THE Play: A constant reminder for Alvarez

TALLAHASSEE — It would be impossible to describe Carlos Alvarez in a single word and a single play cannot possibly describe his Florida football career but in an extraordinary life in which he’s made such an impact as both an athlete and an environmental attorney, one play from one football game is still the way most Gators will always remember him. You know the play. Either you were there, heard it on the radio or you’ve heard the story from someone else. Reaves to Alvarez, 74 yards, touchdown!

That was September 1969 and the Florida Gators were playing host to the powerhouse Houston Cougars in the season opener. One publication had Houston as the preseason number one. Everybody had the Cougars in the top five. The Gators? Not even in Houston’s area code.

All that changed on the third play of the game when Alvarez made a move at the 35 yard line that left the Houston cornerback flat-footed. He streaked down the west sideline and easily hauled in the perfectly thrown bomb from Reaves. He could have walked into the north end zone. His first official catch as a Gator was a touchdown that ranks among the top five plays in Florida football history.

Florida went on to win that game 59-38, the jump start to a 9-1-1 season that was the best in school history to that point. Reaves and Alvarez were sophomores (freshmen weren’t eligible in those days), the glamor boys on a team that became known as the “Super Sophs” because so many sophomores played prominent roles.

Alvarez, known as “The Cuban Comet,” was a first-team All-America selection. He caught 88 passes for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns. Blessed with 9.7 speed in the 100-yard dash, there was no receiver in the country more feared.

Serious knee injuries and the coaching change from Ray Graves to Doug Dickey after that sophomore season curtailed the accomplishments but his 172 career catches and 2,563 yards still stand as Florida records 38 years later.

He also set some records in the classroom. He made first team Academic All-America twice and in 1971 won the NCAA Post-Graduate Scholarship Award. In 1989 he was selected to the Verizon Academic All-America Hall of Fame.

He’s had a marvelous career as a defender of Florida’s environment but no matter what he does, no matter where he goes, there is no escaping THE play. Wherever Gators gather, someone will come up to him and want to talk about THE play.

“I still hear about it,” Alvarez said Tuesday night at the Gator Gathering at the North Florida Fairgrounds. “People always come up to me and say, ‘I remember that play so well.’ It will always be a very sweet memory for me because that was such a great team. You always hear about the “Super Sophs” but it was the seniors that made us a real team. It was like that this year. We won the national championship and we hear all about these great young players but it was our seniors that made the team what it was.

“I can never forget our team in 1969 and seniors like Steve Tannen, Paul Maliska and Tom Abdelnour who made that year so special. We were a true team, a lot like our basketball team the last two years in the way that everybody cared so much about each other … a lot like our football team this year, too. I think these teams represented our university so well and they say so much about what happens when you have great coaches that lead players the right way.”

Consider Carlos Alvarez a big fan of Urban Meyer and Billy Donovan because they prove his point that it is possible to achieve great things on the playing fields without sacrificing academic achievement.

“It can be done,” he said. “This is what it’s supposed to be like in college athletics. It isn’t impossible. You can have great teams. You can graduate your players. It says a lot about Jeremy Foley and the kind of direction he’s given the entire athletic department for years. This is not a brand new strategy that he’s come up with. This is what he has had ever since he became our athletic director.

“He’s hired outstanding leaders to carry out a winning strategy on the field and in the classroom. I think every Gator owes Jeremy a debt of gratitude. We have such fine young people representing our university. We don’t have to be embarrassed by the people we have representing the University of Florida.”

Alvarez is reminded that Bear Bryant warned back in the 1960s what might happen if Florida ever got it all together on the athletic field.

“Even Bear Bryant could see the potential which is why he called Florida the sleeping giant,” Alvarez said. “We started to see it in the 1990s but we’re really seeing it now. There has never been a greater time to be a Gator than right now.

“But we can’t forget all those people from the 1940s onward. They made a lot of sacrifices and did a lot of great things to pave the steps that got us where we are today. Today, the giant is awake.”

As he watched Florida win the national championship game by a 41-14 score over Ohio State, he marveled at Florida’s defense which turned a Heisman Trophy winning quarterback into a dazed, confused shell of the performer fans saw in the Buckeyes’ first 12 games.

“I was surprised that we were able to dominate them the way we did,” said Alvarez. “It was amazing that our defense took a Heisman Trophy winner and made him look far less than average. You never see that in a championship game where a Heisman Trophy winner looks like someone from Western Carolina playing against us.

“You have to love the team because it was so athletic and played so hard. I thought they were coached perfectly. I think Urban Meyer is able to create a certain emotional high for the team and keep it under control. I thought he did an incredible job with this team, especially getting them ready to play for the championship.”

A big fan of Neal Walk and the Florida basketball team during his time on campus, Alvarez fell in love with Coach Billy Donovan’s team the last two years. He loved the way they played defense. He loved the way they passed the ball and didn’t care who scored. He loved the way the team responded to Donovan’s coaching.

He also loves the fact that Lee Humphrey was the SEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year and that Corey Brewer and Al Horford both made the SEC Academic Honor Roll. Brewer, a three-time member of the SEC Academic Honor Roll is one of Alvarez’s all-time favorite Gators.

“He didn’t have the financial background that some of the kids have, but he gave it all up just to come back to play one more year,” Alvarez said. “And to think that he does it also academically, that’s amazing.”

Alvarez came to Gainesville for the Orange and Blue game where he stood on the sideline with other former Gators. He’s planning to do it again in the fall, and finally, after a couple of years of coaxing, he’ll be taking Urban Meyer up on an invitation to speak to the Florida football team.

“I’m going to do that this fall,” he said. “It’s a real honor that Coach Meyer has asked me to talk to the team. This really is a great time to be a Gator. I don’t think there has ever been a better time than right now.”

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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.