of my favorite high school football players. That night he became my number one favorite kid that the Florida Gators were recruiting. Ron Zook was recruiting him at the time but Zook was canned a few weeks later and the Gators brought in Urban Meyer. Meyer made Avery and David Nelson the crown jewels of his very first Florida recruiting class. With David, there was never a question that he would get in school. Avery had some work to do, but he really pushed himself to the limits that spring and he made it into Florida with very little room for error. I remember talking to him one evening when he knew he was going to make it in. I think I talked to the happiest kid on earth that night.
The next time I saw him, he was on campus in July 2005, just finishing a late afternoon workout on the Florida practice fields. He saw me about 50 yards away and he came sprinting, smiling all the way. He wanted to hug me but he started to back off because he was sweating.
“What’s a little sweat among friends?” I asked him and his grin got wider. He hugged me and I was drenched, too, but it was worth it. We talked for about 10 minutes. He was so excited to be on campus, so excited to be a Florida Gator.
“I feel like I’m living out my dream,” he told me.
Starting in August and after every practice or every Florida football game, Avery Atkins ran up to me every time he saw me, always with a smile, always with a hand extended and always, he asked the same question.
“How am I doing?” he would ask and I always told him I thought he was doing great. And he was. He had talent. He had unbelievable talent.
Vernell Brown went down with a broken leg late in the season against Vanderbilt and that meant Avery Atkins had to grow up quickly. He was in the Florida starting lineup against FSU on Senior Day. I remember Senior Day 2005 for two reasons. First, I remember Vernell Brown, the littlest Gator with the biggest heart coming out on crutches when his name was announced. Second, I remember Vernell coaching up Avery on the sidelines throughout the game and then telling me afterward how proud he was of his freshman protege’.
“You watch, he’ll be All-SEC next year,” Vernell told me after the game. Vernell sounded like an older brother that had just watched his baby brother grow up. Avery intercepted a pass and broke up a couple of others that day. He sure didn’t play like a freshman.
In the media room after the game, Urban Meyer talked about the emotional scene in the locker room after that 34-7 Florida win. Meyer talked about how Avery Atkins had broken down in tears in front of the team while talking about what Vernell Brown had meant to him that day. When Avery came to the media room that day, he talked and talked about how Vernell Brown had coached him up on the sidelines and how he had played his heart out for Vernell Brown and the Gators.
When he was leaving, he walked over and gave me a hug and a big smile.
“How’d I do?” he asked and I told him how proud I was. I told him that I was sure his mama, his grandma and his aunt were proud of him, too, and he said he couldn’t wait to see them. As always, he thanked me for writing nice things about him and then he ran off to join his family.
The last time I saw him was at Florida’s practices for the Outback Bowl in Tampa. He was loose, having fun and playing like a veteran, not like a freshman. After practice, he did what he always did. He came over to me and talked for a few seconds before leaving to get on the bus that would take him back to the team hotel.
Today, I want to remember that Avery Atkins, the one that used to smile and ask how he was doing. I don’t want to remember the Avery Atkins that found some trouble and then saw it mushroom into something bigger than he thought he could handle. I don’t want to remember the Avery Atkins that found trouble at every turn until he couldn’t see anything but more trouble in the future.
I want to remember the Avery Atkins that smiled so big, played with so much heart and loved his teammates so much. That was a really great kid. I wish you could have known that Avery Atkins.
I’m not going to talk about all the potential that went down the drain. I’m not going to talk about how a kid with everything going for him wound up with nothing. I’m not going to talk about those things at all. I’m just going to remember the good kid that I knew and say a prayer and hope that he’s at peace, in a place where there is no turmoil and trouble and pain. I really hope that’s where Avery Atkins is right now. I hope it with all my heart.
I’m going to leave you with one further thought. There is a reason why coaches do everything in their power to care for, nurture and protect the kids that play for them. There is a reason why coaches don’t simply throw the kid out on the streets at the first sign of trouble. There is a reason why coaches don’t give up on kids and keep on giving them second and third and fourth chances. Sometimes it is about winning at all costs, but I bet that most of the time it’s more about saving a life at all costs.
The next time a kid gets into trouble — where he goes to school is inconsequential — don’t laugh. Don’t tell jokes. Don’t smirk. Don’t play holier than thou. Don’t do any of those things. Instead, say a prayer that somehow, someway his coach can get through to this kid and turn his life around. That fourth or fifth or sixth chance might be the only thing that keeps some kid in the future from being the next Avery Atkins.
There was a time when I thought the next Avery Atkins would mean some kid became Florida’s next All-American. Now, I just pray that the next Avery Atkins will be a kid who will get however many chances it takes until he turns his life around.