Gators great Reaves dies at 67

His death is under investigation by Hillsborough County authorities

Robbie Andreu
Former UF All-American quarterback John Reaves died Tuesday at 67 in Tampa. [File}

Former Florida quarterback John Reaves, leader of the “Super Sophs” in 1969 and one of the all-time Gator greats, was found dead in his Tampa home on Tuesday. He was 67.

Reaves was found dead at his home Tuesday, according to the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner's Office. The cause of death is being investigated, the office said.

“All us Gators were sad to hear about the passing of John Reaves,” said former UF Heisman Trophy winner and head coach Steve Spurrier, who coached Reaves in the USFL and made him part of his first UF coaching staff in 1990. “John was one of the all-time best quarterbacks to play here. That '69 Gators team — with John and Carlos Alvarez and Tommy Durrance — that came within one game of winning our first SEC championship was one of the really special teams in the history of our school.”

Elected to the UF athletic Hall of Fame in 1985, Reaves led the Gators to one of the most successful seasons in school history in 1969. Reaves, along with several other top sophomores mixed in with a strong group of seniors, helped the Gators go 9-1-1 (the best record in UF history at the time), including an upset of SEC champion Tennessee in the Gator Bowl.

The highlight of that season, and perhaps of his stellar three-year UF career, came in his very first start against Houston, which was ranked No. 1 in the nation in one preseason publication. On the third offensive play of the game, Reaves launched a 70-yard touchdown strike to Alvarez and the Gators were on their way to a 59-34 victory over the Cougars that set the tone for the season.

“It’s hard to talk about it,” Alvarez said of Reaves’ passing. “We were tied at the hip. I always joked with him that it should have been Alvarez from Reaves.

“The thing I will always remember about him is his great courage. He took so many hits as a drop-back passer at Florida and with the Eagles and he never complained. And he had his demons off the field that followed him. I don’t think his courage is quite appreciated.”

In his sophomore season, under coach Ray Graves, Reaves threw for 2,896 yards and 24 touchdowns. Although his production dipped in his junior and senior years under run-oriented new head coach Doug Dickey, Reaves finished his career as the all-time NCAA passing leader (7,549) and the SEC leader in career TD passes with 54.

"The Gators lost one of their own in John Reaves," said Florida coach Jim McElwain, who recruited Reaves' son, Stephen, to Michigan State. "Obviously got to know the family very well. My thoughts and prayers go out to that family who's been through a lot. At the same time, I do know this: I don't think anybody will ever realize how much the Florida Gators truly meant to John Reaves."

After being named an All-American quarterback in his senior season, Reaves was a first-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1972. Over the course of his nine-year NFL career, Reaves played for five different teams.

After the NFL, his pro career continued with the USFL's Tampa Bay Bandits, where he was the starting quarterback for three seasons (1983-85) under Spurrier.

“My favorite memories of John are when I got a chance to coach him during our time with the Tampa Bay Bandits,” Spurrier said. “He was a wonderful player to coach and a super teammate. Our second year he threw for more than 4,000 yards.

“I thought he was easily the best quarterback in the league. John was outstanding throwing the ball and directing the team. He was as good a pure drop-back passer as I've ever coached.”

Reaves was waived by the Bandits after the 1985 season and signed with the Orlando Renegades. But the league folded before the start of the 1986 season.

Reaves caught on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for one season (1987), and his playing career ended after that.

He hooked up with Spurrier again in 1990, when Spurrier hired him to be part of his first Florida coaching staff. Reaves was let go after the 1992 season, but was rehired by Spurrier again in 1994. In 1995, Reaves left to take a job on Brad Scott's staff at South Carolina, where he spent three seasons.

After football, Reaves moved back to Tampa and sold real estate.

“It's sad to see that John has passed on, but we'll celebrate his life down in Tampa with so many good friends and Gators,” Spurrier said. “His memory will always be with us.”

Throughout his adult life, Reaves battled drug and alcohol addiction. He hit one of his all-time lows when he was arrested in Tampa in 2008 for aggravated assault with a firearm and possession of cocaine.

Less than a year later, Reaves told the Tampa Bay Times he was now sober.

“I've made a lot of mistakes, some temper flare-ups and stuff, but I'm trying to lead an honorable life," Reaves told the paper. "I'm not a person who wakes up in the morning thinking of doing evil things."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.