FNL: It’s all about the dreams

It’s 8:15 and The Swamp is coming alive. Rap music blares from the speaker system and with most of the 88,000 seats empty, the steady boom, boom, boom of the bass seems to bounce endlessly off the steep concrete grandstands of the old stadium. On the jumbotron in the north end zone, Troy Smith is getting sacked. Again. Down on the field, a place where young men live out there dreams on fall afternoons, the sweat is flowing freely as 150 or so kids from all over the country do whatever they can to catch the eye of a coach for the Florida Gators.

This is Friday Night Lights, the third year of the one-night mini-camp that is the brainchild of Coach Urban Meyer. Back in the summer of 2005, critics and coaches from various outposts around the country were calling it a gimmick among other things. Gimmick was actually one of the nicer things said. The website of one prominent Florida rival called it an act of desperation by a desperate coaching staff. Now that we’re into the third year of Friday Night Lights, nobody calls it a gimmick anymore. The only desperate folks are the ones that are trying to catch up to Florida’s star-studded roster. The last two Friday Night Lights have yielded bumper crops of talent for Meyer and the Gators.

Some of those same folks that were calling Friday Night Lights an act of desperation by a desperate coaching staff are putting together their own one-night mini-camp. What’s that old saying? Imitation is the purest and greatest form of flattery? Maybe they will imitate Friday Night Lights. It’s seriously doubtful that it will be duplicated.

When it first began back in the summer of 2005, Friday Night Lights was a test drive success. Urban Meyer was selling a dream, preaching to whomever would listen that the Florida Gators were going to compete for the national championship. Two years later, it’s not a test drive anymore. Meyer is going full throttle. He’s got that national championship he was talking about and the sales job hasn’t been moth-balled. If anything, he’s selling the dream harder than ever before. He’s telling kids that one national championship isn’t nearly enough; that there are more championships to be won on this field where the 1996 and 2006 national champs played.

Catch the dream, he tells them. Be a part of it. Be a Gator and see your dreams come true on at one of the greatest venues in all of college sports. Play at the Swamp in college football’s best conference and you could be playing for the national championship. Or you could go somewhere else and play in the Emerald Nuts Bowl.

The kids who are sweating it out on this muggy July night are dreamers who have paid their own way to come to Gainesville for this one-night stand. They are from as far north as Connecticut and upstate New York and from as far west as California. They dream to play college football in jam-packed stadiums in the fall and for many of them, the ultimate dream would be to suit up for the Gators and run onto this field while orange and blue clad fans lose their minds in a loud, collective ear drum bursting frenzy.

They come here to compete against the best players in the country in the same stadium where national champions play in the fall. Something like 49 of the top 150 kids on the ESPN recruiting list are here. Their scholarship offer lists are a who’s who. The bulk of the kids attending and competing aren’t necessarily household words but dreamers who dream big dreams. Maybe they don’t have the highlight reel drool factors of some of the more hyped players in attendance, but on this night, if they have the magic working, maybe Urban Meyer himself will notice and maybe, just maybe, they’ll get the offer to play out their dreams for the next four years at The Swamp.

One of the dreamers on this night is Latavius Murray, a 6-3, 215-pound tailback from Nedrow, New York who plays at Onondaga Central School. His resume reads 3,626 yards and 46 touchdowns the last two seasons. His offer sheet reads Boston College, Maryland, U-Conn and UCF. He hopes that he’ll impress Meyer and the Florida coaches so much that his offer list will expand by one.

Latavius Murray is here with his dad, Paul, a dreamer who once played football and ran track for Titusville High School. Paul Murray played football and ran track against Cris Collinsworth and Wilber Marshall back in the 1970s. Cris and Wilber were big stars for the Astronaut War Eagles and they lived out their college football dreams as Florida Gators. Paul Murray had dreams of being a Gator, too, but he never got a chance to play college sports. He still dreams of the Florida Gators, though, from his home in Titusville. He dreams that Latavius, who plays high school football more than 1,000 miles away, will one day run out on this field as a Florida Gator.

“I did his room up in New York so that it’s a Gator room,” said Paul Murray. “It’s orange … not that ugly Syracuse orange but that beautiful Florida Gator orange.”

Paul Murray was already a Florida fan the first time he came up to Gainesville to visit the campus. He remembers the party he attended, the one where Dock Luckie stood guard at the door.

“I was a Gator fan back in the days of Dock Luckie and Wes Chandler,” he says. “I knew Mike Clark (offensive tackle for the Gators) who was dating a girl from Titusville named Pam Darden. I came up here and they had a lock-in party and Dock Luckie took care of the door. I was hooked on the Gators and I’ve been following them ever since.”

Latavius is a talented kid who will play college football somewhere next year. He’s got grades to go with the stats so he will get the chance. The grades are what impresses Paul the most.

“He’s on the A-B honor roll and he takes gifted classes,” Paul says with pride. “He’s a good kid who does things the right way on the field and in the classroom. He makes a dad very proud of his son.”

Paul Murray hopes his son will play for the Gators someday but he knows that Friday Night Lights has become somewhat legendary in just three short years.

“You come here and you can catch Urban Meyer’s eye and maybe you can come play for the Gators,” Paul Murray says. “But, if you come here and show you can hold your own competing against the best in the country — because that’s what’s here … the best in the country — and word gets around. Florida would be the dream school, but Friday Night Lights can help you make other dreams come true, too.”

Paul Murray hopes that Urban Meyer will notice Latavius. He knows exactly what he would say if he had a minute with the Florida coach.

“If I could have one minute with Urban Meyer tonight, I would tell him this kid has Gator orange and blue in his veins,” Paul Murray says. “I would tell him he has Gator roots and that he may live in New York, but he’s a Florida boy that needs to come home and play for the Florida Gators. I would tell him this is a kid that’s gonna play hard for you and he’ll make good grades and graduate. That’s what I would tell him.”

Some of the kids competing at The Swamp on this muggy evening already know they can be Florida Gators. All they have to do is look Urban Meyer in the eye and say, “Yes sir, Coach, I want to be a Florida Gator.” The bulk of the kids are like Latavius Murray. They are here because they dream big dreams. They are here because they know that every chance they have to compete is a chance to make a dream come true and dreams are what Friday Night Lights is all about. 

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.