I stood tall with my cleats planted in the blue end zone turf. It was a struggle to fill my lungs with enough air, and I had to keep reminding myself to keep my hands off my hips. A “Set!” from coach meant the next man up had to hustle to the 5 yard line for the drill. I was the next man. I put on my war face for the line of staff watching. This time, it felt like I had a real shot.
The Godfather, Indiana Jones, Cars. All of these epic tales have one thing in common: they have a sequel.
In January, I tried out for Florida Gator Football during the first round of walk-on tryouts under Coach Billy Napier's tenure, just over a month after he took the Florida job. I had quite an experience, but I will say I was not the most satisfied with my preparation and performance (I forgot cleats). For months, I have been waiting for another shot.
I am a 19 year-old with a dream to chase, and I ain't heard no bell.
When I saw this on tweet on the timeline, I turned into the smiling demon emoji. I would get the second chance I craved. I reached out to Lamar Sorey, Personnel Quality Control staffer for the Gators and the man running the show this time, to find out where the meeting was. He said it would be held in the old facility at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and we would enter through the doors by the Bull Gator statue. This was a little exciting for me since I've never been in there.
After moving back to campus on August 18th, all I could do was wait for meeting day.
When I said coming back better, I meant it. On August 1, 2021, I was 235 pounds. When I tried out in January 2022, I was 193. Now, I am 162. I was on the keto diet for about a year, and I made exercise a big part of my routine. Over the summer, planet fitness was free for students 14-19 years old, so I went regularly with a couple pals. This did a lot for me, and now I am in the best physical shape I’ve ever been in. At tryouts, I would find out if I was in SEC shape.
I headed over to The Swamp for the meeting around 2:30 PM. A daily Gainesville August storm was brewing, and the thunder sure wasn't playing around. I walked up to the Heavener Football Complex (not to be confused with the new Heavener training facility) armed with my tryout clearance form. Lamar Sorey was standing on the steps waiting to open the door for meeting goers. I shook his hand, introduced myself, and walked through the doors down a short hallway into the spacious assembly room.
We had to sign in on an online form, writing down our name, height, weight, and position we were going out for. I put Running Back or Special Teams. Before we started, I noticed that there were a lot less of us walk-ons at this meeting than the one in January. I got a loose count of about 35-40 guys compared to 90-100 in the winter. There were a few guys there I recognized from the first round, so I was not the only one taking a second shot.
This meeting was also different from January in that it was short and sweet. Lamar Sorey gave us the basics off the bat. Tryouts were to be held at 4 PM on Monday, August 29th at the indoor field. Like last time, we would only be running agility drills. No football. He also gave us the rundown on the paperwork and physicals we needed, which was all the same as before. We had to register with the NCAA; have a physical, EKG, and blood test from within the past year; and get four signatures from different folks around campus. Fortunately for me, my red-tape grind from last round paid off, and all I had to do this time was collect my signatures. I got off to a good start and got my first signature from Lamar Sorey after the meeting. I was out of there by 4:15, and I got to see the iconic Coach's Trophies on the way out.
That evening, I emailed Athletic Trainer Donovan White, who was my next signature. At the meeting he said that he kept the medical packets from the first round of tryouts, so I emailed him to make sure I was in the clear. I saw his response when I woke up around 9:30 Tuesday morning. He said he did have my stuff, and he told me to meet him at the brand new practice facility at 10:30 to get the signature. This was quite a message to wake up to. The $85 million Heavener Football Training Center had just opened its doors nine days earlier, and I'd get the chance to see its glory and expense with my own bright eyes.
Slightly intimidated, I walked up to the glass doors underneath big Albert (the doors right next to the sign that said access was very much restricted to athletes and University Athletics personnel). I was able to cool myself off enough though since I figured my tryout clearance form was the only access badge I needed. The doors were all locked, but the girl working at the front desk let me through. The second I stepped in, I knew it was a well spent $85 million. I had absolutely no clue where I was going, but the same girl was nice enough to show me to the training room where Donovan's office was. We turn one corner, and right down the hallway is Coach Billy Napier in the flesh.
He was standing right by the hallway to the training office, so I walked just a couple feet behind him, but he was mid-conversation so I couldn’t give him my elevator pitch. I went straight to Donovan's office in the huge training room (the place is unreal and I wouldn't be surprised if they had one of those Star Wars healing tubes). Donovan and I went outside where we waited for a couple other walk-ons.
