While Gainesville serves as the home to some of collegiate football’s most highly decorated and talented players on a yearly basis, the bucolic city isn’t exactly a recruiting hotbed for high school football talent.
For most players growing up in the towering and triumphant shadow of The Swamp, whose presence looms large over the slow-paced city of 124,000 people, storming out of the tunnel donning the famed orange and blue of the Florida Gators is simply a dream which is more long-shot than likelihood.
However, when you are a 6-foot-7 specimen playing defensive end less than two miles from the front door of one of football’s most popular teams like Gainesville-native and senior Earl Okine, the proximity to the Gators’ coaching staff only leads to more visibility for a player who is already hard to miss in a crowd.
Perhaps expectedly, Okine became the first member of his class to commit to Florida, doing so nearly a full year before he was able to officially sign with the Gators in February of 2008.
Despite being seen as somewhat of a project due to his relatively thin frame, Okine excited fans both locally and abroad as it seemed the Gators were picking up a monster-in-the-making, as players who stand at the same height as an NBA forward are rare to find on the gridiron.
As expected, Okine redshirted his freshman year at Florida, seemingly using the time to add some much needed bulk in order to prepare for the rigors of life in the Southeastern Conference.
While he eventually packed on the weight — going from 240 to nearly 290 pounds by his senior year — Okine did not exactly blossom into the star for his hometown squad in which many were hoping and expecting.
After his redshirt season, Okine played sparingly during the next two years, seeing most of his action on special teams and spot-up duty defensively. Okine also fell victim to a injuries during his Florida tenure, rendering him unavailable at certain times.
Though his impact may not have been as significant as some projected, Okine did find ways to contribute in his years at Florida, playing in 40 games for the Gators. The sign of a maturing player is steadfast improvement year after year, and for Okine, much like many of UF’s outgoing seniors this year, he saved his best effort in a Gators uniform for his last.
With the entrance of new coach Will Muschamp and new defensive coordinator Dan Quinn before Okine’s redshirt junior season, the versatile lineman benefitted from a brand new system which rotates players constantly.
With Quinn bent on keeping his defensive linemen fresh throughout the game, Okine would be on the receiving end of more playing time, undoubtedly much to his liking.
“Dan Quinn is probably the best thing that has ever happened to me in my football career,” Okine said in November before his final home game at Florida. “He’s just an excellent coach. I can’t say enough about him.”
Okine managed to tally a career-best eight tackles during his first season with Quinn, but in his second year with Quinn and his last for Florida, Okine posted a career-high 12 tackles.
Okine’s signature moment this season came during Florida’s matchup with stingy Vanderbilt on the road. With UF leading 11-7 late in the third quarter, the Commodores lined up for a critical field goal to attempt to cut into Florida’s lead and simultaneously give themselves momentum.
However, Okine would use his extra-long wingspan to block Vanderbilt’s attempt, energizing Florida, who would score immediately on its next drive.
While the number of signature moments may not have been as numerous as Okine would have liked, he certainly left his mark at Florida, making a key play for the Gators in a key and program-changing season, as they finished the year 11-1 with a bid to Wednesday’s All State Sugar Bowl.
Unlike many who have come to UF, Okine leaves Florida with a national championship ring, along with the memories of playing for a team in which he grew up dreaming of suiting up for.
“I love this university,” Okine said. “I wouldn’t have redone anything. I love this program, and it will always be a part of my life. I respect the community of Gainesville and I will always love it.”
With Okine’s time as a Gator coming to a close, there is undoubtedly a young kid somewhere not too far from that hulking stadium which can be seen from University Avenue, dreaming of one day putting on a blue jersey and orange helmet.
To see another local player live out the dream of playing for the Gators perhaps lets the kid know that playing for his favorite team doesn’t have to simply be a pipe-dream, but it can in fact become a reality.
Okine may not have garnered the acclaim or accolades of some of his fellow classmates during his time at Florida, but perhaps his purpose was even bigger than any contribution he could made on the field.
For Okine, perhaps his purpose was to inspire.