"When you have three major schools competing in one state, you usually have the power, the middle-of-the-road school and the doormat," says Miami assistant coach Butch Davis. "But in the five years I've been in Florida, the success of the three schools here has been amazing."
The Big Three is fixing to become Four. Central Florida coach Gene McDowell, who guided the Knights to the Division II national semifinals last season, is starting to lure a lot of the players who used to head north if they failed to get a scholarship from the Seminoles, Gators or Hurricanes. McDowell is so encouraged that he's looking to go I-AA next season, add Florida, Florida State, Tulane and Memphis State to his schedule and move up to I-A within seven years.
Better adjust the focus on this shot of Sammie Smith, the fastest guy ever to come out of Zellwood, Fla. There. Sammie's hard to catch, photographically and otherwise. He covers 100 meters in a near-world-class 10.31 seconds, and covers nonmetric distances in the fall in similarly short order, even though he's then burdened with a ball and 35 pounds of football equipment. Smith rushed for 1,230 yards last season for Florida State—7.2 yards-per-carry—and he's one of the main reasons the Seminoles just might be the best team in the country this fall.
Like so many Floridians who have played the skill positions, Smith is a child of the springtime. This isn't merely because of spring practice, which his alma mater, Apopka High, and most high schools in the state offer. Smith ran track, too, and track and football have had a Florida fling going since long before Bob Hayes starred at both for Florida A & M. "I don't know of any athlete in the NFL—a wide receiver, running back or defensive back—who wasn't involved in track and field," says Johnny Alexander, a youth-football coach who also runs the Fort Lauderdale Track Club, where kids start competing as early as age three. "There may be some, but I don't know of any."
Florida weather permits the track season to begin early and finish by the beginning of May, in plenty of time for a kid to participate in spring football. Off-season drills aren't unique to Florida. Some 11 other states and the District of Columbia allow as many as 21 days for them. But many Florida counties hold "jamborees," where four or more teams get together, with officials and a running clock, and play offense and defense for a half. "I can take 100 kids and keep pounding 'em, about grades as well as football," says Middleburg's Wilson. "We get a lot of fundamental things out of the way so we don't have to do so much hitting in the fall."
The jamborees fall neatly within the NCAA's evaluation period, and recruiters flock to them. "We took one of our coaches who normally worked the Philly area to see one jamboree," says Syracuse assistant Randy Edsel. "The thing that amazed him was the overall team speed. He never realized kids could run that well."
The speed isn't limited to the skill positions. Suddenly Florida is producing big and agile linemen—like Gator defensive tackle Rhondy Weston, who hails from Belle Glade; Sammie Smith's 305-pound escort, offensive tackle Pat Tomberlin, from Middleburg; and Miami defensive end Bill Hawkins, from Hollywood. "Now offensive line is one of the best positions we've got," says Bill Buchalter, the regional sports editor for the Orlando Sentinel. Other states are noticing, too.
Players at every position find Florida's climate a crucible for forging stamina as well as speed. Miami coach Jimmy Johnson had a chance to build a tent along the sidelines of his practice field. But Johnson has seen too many opponents wilt in the fourth quarter, and so he elected to let his players bake. And they understand why. Forget that October afternoon in Ann Arbor with the nip in the air. This, Keith Jackson, is college football weather. "You come from Florida, you have got to be in shape from sucking that stale, humid air," says Notre Dame's Brown. "In spring practice, the thermometer on the field is 115�, and that's before you put on pads and breathe that stuff."
The weather also keeps kids outdoors year-round, running and roughhousing, and even if they're not playing football, they're getting grid-ready in many subtle ways. Remember Gaither's Sandy Soil Theory? "When I was coming up in Fort Myers, we played on a sand field," says Bob Green, the former athletic director at Fort Lauderdale Dillard. "Literally, there were white lines on sand."
Today in much of the state, sand would be a luxury. Before their annual game against the Georgia all-stars in Orlando last June, several of the Florida High School All-Stars showed off some of the scars they had earned as rapscallion kids growing up playing the game wherever they could. Every wound told a story: