Jesse Schmitt steals show at Gators’ annual Charity Challenge

Florida Gators football fans got their first look at the team Friday night at the fourth annual Charity Challenge, but it wasn’t the biggest guy or the fastest guy who stole the show.

While Ronald Powell barked and jawed at teammates as his team dominated the Tug-O-War and Jelani Jenkins encouraged teammates in the Torpedo Hold, walk-on fullback Jesse Schmitt quietly went about his business.

After all the team events were finished, Schmitt stole the spotlight.

The team huddled around as Schmitt went head to head with cornerback Jeremy Brown in the push-ups competition, each one struggling to hang on to be the last man standing.

“I was part of team four, and all of team four they were helping me out screaming ‘Go Jesse, go Jesse!’” said Schmitt, a junior. “If I was ever getting tired, just hearing them yelling at me, I didn’t want to let them down.”

After doing about 180 push-ups, Brown collapsed and Schmitt’s teammates swarmed him, hooping and hollering.

“I’m actually going into the Marine corps after college, so I did my training last summer and we did a lot of pushups there, that certainly helped,” Schmitt said, beaming from ear to ear. “I’ve got a lower body weight than most of those guys by at least 100 pounds, so that comes in handy.”

The 5-foot-7, 169-pound walk-on from Palm Beach Gardens basked in the moment, and his teammates seemed genuinely excited for him.

“We knew who all was going to win,” junior linebacker Jon Bostic said. “He’s been in the Marines, so we knew that. We were pulling for (Michael) McNeely and Schmitt.”

Schmitt had to work hard to get his moment in the spotlight, too. He tried to walk on to the team during the spring of his freshman season, but didn’t make it.

The second time around, he made the team and hasn’t looked back. So far, it’s been a dream come true.

“I love football,” he said. “I love it so much. Just coming out here to the Gator games and stuff, I realized I missed it.”

For guys like Schmitt, moments like the one he enjoyed Friday night don’t come around often. For every Schmitt or Gary Beemer story, there are dozens of walk-ons who never get any recognition.

Grinding through offseason workouts for such little praise can be a daunting task, but guys like Schmitt do it just like everyone else on the team.

This summer might have been the toughest offseason for many of the players at Florida. While it was Schmitt’s first with the team, he found it difficult to make it through at times.

“It’s been tough, man,” Schmitt said. “I’ve been here all through Summer A and Summer B. [Mickey Marotti] kept mentioning to us that we want to be the best conditioned team in America. I’m sure he designed the program around that. It was no joke, but it’s all to make us better.”

Other players echoed his sentiments about the grueling offseason program after the event.

“It was a lot different,” Bostic said of the offseason workouts. “The amount of stuff we were doing, the timing in between certain things, runs and everything. [Marotti] was getting us going. Way more than in the past.”

Florida’s team was in disarray from a chemistry standpoint last season, but players said the team has really come together through the tough offseason.

Instead of a rift between the freshmen and the upperclassmen, there’s a genuine sense of camaraderie and friendship across the board.

It’s been noticeable in the offseason work, players said.

“You can see it in everybody’s eyes every time somebody comes in the weight room,” Bostic said. “Everybody’s focused now, everybody’s got one goal this season: Get to Atlanta. That’s what we’re focused on.”

Team-building has been a theme this summer, assistant director of strength and conditioning Scott Holsopple said.

“I think a lot of it has just been, since we have a young team and a new coaching staff, is really just internalizing,” Holsopple said. “Making it about getting to really know each other, spend time with each other. Obviously, the best way to do that is through adversity and hard work. That’s really the way you get to know somebody is when you’re at your bottom and they’re at their bottom and you work to raise up. Everybody’s going to have a bad day. You just have to hope that the person you’re working with is there for you, because it rotates back and forth. The main theme has been the team.”

And while the team chemistry was on full display Friday night as players competed to benefit the local chapter of the Salvation Army, so too, were a few players who have been banged up recently.

Offensive tackle Matt Patchan participated after missing the majority of 2009 and all of 2010 with various injuries. He looked fully recovered from the wrist injury that sidelined him last season and appears to have put on some good upper-body weight.

Running back Mack Brown participated fully after breaking his fibula in the spring and showed no signs of being slowed by the injury.

Notre Dame transfer Dan Wenger, a center, also participated. He’s a massive player who could be an immediate contributor on the offensive line for Florida this season.

Perhaps the most notable change physically was offensive tackle Xavier Nixon, who appears to have added at least 30 pounds since Florida’s spring game.

Bostic mentioned him as the player who has made the most gains this summer.

“He went from spring, he was all the way down to 240,” Bostic said. “He’s put on his weight and he’s getting back focused again. He’s ready to go this season. I think the other day he weighed 292.”

Above and beyond any individual gains, though, Florida certainly appears to have made some strides as a team.

But players seemed close last year at the Charity Challenge before things went downhill quickly in fall camp and early in the season.

Nobody wants to talk about last year or compare this year to last year, because they hope it’s behind them.

“I really don’t want to talk much about last year, but our chemistry is a lot tighter,” redshirt sophomore center Jon Harrison said. “I’ll just put it at that way. I’ll leave it at that.”

After such a tough offseason, Florida’s players were appreciative of the chance to get back in front of the fans and participate in some light-hearted fun for a good cause.

They’re even more ready to strap the pads on and get back to action this fall.

“It’s been a real good offseason,” Harrison said. “It’s been one of the toughest ones, but we’re just continuing trying to get better.”

While Florida will begin its road to redemption against Florida Atlantic on Sept. 3, Schmitt and the rest of the team will soak in the moment and appreciate the payoff for all their hard work.

For Schmitt, every bench press rep, every sprint and every push-up will be worth it when he gets to trot out the tunnel for his first game.

“It’s going to be an absolute dream world,” Schmitt said. “I got to actually walk out for the spring game and that was the stadium at half capacity. Even then it’s just mind-numbing. I cannot wait for the season, it’s going to be incredible.”