Above: Ricky Pearsall getting ready for week 1 off of his Fall Camp foot injury
Eventually, I got my second signature and was officially medically cleared. On the way out, I didn’t wander, but I did walk slow to soak it all in, after all, I didn’t know if I’d be back in there any time soon. The girl at the front desk who helped me before was kind enough to take my picture in front of the beautiful hardware. I told her I was trying out for the football team and she said she would pray for me which was super nice. I would say praying has a pretty good success rate here. I mean, think about the Tim Tebow effect. I would rate my overall experience in the Heavener Center a 12/10. It’s shiny, luxurious, and will definitely wow recruits for years to come.
On my way out, I almost held the door for Gator legend (and former walk-on) Chris Doering, but the door closed and locked before I could grab it. He was still appreciative of my effort though. Five minutes later I realized I should’ve asked him for some wise advice, but lesson learned I suppose.
Later that day, I made a push for my last two signatures. I was flying through.
Signature number three was from Assistant Athletic Director Tom Williams, who had to see our class schedule to make sure we were full time students at UF. The catch for this one was that he was only available on Tuesday and Thursday at 4 PM at the Hawkins Center. If you can't make either of those windows, you miss out on tryouts. I got there at 3:30 and waited patiently. While waiting, I chatted with Nick Baskin Jr., another walk-on making his second attempt.
Nick said that he was hoping that they took more guys from tryouts this time. I asked if he knew how many they took, and he said just one out of the ~45 of us at tryouts. I immediately knew who it was. It was a grad-transfer from Stetson who played ball for the Hatters.
Nick was the first walk-on at the Hawkins Center, so he was one of the first guys in Tom Williams' office after they let us go back in groups of two. They run a tight ship in the Hawkins Center so they kept it orderly. Fortunately though, I was the third guy there and didn't have to wait long. Tom saw my 16 credits for the semester and gave me the autograph I needed. One to go.
My fourth and final signature was quick and simple. I had to go to the UAA Compliance Office in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium to turn in my form with signatures 1-3 completed. I went straight from the Hawkins Center to The Swamp and turned in my form with no obstacles. My paperwork was complete 26 hours after the meeting. No more bureaucracy. The only thing between me and my shot at redemption was six days and six nights.
The next step on my journey was righting a wrong.
My last tryout attempt, an important key slipped my mind in the whirlwind of paperwork. Cleats. As it turns out, proper footwear is critical if you want to cut, turn, and accelerate quickly on turf. I messed up big time, and I wouldn't make the same mistake twice.
Fortunately for me, Gator Nation is unmatched and I got some big time help. Conner Clarke, superhero and fearless editor/writer for Stadium and Gale, was kind enough to mail me a pair of his old spikes from his home of Orlando. They are a little snug, but a perfect fit for cleats.
So, armed with proper footwear and a lethal training playlist, I started my preparation.
On Thursday morning, I woke up bright and early before my sports media class to train. I set up shop in a grassy area right next to the Gator Sportshop at the stadium, and my plan was to run through the same 3 agility drills we ran in the winter (high knees over a set of bags, cone drills testing our turns, and a shuttle drill). However, I found myself with a lack of equipment, so I put some sticks in the ground to replicate agility bags and cones. I wouldn't exactly call this setup D1, but I like to think a smart guy uses the resources available to him.
The cleats were working great, and I was feeling dangerous (Kadarius Toney-like). I spent a few minutes on each drill trying to get the muscle memory down, retrying when I messed up a rep.
While I was running drills, Diwun Black, an Inside Linebacker for the Gators, walked by my set up and noticed me training. I told him what I was getting ready for, and I asked him if he had any advice.
"Take every rep hard and go hard every time because they’re watching. You might not think so, but they're watching. They got cameras everywhere in there."
He asked what position I was going out for, and when I told him Running Back or Special Teams he seemed intrigued. He said he thought they were looking for Special Teams players on both sides of the ball, which gave me a little bit of hope. He asked when tryouts were, and when I told him Monday at 4PM at the indoor he said he would try to be there. He was very sincere and wished me luck. He went his separate way and I went back to my shuttle drills.
At this point, everything was going smoothly. Almost too smoothly.
The next morning on Friday, with T minus three days to tryouts, disaster strikes. I wake up with a cold. Runny nose, slightly sore throat, and a little drowsy. This bug gets me at the beginning of every fall semester since I’m around a lot more people than I am at home in Virginia over the summer. This was cause for concern, but I didn’t hit the panic button. I was not on death's door by any means, it's just a cold, but I knew it would cost me training time. I made the smart choice, listened to my body, and treated it right. I absolutely could not be sick on Monday afternoon. I hammered the water, ate plenty of fruit, drank lots of hot tea, and took the weekend to rest. In my mind, this was a minor setback for a major comeback.
