Destined to be great: Success signals start of new era

Published: Tuesday, January 9, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 9, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

GLENDALE, ARIZ. — The road to Glendale was paved with narrow victories and inspiring human stories that tugged at the heart, culminating in a BCS National Championship that marked a new era in Gator football Monday night.

Just getting to Glendale suggested the official end of the Steve Spurrier era in Gainesville. While coach Urban Meyer still has much to do before he'll be mentioned in the same breath as the Ol' Ball Coach, he has taken a step outside of Spurrier's long shadow and resuscitated a university and a community that have embraced him as the key to their collective futures. Ron Zook, though beloved by players, never shook the Spurrier ghost, and Gator fans have in some ways been in a holding pattern ever since the man in the visor left town. Gators have been looking for a leader, and they've finally found one in Urban Meyer.

To steal a political phrase, it's morning in Gator Nation. For fans here, the victory Monday night is only further sweetened with the knowledge that anything seems possible today. The Gators are back.

"We got a really good recruiting class this last year; we're going to get another really good one," said Justin Parsons, a 21-year-old UF senior. "I think it's a rebirth whatever way you look at it."

As I drove across the country last week, reporting on the influence of UF across the nation, the theme of rebirth was constant. Former Gator Quarterback Danny Wuerffel's ministry is working to rebuild hurricane-ravaged New Orleans. A team of young UF graduates I interviewed in Austin, Texas spoke of a new era for the Gators on the football field. And fans here in Glendale told me often that they believed the Gators were on the verge of reclaiming the glory days of the 1990s.

In addition to a second national championship, the Gators have left fans with compelling human stories that made this team what it was. The story of Chris Leak, who ended his Gator career Monday with those two elusive rings finally on his fingers, has been a lesson in dignity.

Gator fans' respect for Leak came in no small part due to how he dealt with the new kid in town. As fans developed a schoolgirl-style crush on Tim Tebow, Leak never showed any public misgivings about sharing the spotlight. Instead, he retained his quiet grace, literally embracing Tebow after his first touchdown this season.

Gary Martin, a 57-year-old Gainesville resident, grew misty eyed in the halls of the University of Phoenix Stadium on Monday as he spoke of Leak's season before the game.

"I think there should be some kind of award for the maturity of him accepting Tebow and all that," said Martin, his voice cracking. "I love coming to football games; I love to see us win, but it seems like to me he's really been an example for all of us. I really feel strongly about it."

Martin expressed equal admiration for Reggie Nelson, the tenacious free safety who just weeks ago buried his mother and placed his jersey inside her coffin. Thinking of Nelson, Martin paused, and then spoke of the affections he has for this team as a whole — a team nobody thought would make it this far.

"We've come through a dark period where we didn't have much hope," Martin said. "Now, the future is ours."

Football's future looks bright for Gator Nation.

Sun reporters Nathan Crabbe (left) and Jack Stripling take a road trip to Glendale following the Gators to the National Championship.

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