It was the last day. Chris Doering didn't realize this yet; why should he? The team bus chugged through Gainesville, Fla., on the same old route; the usual Van Halen pumped from earphones into his head. As they do every year at this time, Doering's teammates sat wide-eyed and quiet, rocking with the rhythm of the drive and this growing, pulse-quickening fever, because Florida would play Florida State in the Swamp, and the whole state was on hold, and the game meant everything. But as the bus turned onto North-South Drive, something strange happened. Doering, next to the window, saw hundreds of people milling on the sidewalks, waiting for the team. The bus had to slow. All those faces pressed in, happy and loud, and Doering knew for the first time: It's over. I'll never do this again.
"I was looking, and tears were coming to my eyes," Doering says. "I was embarrassed. I didn't want my teammates to see. So I just turned and looked out the window."
Maybe he was right. Maybe Doering shouldn't have let his fellow Gators see, because who wouldn't have laughed at such a sight? The best wide receiver on the best passing offense in the nation—the tough, wiry bird who had gained 848 yards for the season and would that day break the SEC career record for touchdown catches with his 30th—crying at the thought of his final home game?
College football has no room for sentiment; it's a multimillion-dollar business, a farm system for the NFL, a setup for a sneaker deal, a scam. By a top player's last home game, messages from sports agents have jammed his answering machine and mailbox. Yet all his teammates know that Doering is different; all know he should weep long and hard and openly because after No. 2 Florida plays No. 1 Nebraska for the national championship in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, something precious will come to an end.
"A lot of these players could be at Florida State, Miami, Massachusetts—anywhere, just doing their thing," says the guy who sat next to Doering on the bus, quarterback Danny Wuerffel. "But Chris was here so long, with ties to the school and to the city. Not only does he want to win, he wants to be part of this institution—Florida. That's who he is. That's what he is."
That's how it has always been. Doering didn't just settle on the local team; he grew up in the religion. Florida is a state notorious for its rootless populace, but Chris's father, Paul, studied pharmacy in Gainesville, stayed on to do his graduate work in that field and has been a professor at Florida for 20 years. This is a company town, and Paul is a company man.
When Chris was four, Paul would take him out to the gravel road in front of their house to toss the football; the ball might smash his face and knock him down, but the game never ended. Saturdays, Chris went to Florida games. Sundays, the gates to Florida Field would be unlocked, and Chris and Paul would play catch, and the boy would run under long, perfect spirals. Every summer Chris went to Florida football camp. He went to the same church as former Florida receiver Cris Collinsworth and felt sure he would take Collinsworth's path—scholarship, stardom. "All I ever thought about," Chris says, "was playing football for the Gators."
So the story ends here, yes? Doering, a senior, is not particularly fast, yet his knack for getting open has made him the prime passing target in coach Steve Spurrier's "Fun 'n' Gun" offense—the hometown boy who has helped bring his beloved Gators to the brink of their first national title. "He doesn't take a break," Spurrier says. "He just plays full speed. And he's so sure-handed that it's very easy for me to call plays where he's the main guy." That Doering has this eerie resemblance to Collinsworth only makes his success seem preordained. "Yeah," Doering says casually, because he must've said it a thousand times this year. "Dream come true."
Except for one thing. When Doering was coming out of Gainesville's P.K. Yonge High School, nobody—least of all the Gator coaching staff—wanted him. Despite being one of Florida's few all-state selections in football, basketball and baseball, despite his great leaping ability and the fact that he led the nation's top football state in touchdown catches his senior year, Doering got no invitations for official visits, few phone calls from anxious coaches, no scholarship offers from anyone. That hurt plenty. But what killed him was this: Doering's high school is run by the University of Florida, yet by January of his senior year it was clear that the Gators had no intention of offering him a free ride. In an essay for his high school English class that spring, Doering wrote, I tried to lie to myself and keep believing it would still happen. I should have known after none of the Gator coaches ever came to one of my games. I simply dismissed this fact by saying that they probably had seen enough of me at football camp last summer. I should have known after the letters and phone calls from them stopped coming....
According to P.K. Yonge offensive coordinator Dave Mitchell, he had taken some film of Doering to one of Florida's graduate assistants. While they were watching footage of the pencil-thin Doering—6'4", 170 pounds—another Gator assistant, Kyle Lingerfelt, burst into the room, began cursing and rasped out these infamous last words: "Chris Doering is no good. He'll never play Division I football. Stop wasting our time."