Catching up with: Don Gaffney remembers first start at quarterback for Gators in 1973

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Florida quarterback Don Gaffney (8) gets trapped behind the line of scrimmage by Maryland tackle Mike Smith (90) for a loss during the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville on Dec. 29, 1975. (AP Photo/Mark Foley)

The reigning NFL MVP (Lamar Jackson) and Super Bowl MVP (Patrick Mahomes) are both Black. The NFL also boasts Russell Wilson, who is a Super Bowl champion, and Cam Newton, who is a former league MVP and also took his team to the Super Bowl.

This has all occurred within the last seven years, but if any of those players had gone to college 50 years ago, there’s a very good chance none of them would have had the opportunity to ever take a snap under center.

Just thinking about that, it’s hard to believe it was less than 50 years since the first Black quarterback got a start at the University of Florida.

On Sun sports writer Pat Dooley’s Dooley Noted podcast, he welcomed Don Gaffney, who was the first African-American quarterback to start for the Gators in 1973, coming just behind Tennessee’s Condredge Holloway, who started for the Vols in 1972.

By the time Gaffney’s senior year rolled around in 1975, his 12 total touchdowns was second in the SEC to Alabama’s Richard Todd while Gaffney tied for the passing touchdowns lead at 8 with Tennessee’s Randy Wallace.

On Dooley’s podcast, Gaffney recalled how things led up to his first career start on Nov. 3, 1973 at Auburn. He started getting more reps in practice, which he noticed.

“I’d got more work than I had been getting,” Gaffney recalled. “Coach Dickey didn’t make an issue about the fact I was getting more work. I had been getting more work anyway.

“If you were close to (the program), you knew that something different was happening there,” Gaffney added.

Still, with the Gators sitting at 2-4, and traveling to a place they hadn’t ever won at, Gaffney didn’t know his life was about to change.

“No idea I would be the starting quarterback when we left the plane from Gainesville,” he said.

Instead, Dickey told him right before kickoff that he’d be replacing incumbent David Bowden in the lineup.

“Right after it happened, there was so much joy,” Gaffney remembered.

For the Gator faithful, there would be too. UF went out that day and took down then-No. 19 Auburn 12-8 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. That kicked off a “November to Remember” that saw the Gators win close contests over Georgia, Kentucky and Miami to end the month unbeaten. UF then went out on Dec. 1 and throttled Florida State 49-0 to cap off a five-game winning streak to end the regular season and earn a Tangerine Bowl berth.

In all, Gaffney led the Gators to three straight bowl games from 1973-75, with a Sugar Bowl berth among them. The ’75 team was fondly talked about by Dooley and Gaffney and with good reason. UF completed a 9-2 regular season, with their two setbacks by a combined four points.

While Gaffney said during the interview he didn’t have a bad face-to-face interaction with a UF fan during his career, a few Gators fans used the anonymity of sending mail to send racist death threats to Gaffney.

“That took a great deal of thought and prayer to get through,” he said.

While those threats were upsetting to Gaffney,  he iterated that he felt most Florida fans weren’t as concerned with the color of his skin as they were the team’s ability to win.

“One of the things I love about the University of Florida…was our whole attitude changed or was modified,” Gaffney said.