On Sunday night, I knew the worst had passed. My symptoms were pretty minor thanks to the rest and lots of vitamin C. I watched Rudy before bed for inspiration. The next day, I'd be going off to war.
I got a decent night's rest and woke up ready to rock. I still had a little bit of a lump in my throat, but nothing some Dayquil wouldn't fix. I knew my pregame meal would be important, so I went to the dining hall about three hours before tryout time. On my way there, I ran into Gator Defensive Lineman Desmond Watson. I told him about tryouts coming up and asked him if he had any words of wisdom.
"I feel like effort is the key. Even if you don’t feel like you have the same skill as other people, effort makes a difference. Attention to detail too, just making sure you’re doing the drills right"
I told him I was on my way to get my pregame meal, and he reminded me to stay hydrated. I got some pasta, chicken, and fresh fruit in me for proper energy. After that it was a waiting game with just a couple hours until tryouts.
I walked over to the practice facility from my room at Murphree Hall at 3:20 and got there around 3:25. Walk-ons would enter through the gates at the North side of the facility, and this time we could come straight to the indoor field instead of waiting outside. We would sign in with Lamar Sorey, who was set up at a table with a computer and jerseys. I could tell from the jump that this tryout was more organized than last time. I gave Lamar my last name and got my jersey, which was assigned alphabetically in a spreadsheet.
Throughout my life, having the last name Ames has allowed me to enjoy the benefits of alphabetical order, and this time was no exception. While the jersey was a couple sizes big, for an hour I would be Agent Zero.
For a few minutes, I changed into cleats, stretched, and chatted with a few other walk-ons, including Nick Baskin who I knew from the Hawkins Center. He was number 4. Some guys were pretty friendly, but I could tell some other guys were locked in and had no interest in small talk, which I understood completely. The room, although large, was a little tense. There were probably 40 or so of us there to try out, a handful less than before.
At 3:45, we lined up in number order to get our height and weight taken (another organizational detail that was new). We were instructed to take off our cleats, and being 0, I went first. I came in at 5'9.75" and 162.4 pounds. Light for a Running Back I know, but I figured it couldn't hurt me for agility drills.
Around 3:55, Coach Alex Watkins, a Strength and Conditioning Assistant, blew his whistle meaning we were gather on him. We took a knee in the North end zone on the indoor practice field, and they told us to stay between the hashmarks on the field. Coach Watkins told us he would be running the tryout and he introduced his assistant coaches. He gave us three keys to making the most of the opportunity:
Close your mouth, open your ears.
Give everything you got.
When it doubt, go harder.
It was a very Football-Guy pep talk, and it was enough to get me fired up. Next, he had an assistant run through the warm up that we would be doing. He called it the flex drill, and it essentially consisted of us doing high knees and various types of skips to get our legs and hips loosened up. We lined up in a few lines and ran the flex. Pretty much everyone did this smoothly, but it was just the warm up. Next, we stayed in our lines and spread out for stretches. We hit quite a few to make sure our entire body was loose and good to go. After that, Coach Watkins blew his whistle and we hustled to gather on the 30 yard line. He told us how the drills would go.
The first drill station was the same as it was before: agility bags. I messed up a rep on this one last time around, but now I was ready and prepared. I saw this fastball coming before the pitch was called.
We went back and forth over the bags three times. One foot in the hole, two feet in the hole, and two feet in the hole going sideways. The only mistake I made on this one was going one bag too early on my first go (we were supposed to wait until the guy in front of us passes the third bag). I got a “too early 0, you gotta listen!” from Coach Watkins and that was more than enough to make sure I didn’t do it again. I did pretty good I thought and my practice helped a lot. A few guys kicked the bags and moved them, which got a "don't touch my bags!" from Coach Watkins every time.
A big part of this drill, something I realized would be a big part of all of the other ones as well, was the finish. The finish is where you can show effort. Once you pass the bags, you sprint like hell through to the sideline to finish the rep strong. I dug deep on every rep to accelerate the best I could. Most guys knew to do the same, but a few were going at 80%. I couldn't tell you how many exactly though, I was more focused on my performance than others'.
After the bags, we were onto the cone drills. Unlike the last tryout, we didn't take a one minute water break in between stations. We were going hard and fast. Water was optional, and we could grab it while we waited for our rep at each station. I noticed though that at the cone station no walk-on (including myself) wanted to be the first guy to grab water, especially since Coach Watkins was telling us to keep our hands off our hips (that means you're tired).
