Return to Big Easy has not been easy


Published: Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 9:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, December 29, 2012 at 3:02 p.m.

NEW ORLEANS — The moment Xavier Nixon walked into the lobby at the Hilton Riverside hotel, the flashbacks started to hit him.

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Florida senior middle linebacker Jon Bostic practices Friday at the Superdome in New Orleans. (The Associated Press)

It seemed like so long ago and yet it all went by so fast.

“Blink of an eye,” he said, a twinkle in his.

This was the scene of a crazy week for a bunch of young players who were supporting players to a group of stars. In 2009, Florida was rewarded for a 12-1 season with a Sugar Bowl. Most of the players in that starting lineup (17 of 22) have played or are playing in the NFL.

Some of them, like Nixon, have one more game to play in their college careers. It seems fitting that it's here in the Superdome.

And this time around they appreciate it more. Then, they were just trying to learn from older and more experienced players. Now, they are the mature ones who understand what a commitment is all about.

But that's not what makes this return to the Big Easy special.

It's because of where they have been the last two years.

In 2009, they probably thought it was always going to be like this. Some of the seniors on this team were redshirts on the 2008 team that won a national title. The following year they played Alabama for a chance to play in another one.

We have been over and over the reasons Florida hit a major pothole as a program. In some ways, it started during that Sugar Bowl week when Urban Meyer resigned and then changed his mind.

“It was a weird week, a crazy week,” said linebacker Lerentee McCray.

But that's just it. From that crazy week came a drop-off for the football program. Florida went 15-11 over the next two years, and the bowl gifts weren't as nice and the dinners weren't as tasty and there was no plane required to go to Tampa or Jacksonville.

There was no Dixieland jazz band serenading them at the end of those bus rides. Last year they played in a stadium where they had played only weeks before. This year, they're playing in a stadium where the national championship game was played last season.

And, oh yes, it's the stadium that housed thousands of homeless people after Hurricane Katrina.

“We've talked about that,” Nixon said. “We get the opportunity to play and practice in a place where people were here just trying to survive.”

Nixon was the only current member of the Florida team who started that game. He was the left tackle on a team that thrashed Cincinnati.

“It was my goal to be starting as a freshman,” he said. “You dream about coming to a place like this to play. But then we had a problem with complacency.”

More than that, there was attrition. And for two years, these seniors had to fight to get the program back here.

“I've been at Florida for the best teams and the worst teams,” McCray said. “That Sugar Bowl, walking around the city, getting ready to play, it helped (me) know what to expect this time.

“I was a baby then. Now I'm a full-grown man.”

Physically, the kids who played in that game against Cincinnati have changed. Mentally they are light years from where they were then.

Which is a big reason why they are here.

And why they appreciate this city not as much for the gumbo or the history or the Mississippi River they can see from their hotel windows but because of what this BCS bowl game represents.

“Certainly, when you've been to the bottom of the barrel so to speak, it makes you appreciate things a little bit more,” said Florida coach Will Muschamp. “I think these guys realized you just don't roll your hat out there and win football games.”

For most of these seniors, their time was mop-up time in the 51-24 win. Mike Gillislee ended up being the game's leading rusher with 78 yards but all five of his carries came on the last drive of the game. Caleb Sturgis made one of two field goal tries. Frankie Hammond Jr. had four special teams tackles.

“Of course we do (appreciate it more),” said senior Omarius Hines. “We talk about everything we did here, me, Frankie, Lerentee. We all talk about how much fun it is and how glad we are to be back.”

In more ways than one.

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