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Brantley was born to be a Gator
As soon as John Brantley IV could he sit still he started attending Florida games with his father. Reared just 35 miles south of here in Ocala, the wide-eyed kid watched Gators quarterbacks such as Danny Wuerffel, Doug Johnson and Jesse Palmer play at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. As he did, he began wanting to be like them, and like his father, John Brantley III, Florida’s starting quarterback in 1978.
So much that the younger Brantley used to wear shoulder pads and a Gators uniform with helmet that his parents bought for him, set up orange cones near their king-sized bed, and pretend that he was Florida’s quarterback. There, he’d play for hours with a football and bang his helmet against the wall.
“He’s been pretty passionate,” John Brantley III says. “He’s been orange and blue his whole life. He’s been Gatorized from Day One.”
Now in his first season as Florida’s starting quarterback, Brantley will need every drop of that fervor Saturday when he and the seventh-ranked Gators (4-0) play a daunting game at top-ranked Alabama (4-0) in a pivotal Southeastern Conference showdown.
It will be just his fifth career start, after stepping in this year to the unenviable position of succeeding legendary Gators quarterback Tim Tebow, who won a Heisman Trophy and two national championships during a sun-kissed career that made him one of college football’s greatest players.
“I feel a lot of pressure,” said the soft-spoken and cool Brantley IV, a 6-foot-3, 220-pound redshirt junior, in an interview last month.
The transition from the Tebow to Brantley IV era hasn’t exactly started smoothly. Until blowing out Kentucky last Saturday behind six touchdowns from more athletic, change-of-pace freshman quarterback Trey Burton, there had been far more questions than answers about Florida this season.
Center Mike Pouncey and Brantley have had problems with shotgun snaps, causing the Gators offense to be out of synch, especially in a season-opening victory against Miami (Ohio) that coach Urban Meyer described as “awful.” But Brantley has steadily improved. A prototypical pocket-passer, he’s completed 64 percent of his passes for 700 yards with 6 touchdowns and just 1 interception.
“The normal progression has been pretty good,” Florida coach Urban Meyer says of Brantley. “We all want it to be faster, but I have no problem with the way John has played. Matter of fact, I think he’s playing at a pretty high level right now.”
As the younger Brantley grew up, his father never pushed him to follow him and his uncle, Scot Brantley, a star linebacker at Florida in the '70s, to play football. Yet Brantley III used to joke with his former quarterbacks coach and then Gators coach Steve Spurrier that his son would someday play quarterback at Florida.
But the elder Brantley was involved in his son’s development as a quarterback. At one of his son’s first practices, he sat in the back of a black Ford Expedition and shook his head at what he saw. One of the elder Brantley’s friends who was coaching saw his restlessness and told him, “You’re either going to quit shaking your head and get out of here or you’re going to get out here and start coaching.”
The elder Brantley has been coaching ever since, and is now the coach of Trinity Catholic High School in Ocala. He quickly had his 10-year-old son operating a prolific shotgun passing attack with four wide receivers, at an age when most other teams were simply running the wishbone.
Father and son had a system. They numbered the receivers left to right from 1 to 4. Prior to each snap, the younger Brantley would look to the sideline and his father would signal the number of the receiver that he should throw to, based on what he thought was the best matchup.
“That kind of made it fun,” the elder Brantley says. “It was a game for him and I to sit there and dissect some of these teams.”
When the younger Brantley was 10, he received his first scholarship offer from then Duke coach Carl Franks, a friend of his father’s. By then, he had already become the first fifth-grade quarterback to lead his team to a Super Bowl title in the junior division of the Marion County Youth Football League.
His success continued at Trinity Catholic High, where he broke Tebow’s state high school record with 99 touchdown passes, won a state championship and had a 27-1 record as a starter while his father was an assistant coach. But back then, he seemed to prefer a different shade of orange. In April 2006, the spring before his senior year, he committed to the burnt orange of Texas.
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“It was just something different,” Brantley says. “It blew me away. I felt comfortable out there at first.”
Scot Brantley, the host for the radio broadcasts of Florida’s football games, immediately questioned his nephew’s decision and began to tout the benefits of staying home to play for the Gators. He asked him, “Where are you going to be five to 10 years from now?”
“If you’re going to Texas and you’re not from Texas, those Texas oil barons that are knee deep in oil and everything else, they don’t really open their arms to the outsiders,” Scot Brantley says. “They’re for their kids, their towns and cities in Texas. People will say, ‘A Florida guy? Man, that’s a beach kid. How’s he going to come to Texas and be our quarterback?’ I think he’d been kind of behind the eight-ball from the get go.”
During Brantley IV’s official visit to Texas in early December 2006, he finally started to feel different about the Longhorns and began wavering. Less than two weeks later, he called Meyer a few days before Christmas to become a Gator.
“I just wanted to live out my dream,” he says.
It’s one that his father also had.
“What are the odds of your own son playing at your school, wearing your number that you wore, and playing the same position?” Brantley III says. “I think you’d have a better chance of winning the lottery than something like that happening.”
Yet as happy as the elder Brantley is about his son playing at Florida, he’s still bothered by his son’s decommitment from Texas.
“It was unfortunate that didn’t come about,” he says. “We still feel bad about reneging. We don’t want to be known for doing that. We’re people of our word.”
But the elder Brantley knew all along that his son was born to be a Gator. Each week, his son talks with former Florida quarterbacks like Chris Leak and the others that he grew up idolizing.
“He’s where he needs to be,” Brantley III says.
And now as Brantley IV once did, young Florida fans want to be just like him.
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