For the cone station, six cones were set up in a rectangle shape, with two lines of three cones and about five yards between each cone. After seeing this, I knew we'd be running different patterns than before. First we ran in a zig zags, making tight cuts, then we did an S shape with a mix of side-shuffling and short sprints between each cone. I thought my cuts were pretty good, and I think the subtraction of 30 pounds combined with cleats made me a lot more effective. I felt light and quick.
About three people in front of me in line ran the wrong pattern during the cone station, which felt like watching a professional wrestler piledrive an infant. A mistake like that can obliterate your chances in a tryout.
After the cones, the whistle blew and we hustled to the South end zone. Time for station three: the shuttle drill. This one, like the agility bag station, was the exact same as the last tryout. Start out low, with your hand on the five yard line. On go, run to the right (or left), touch the ten yard line, and change direction to sprint to the goal line, touch the goal line, turn, and sprint through the ten. Very simple.
Before I was up, it hit me that there was another big difference from last tryout. There were lots of player personnel staff present and watching. This felt like more of a walk-on tryout that I would expect, which makes sense since now the Napier administration has been in office for nine months, not just 30 days.
After the cone drill I was pretty gassed. We were going hard and I was doing my best to take no prisoners on every rep. But, I tried to dig a mental foxhole. I thought about what Diwun Black and Desmond Watson told me about effort, and I also thought about the third key that Coach Watkins gave us. Looking at the line of coaches and quality control personnel watching, I put on a war face and gave it all I had. There were some guys just swiping the line on their shuttle, so I slapped the paint the best I could and “left no doubt” like the coaches were saying to. I feel like I could have been faster if I had more gas in the tank, but I tried my best.
We were supposed to run a shuttle twice, going both left and right, but they blew the whistle and moved us to the next station before half the line, including me, could run the second rep. My guess is there were too many mistakes (doing the wrong turn, running the wrong way), likely from fatigue, so they just wanted to move on. My head was thankful for this since I could barely breathe by this point, but my heart was worried that I didn't get to go left.
The fourth and final station was completely new. It was a reaction drill. We had to look at one of the coaches and follow his directions fast. He points to the right or left, and we shuffle that way. He points up, and we jump. He points down, and we hit the deck and pop back up. When he says go, we sprint through the 15 yard line. Like everyone else, I was still gassed, but I knew this was the last station so it was time to empty the clip. We ran this drill a few times, and I think it was my strongest performance. I glued my eyes to the coach and put the most effort I could into every shuffle, jump, and drop. Like Des said, effort was the key.
We were split up into five lines, so five of us would run the drill at a time. I was in the middle of my line, so I watched the guys before me and took mental notes. One big thing I noticed was the overall effort on jumps. I didn't think guys were jumping very high, so on my reps I tried to go airborne. I felt bad for the group right in front of me since coach made them hit the deck three times in a row. I only had to hit the ground once, but when I did I knocked the wind out of myself a little bit. When coach said go, I went pedal to the medal to the point where my legs nearly gave out and I almost fell (thank god I did not). During one sprint, I looked to my side and saw I came in second for my group, which felt pretty nice.
Then, sweet relief.
Coach Watkins blew the whistle and we gathered again between the hashes in the south end zone. Lamar Sorey gave us a debrief, saying he'd be in contact with all of us in the next couple days to let us know the decisions. In just 40 minutes, it was over.
I thanked the coaches for the opportunity, dropped my jersey on the pile, and changed my shoes. I took one last look at the indoor facility before heading out; the place is pretty cool, especially with the redecoration and multi-million dollar weight room at the south side. Attempt number two was in the books. This time though, I left with some more confidence and a fully intact groin muscle, which I was most thankful for.
It was a long day the next day, especially since my legs felt like jello, but Tuesday night I found out the decision.
In the game of Football, there are no moral victories, only cold hard W's. However, I didn't make the team this time, so I'm not a football player. At the end of the day, I improved, and I will take my moral victory in stride.
Upon talking with other walk-ons who received the same email (all with only my name front and center under the "To:" section as seen above, alphabetical order strikes back), from what I am hearing nobody from tryouts made the team this round.
There is some discouragement in the ranks among us rambunctious dream chasers, but I am holding my head high. I said it last time and I will say it again: as Kobe Bryant once said,
"Job's not finished."
All I can do now is get back in the lab and improve for the spring. Like Lamar said, embrace the grind. For now though, the Gators play on Saturday, which is all I need for happiness in life. I'll be in The Swamp loud and proud.
Signing off until the next round,
P.S: To John Ruiz, please stop calling me. No amount of money will get me to play for a college football team with no stadium and a party bus for a locker room.