Call this a tale of two cornerbacks

You could call this a tale of two cornerbacks. One of them arrived at the University of Florida with all the hype. The other came to the Florida Gators thanks to a one-year NCAA rule change that has since been revoked. Both of them had issues but only one of them made good choices. Both of them had All-American ability and dreams to play in the NFL someday. Only one of them will see the dream come true.

Ryan Smith is the success story. He’s in an NFL camp today after an All-American season in which he finished second in the nation in interceptions for Florida’s national championship team.

Mention his name and Chuck Heater beams like a proud papa. You would think that Ryan Smith is his son.

Avery Atkins could have been a success story, too, but instead he’s a tragedy, dead at age 20 of an apparent and perhaps deliberate overdose of drugs. When he was a freshman at the University of Florida, you just knew that someday he would play in the NFL.

Mention his name and Chuck Heater’s eyes glisten with tears. You would think that Avery Atkins was his son, also.

That he would react like a father is expected in the Urban Meyer book of what an assistant coach is all about.

“The first thing that Urban Meyer looks for in an assistant coach … is he a good father?” says Hiram deFries, who is on Meyer’s Florida staff as the “life coach.” Hiram deFries is part of the Florida staff to help kids learn the life skills they will need to cope and adjust on campus and to ready themselves for life beyond football. Like Chuck Heater, Hiram deFries gets very emotional when you mention the name Avery Atkins.

“A tragedy,” says deFries, his eyes filling up. “Just a tragedy that won’t ever stop hurting.”

Chuck Heater hurts for Avery Atkins. It’s hurt that isn’t going to go away because Avery was one of his boys, just like Ryan Smith. Like any position coach, he wanted them to succeed, help the Gators win football games and perhaps someday make it to the NFL. Like any dad, he wanted to see his boys become good adults, the kind that could stand on their own two feet and make solid choices. He wanted them to someday become good husbands, good fathers, good citizens and good role models for others.

Ryan Smith has a chance to make his surrogate dad and position coach proud. He’s got a bachelor’s degree, a year of graduate school under his belt and NFL aspirations. He may be small by NFL standards, but he proved in his one year in the secondary of Florida’s ferocious defense that there is a price to pay if you pick on him. He also proved in his year at Florida that he’s beyond the troubles that mounted for him at Utah in 2005.

He almost was a statistic. After a freshman All-America season when Heater was his coach at the University of Utah, Smith ran afoul of the new coaching staff after Urban Meyer grabbed up Heater and several other assistants and headed for Gainesville.

The new staff and Ryan Smith didn’t mesh at all. Midway through the 2005 football season, the freshman All-American and defensive hero of Utah’s Fiesta Bowl win was sitting the bench with an attitude growing and festering.

“He’s wired a certain way,” said Heater. “When things happened and circumstances developed, he didn’t cope with things very well. It almost got him.”

Heater doesn’t go into detail here. Obviously there is more to this story but how it all happened, why it all happened is almost immaterial now. What is important to know is that Smith found his way to Gainesville where he got his life back in order on and off the field. The smoldering situation that nearly got out of hand at Utah became a learning lab for Ryan Smith at the University of Florida where a potential tragedy was averted.

“Choices were made, circumstances unfolded, he [Smith] reacted,” said Heater. “The people on the other end reacted in a way that could have been wiser. The end result is a kid who was wandering away and it could have been a tragedy because it could have turned out much differently.”

The road to recovery for Ryan Smith began when he faced up to the fact that his troubles at Utah were a two-way street and he was equally at fault. He sought and got help. He decided a fresh start was necessary and Meyer and Heater were willing to give him the chance he needed. He took advantage of a well intentioned NCAA rule (since rescinded) that allowed him to transfer without having to sit by earning his bachelor’s degree at Utah last summer. Two weeks after graduation day, he was adjusting to life in new surroundings on the practice field at Florida. 

“Fortunately for him, when someone threw him a rope he grabbed it,” said Heater. “Not every kid is like that. Not every kid is ready to accept help. We pulled that kid back in and the rest is a success story. That’s a perfect example.”

