Two troubled Gators teamed to beat Tennessee in the final seconds
The wattage of their smiles could have lit Neyland Stadium at midnight. Florida senior quarterback Jesse Palmer stood a few feet from red-shirt freshman wide receiver Jabar Gaffney in an overcrowded interview room minutes after the sixth-ranked Gators had defeated No. 11 Tennessee 27-23 last Saturday. Their smiles were powered by happiness, to be sure, but also by redemption.
Palmer has spent his Florida career being jerked in and out of the lineup by coach Steve Spurrier. On Sept. 9, with the Gators ahead 24-0 in the second quarter of a 55-0 rout of Middle Tennessee State, Spurrier pulled Palmer, who had made one too many poor decisions, in favor of freshman Rex Grossman. Gaffney was kicked off the team by Spurrier last December after the University of Florida police accused him of stealing $325 in cash and jewelry from a locker room being used by Springfield Rutherford High, which was playing in the state 5A playoffs at Florida Field. Gaffney admitted to taking $40 and agreed to pay $175 restitution; in return, no charges were filed. He was stripped of his scholarship, but later was allowed to rejoin the Gators as a walk-on.
Now Palmer and Gaffney stood talking about their moment of triumph, the three-yard hitch pattern on which Gaffney walled off defensive back Willie Miles at the goal line and caught the winning touchdown pass from Palmer with 14 seconds to play. Miles quickly stripped Gaffney but, according to line judge Al Matthews, not quickly enough. "I had it for about two seconds," Gaffney says. "I knew the officials would call it complete. In the back of his mind Miles knows I caught the ball."
The score concluded a 10-play, 91-yard drive that took precisely two minutes. Palmer threw on every snap, completed six passes and never looked rattled, not even when a five-yard scoring throw to Reche Caldwell with 28 seconds remaining was called back because Florida had an ineligible receiver downfield. "I'd never had a two-minute drill in a game," said Palmer, who completed 20 of 43 passes for 290 yards. "I've dreamed about it a lot. I've been in that situation five million times on PlayStation and John Madden Football, but I'd never done it in real life before."
Despite Spurrier's public comments, Palmer says his coach has kept him confident with private praise. "Jesse wasn't that bad," said Spurrier after the win on Saturday, referring to Palmer's earlier performances. "We're not going to switch our quarterbacks around."
Jabar is the scion of a famous Gators family. His father, Derrick, and three of his uncles were standouts for Florida. Derrick went on to an eight-year NFL career. After being booted last December, Jabar had no interest in playing anywhere else, so Derrick appealed to Spurrier and athletic director Jeremy Foley to reinstate his son. Convinced that Jabar had learned his lesson, Spurrier told him in June that he could rejoin the Gators—but without a scholarship.
As he walked through the deserted Florida locker room after last Saturday's press conference, Gaffney, whose 15 receptions lead the 3-0 Gators, said softly, "Once something is done, something is done. You've got to live with your mistakes and keep going."
His goal is to prove that he learned his lesson and regain his scholarship. "Jabar wouldn't go away," says Spurrier. "He suffered, we thought, enough. Thank goodness, he wouldn't go away."
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