Case in point: The exacting Spurrier was dissatisfied with Wuerffel's 15-for-28 passing in the Gators' season-opening win over Southwestern Louisiana. "Just didn't throw the ball well," said Spurrier. He kept Wuerffel off limits to the media for a week, and the senior quarterback responded with a 15-for-16 performance against Georgia Southern. He was again allowed to speak. On Saturday his first two passes were sloppy incompletions, but on fourth-and-11 from the Tennessee 35 he found Reidel Anthony on a post pattern for the game's first touchdown. Wuerffel completed only 11 of 22 passes, but his four early touchdown throws were devastating.
Wuerffel's resilience should come as no surprise. He put the Nebraska game behind him more quickly than most Gators did. "I got sacked a bunch, and it was a tough ball game," Wuerffel said last week. "But I felt like I did everything I could. I didn't let up." Wuerffel has little of the flash that gets many of his peers more publicity, but he has loads of the strength that makes him a terrific, quiet leader. He is the second of Jon and Lola Wuerffel's three children. His father is an Air Force chaplain, and his grandfather was a Lutheran minister. His family has moved six times because of his father's assignments (twice since Wuerffel enrolled at Florida, most recently from Edwards Air Force Base in California to Eglin Air Force Base near Destin, Fla.). In Torrejón, Spain (grades 1 to 3), Wuerffel learned soccer and Spanish; in Colorado Springs (grades 5 to 8) he learned he could excel at football. Then, in the summer of 1988, he learned that his father had been transferred again and that the family would be moving to Fort Walton Beach, Fla. "That was the toughest move," says Wuerffel. "I had made some good friends in Colorado, and I had solidified a spot as the starting quarterback on the ninth-grade team [at the high school]. I remember driving down to Florida with my family, just wondering and praying."
When he arrived in Fort Walton Beach, on the coast of the Florida panhandle, he found that ninth grade was part of junior high school and that in Florida junior high football is a big-time sport. "Lights, cheerleaders, even a public-address announcer," says Wuerffel. "First time I heard my name I about froze." Yet he quickly became the starting quarterback, safety and placekicker, and three years later he was one of the most recruited quarterbacks in the country.
Wuerffel has sometimes been belittled as merely the latest beneficiary of Spurrier's pass-happy offense, but in fact he has proved to be talented, tough and reliable. He has endured his coach's demands with extreme patience, and after shredding Tennessee on Saturday he seemed ready to put questions about the Fiesta Bowl loss behind him forever. "This is a new game and a new season," Wuerffel said. "That [Nebraska] game was a long time ago."
What was most remarkable about Saturday's game was that Florida was able to jump to such a quick lead. "We were disappointed as hell after last year's game," Manning said last week, recalling how the Vols had led 30-14 late in the second quarter, only to come a cropper. Manning felt that the '95 game had been closer than the final score showed. A break here, a break there, one less fumble...who knows what the outcome might have been? That was Tennessee's mantra as Saturday's game approached. In off-season workouts Volunteers players would whisper to each other, "Second half." Those words were posted on a board in the team's weight room. Two days before the game Fulmer said, "We've got to play every play like it's the most important play of our careers, because it probably is."
Fulmer didn't have his team ready to do that. The Vols went to pieces before the crowd was seated. They couldn't stop Florida's running game (the Gators, not often reminiscent of the '67 Packers, gained 51 yards on their first three carries and 149 yards overall). With Tennessee trailing 14-0 less than eight minutes into the game, Fulmer sensed his team losing its fire and focus, so he had the Vols go for a first down on fourth-and-seven from Florida's 46-yard line. "On our sideline I was looking at a lot of glazed looks," said Fulmer later. "I was looking to make something happen." What he got was an incompletion as Manning's pass was broken up.
Manning had much to do with Tennessee's early failure, and the loss will be toughest of all for him. He came into the season as one of the most publicized college players in recent history, and his own expectations are even higher than the public's. Manning had veered from his customary course in preparing for this game. "Spend the week with a smirk on your face, have some fun," his father, Archie, the former Mississippi and 15-year NFL quarterback, had told him. So Peyton curbed his film study and even went to an Alanis Morissette concert on Tuesday night with three of his offensive linemen. Isn't that Ironic? On Saturday his first pass was intercepted deep in his own territory, and for the second consecutive game he fumbled on a sack. He was heroic in Tennessee's comeback but fell short. And the Volunteers, flattened by the Gators for a second year in a row, cared little about moral victories.
Long afterward Manning walked through the barren Tennessee locker room with his father. He paused to embrace Vols linebacker Tyrone Hines and then continued toward a back door. "I'm really amazed that it turned out this way," said Peyton. Archie was intercepted six times in this stadium while playing for Ole Miss in 1968. It happens, and it hurts. "But it's not the end of the world," said Peyton. "We'll be all right." Father and son walked through the door and into the night.
Barely 120 yards away, at the opposite end of the stadium, another family gathered in the catacombs, beneath a dim lightbulb, stealing a few moments of quiet celebration before a bus rushed the Florida team to its charter flight. Jon Wuerffel wore a replica of his son's jersey and stood next to his 24-year-old daughter, Sara, who will be married on Oct. 26, an open date for the Gators. "Otherwise," she said laughing, "nobody would be at my wedding."
In the middle of the group was Danny, quietly scarfing down handfuls of popcorn from a large plastic bag that his mother held. He wore a striped, button-down shirt, blue jeans and a contented look that might best be described as a smirk.