The not so perfect example is what happened with Atkins, a real prize in Urban Meyer’s first recruiting class. Pressed into action as a starter at the end of his freshman year, Atkins responded with an interception and a brilliant game against Florida State. This was his one shining moment. No one could have foreseen the unfortunate string of events that left him dead at age 20.

“For about six to seven months there were zero issues with Avery,” said Heater. “He loved to play football and he was doing well in school. He was a great kid that everybody loved.”

Avery Atkins’ life began to reel out of control after Florida beat Iowa in the Outback Bowl. His girlfriend was pregnant and he was having a tough time coping with impending fatherhood. Midway through spring practice he left the Florida football team over the objections of Meyer, Heater and staff. Meyer and Heater fought to keep Avery Atkins in Gainesville but he chose to go home to Daytona Beach. That’s where an already troubled young life unraveled.

“He had a situation and he had difficulty handling it,” said Heater. “It ended up difficult for him to get out of the spiral … the direction he was going in. Things just got out of control for him. He wasn’t equipped to cope with the things that were going on and the circumstances in his life. The choices he made didn’t help him. He went in a different direction when people reached out to him.”

Even after Atkins left school Meyer, Heater and the Florida staff kept reaching out, trying to bring their prodigal back home where they felt he belonged. There was a time earlier this year when it seemed he was going to accept their help and get his life back on track. He enrolled at Florida in January but a couple of months into the experiment he was back in Daytona Beach. Four months later, he was found dead in his car.

Atkins is a constant reminder to Heater why it is that coaches are willing to give second, third and sometimes countless chances to kids. The motivation isn’t winning football games, either.

“Winning is important but the longer you are a football coach, the more you realize that success goes far beyond wins,” Heater said. “You do this job because you want to help these kids and you hope that you have enough experiences to show a kid why it’s worth it to invest in him, to help him get a different direction in his life.

“You can’t and won’t win all the battles but that’s what should be your calling if you’re going to last in this profession.”

In the past week, a prominent writer for one of the nation’s most influential magazines and websites criticized Meyer for his disciplinary record at Florida. Meyer’s goal is to salvage the kid. While getting rid of a kid as soon as he makes a mistake might have a tough love sound to it, instant righteousness is rarely the best way to go about things.

“The easiest thing to do is to fire somebody,” Heater said. “The more challenging part is to develop someone. We owe that to these kids. We all have inadequacies and issues that we have to deal with. We bring them to this school because they have this God-given talent to play football. They come from varied backgrounds and varied rearings. Some of them have resources and a lot of skills to handle things in life but some of them don’t have as many as they need. You have to help them learn to face problems and overcome them. That’s your responsibility. You’ve got to help them somehow.”

Heater has lasted 31 years in the coaching profession. He’s lasted because he is perhaps the best cornerback coach in the country. He’s lasted because he’s one of the most effective recruiters in all of college football.

Most of all, he’s lasted this long because he cares about the kids who play for him like they are his own. He wants them all to be Ryan Smith stories that have a happy ending. He prays that he won’t have to go through more heartbreaks like Avery Atkins but he knows that every single day, he’s dealing with immature kids trying to find their way in an environment in which they’re not fully prepared.

“All of life is about adjusting and coping with things in life when there are bumps in the road,” he said. “Ultimately, real success is about dealing with the successes and the failures in life. Some kids know how to handle it. For those that don’t know how, you have to be there for them to coach them along and help them learn to deal with life and all that isn’t fair or pleasant.

“Your greatest goal is to help them get their education, fulfill their dreams as football players and get them started toward a better life. That’s what you’re hoping for all of them. To do that, sometimes you give a kid a lot of chances.”

In his 31 years of coaching, he’s been rewarded for giving chances plenty of times. Talking to him you get the feeling he would gladly trade all those rewards if he could give Avery Atkins one more chance.

“It breaks my heart,” he said. “You can’t save every one of them but you have to try.”

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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.