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Dear Gators

Dec 29 2019
Photo by
Jared Wickerham/The Players' Tribune
Photo by
Jared Wickerham/The Players' Tribune
Joe Haden
Pittsburgh Steelers
Dec 29 2019

Dear Gators,

It’s difficult to really narrow down my feelings for this program in one letter, much less one moment.

College was this collection of so many memories and experiences that, after a few years, kind of melt together. But, when I look back on my time at Florida, there’s one memory in particular that I can still recall vividly.

Honestly, there are probably a few other Gators who can recall it vividly, too.

It was 2009, and we were playing in the BCS national championship. The game took place in Miami, where we always expect to win. We were facing OU, led by Sam Bradford. The Sooners were the only team in the country ranked ahead of us by the BCS, and had what was considered to be one of the greatest offenses in college football history.

Didn’t matter. We were hyped. We had so many ballers on our team and we knew it. The Pouncey twins, Tebow, Brandon Spikes, Percy Harvin, Demps and Rainey — STACKED.

Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

We could have been playing the Dolphins and I still would have been certain we were going to win. And honestly that is one thing that’s never changed. Every single game that UF plays — and I’ve watched just about all of them since I left — I expect that we’re going to win. Every time. In the national championship, that expectation was as high as ever.

It was about one minute into the game when one of their wideouts beat me with a double-move. Because I was manned up and we were in single-high formation, I knew I didn’t have any safety help over the top. So while that ball is floating in the air, I’m thinking the worst. They’re about to go for a touchdown on their first drive, and we’re going to be playing from behind right away — and the whole country is going to see it was because I got beat.

Then out of nowhere, I see flash of white and orange.

*boom*

The OU receiver is on the ground. Ball is incomplete.

As soon as I heard the hit, I knew what had happened. Major Wright happened. That guy wasn’t my just my teammate. He was my roommate, my brother. And on that play, even though I wasn’t expecting him to be helping over the top, he made a break on the ball and absolutely decleated the receiver. Like I’m talking a full-out, highlight-reel, type-of-hit-that-gets-you-flagged-today hit.

I spent some of the best years of my life at Florida, but that play in particular during that game on that stage still makes me smile when I think back on it. Not only because I think it set the tone for the rest of the game (which we would go on to win), but also because Major is my guy. He’s my guy — still is to this day.

And on that play he had my back. I’ll never forget that.

That whole sequence kind of summed up what made playing at Florida truly special. Yes, it’s a great program with the best fan base in college football. But what really makes that time in my life memorable was that I got to experience it with my best friends.

We knew that our time together wouldn’t last forever — that it was this finite thing. But in the time we did have, every chance we had — every chance — we balled out.

We did it for our future, our fans. But most of all we did it for each other.

That’s the energy I want this team taking into the Capital One Orange Bowl.


Video: Duncan Sullivan/The Players’ Tribune; Photo: Ed Zurga/Getty Images

During my career in Gainesville, when we were on our run and really established as the team to beat in college football, that was crazy, man.

I’d always had really big expectations for myself as a football player, but what pushed me at UF was that I knew that my best could and would be matched by my teammates.

Any given play, I’d see Major flying all over the field. You had Carlos Dunlap tossing around offensive tackles like rag dolls. Brandon Spikes lighting up everybody he touched.

We had talent everywhere, but so did a lot of teams we played. What made us great was that our talent never stopped pushing to improve. We all were on the same page and knew the guys next to us were going to absolutely kill it. There was a trust that came with that, but also a certain amount of pressure.

Nobody wants to be that weak link.

There was a period of time a few years ago when it seemed like the program had lost that spark — that edge that separated us. And that’s why I was so happy when Coach Mullen came back to the program, because he knows the level we should be playing at. And he’s putt in the work to get us right back there. I see it. It’s not something that happens all at once — of course not. This is a process, a step-by-step goal that everybody in the program works toward.

And that’s why this game matters so much. This is the step that propels us into next season with the right momentum and mentality.

Right now, no other program in the state can touch us. That’s how it should be.

But that’s not enough. We all know that. When the Gators are going, when we’re out there playing at our absolute best, there’s no team in the nation that can touch this program.

I know that. I’ve experienced it.

We win this Capital One Orange Bowl, we’ll finish our best record in seven years. That’s a huge step. That’s a huge opportunity.


Duncan Sullivan/The Players’ Tribune

There are things about of playing in college I miss.

I miss going to bowl games. A week basically on a field trip with your boys where everything’s paid for? Yes, please.

I also miss the Gator Walk. Being suited and booted, strutting into the stadium with fans everywhere cheering. Not gonna lie, my fashion sense wasn’t all the way where it needed to be, so I’d always be wearing a suit that was six sizes too big. Didn’t matter. Nothing made me feel as invincible as when I was taking that walk.

There’s definitely things I miss about college, but what I don’t have is a single regret.

I made lifelong bonds, raised my game to a different level, and left everything I had on the field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with my brothers.

There may be some plays I want back (and maybe a few test answers, too), but I’m proud of what I did for the program in the brief time I had before handing it off to the next group.

Playing at Florida, it means being part of a tradition. There are great players who came before you, and great ones who will come after, but what matters is what you do with your moment in time.

So Gators, when you take the field in Miami, play your game, ball out, and do everything you can to make sure that, when it’s all over, you leave that field with absolutely no regrets — with no question in your mind as to what else you could have done to help us win.

If every one of you can do that, it’ll be enough. Trust me, it’ll more than enough.

Go Gators,

Joe

Joe Haden
Pittsburgh Steelers