GAINESVILLE, Fla. — On any given fall Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, there are thousands of guys like John Reichardt scattered around the bleachers.
Guys who have a mortgage to pay and a wife at home. Guys pushing 30 with a waist size a few inches wider than when they finished high school. Guys who once imagined what a thrill it must be to run onto Florida Field in front of 90,000 fans.
Guys who eventually faced the facts and moved on, their visions of one day playing college football transformed into fandom.
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There’s no shame in that. Dreams often play out that way. They pop up, are tossed around in the psyche, and then fade away as real life creeps in.
The 29-year-old Reichardt is no different.
He once had those orange-and-blue colored visions. It didn’t matter that he had never played organized football. The Gainesville native attended The Rock School, which doesn’t even have a football team.
The closest Reichardt figured he would ever get to The Swamp on game day was at Joe’s Deli, the former sub shop and favorite hangout of students once located across University Avenue behind the stadium’s north end zone.
Reichardt’s father, Jack, and his uncles owned the Joe’s Deli franchises around town when John was in high school. He would show up at the one on University on Saturdays in the fall with a few of his best friends and spend hours cooking gator tails until they ran out.
Reichardt would then go home and talk about the Gators’ game with his dad, a former football player at Wisconsin who moved to Gainesville in 1980 and opened Joe’s Deli.
“I worked there many, many a day,” Reichardt said, adding that it was the one thing he had in common with Emmitt Smith, who worked at the same Joe’s Deli the summer before his junior year.
Eleven years after graduating from The Rock School, Reichardt now has something else in common with Smith: He plays for the Gators.
Reichardt’s path toward a spot on Florida’s roster is unlike that of any of his teammates. He played soccer and basketball in high school, but at 6-foot-2, 185 pounds when he graduated, recruiters certainly were not knocking down his door.
Besides rooting for the Gators, Reichardt’s true passion was the 1966 Dodge Coronet he still owns. When it was time to face life after high school, Reichardt joined the Army. He was tired of school and decided the military was a way to start paving the way toward his future.
He enlisted in August 2001.
“A month later I was in basic,” Reichardt said. “What did I get myself into?”
The 9/11 terrorist attacks sped up everything for Reichardt, who was first deployed to Iraq in 2003. A history buff, Reichardt soon found himself in Ar-Ramadi on the banks of the Euphrates River in a whole new world.
As the 82nd Airborne Division landed in Iraq for the first time, a sense of amazement rushed through Reichardt. He wasn’t running out of the tunnel at The Swamp, but he felt a sensation unlike anything before that moment.
“I thought, ‘This is insane,’ ” Reichardt said. “This is like the pearl crest of the whole history of civilization.”
Life in Iraq and later Afghanistan — he spent 17 months in the village of Pul-E-Alam from January 2007 to the spring of 2008 — was as you can imagine in a war.
“He has seen some horrible stuff, and I’m sure it weighs on him from time to time,” said Rick Reichardt, John’s uncle. “A lot of his buddies didn’t make it back, right in front of him.”
During a recent break from lunch with his teammates, Reichardt hesitated when talk turned to his time in war. He asked how much an enquiring mind wanted to know.
“It’s not something I really talk about,” said Reichardt, who also helped relief efforts in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. “But yeah, I’ve had a few close encounters I guess you could say.”
While life in Iraq and Afghanistan was difficult in ways only someone who experienced it can understand, Reichardt’s time in the military offered another unique opportunity. Stationed at Fort Bragg when not deployed, Reichardt finally joined a football team.
The games were not on ESPN and college recruiters were not watching, but Reichardt didn’t notice. The games were 11-on-11 and in full pads on a regulation field. He was the team’s starting center.
“It was mostly recreational,” Reichardt said. “Our team was so bad we had a couple of games where I would switch over to tight end just so we would have someone be able to catch the ball. Back then I was 50 pounds lighter.”
After seven years in the Army, Reichardt returned to civilian life in late 2008. The Gators were about to begin their run toward a second national championship in three years.
Life was good as Reichardt aimed his focus to a post-military future. He also was back in Gainesville near his beloved Gators, keeping a close eye on Tim Tebow and Florida’s magical 2008 season.
Reichardt watched the 2007 BCS national title game against Ohio State with his wife, Abby, at a hotel near Fort Bragg as he prepared to head to Iraq days later. His passion for Florida football was never more evident to Abby, a mid-wife who grew up anything but a sports fan.
“It was amazing,” said Abby, a UF alum. “That man is so dedicated to the Gators. I’ve always known this about him. By halftime I’m passed out. He is sitting there shouting at the television.”
As Reichardt settled back into life at home, he went to work as a locksmith and enrolled at Santa Fe College in the spring of 2009 with help from the GI Bill. To help pay the bills, he also took a job for a while as a bouncer, by now a hulk of a man carrying around 300 pounds on his athletic frame.
The oldest of Jack and Carrie Reichardt’s five kids, John earned his degree from Santa Fe in 2011 and enrolled at UF — from where two of his younger siblings have already graduated — in January of this year.
About a month into the spring semester, an unexpected email arrived in Reichardt’s inbox. The Gators were holding football tryouts for walk-ons. Abby noticed that John had lost weight recently from strenuous workouts but didn’t expect what was to come next.
“I knew he always had the dream of being a student at UF,” Abby said. “And then secretly on the side, trying out to be on the team. I wasn’t sure what he had up his sleeve.”
At the urging of his uncle Rick, a former outfielder in the majors who played 10 seasons for the Angels, Senators, White Sox and Royals, Reichardt filled out the proper forms, took a physical and decided to chase the impossible.
He tried out for the Gators.
“I doubted myself,” he said. “I never thought I would make the football team.”
After the first tryout, he got a call-back. Another practice, and another call-back. The routine repeated itself until Reichardt found himself taking part in spring practice as a defensive lineman.
By the time the Orange and Blue Debut spring game rolled around in April, more than 30 friends and family members were at The Swamp wearing T-shirts with his number on the back.
“He kept saying to us, ‘Dad, don’t expect me to play, don’t expect me to play.’ It doesn’t matter to us if he plays or not,” Jack Reichardt said. “We’re just proud of him. When he did get to play … it was exciting, no doubt about it.”
Reichardt, a history major and A-student with a knack of remembering specific dates and events, recalls that he was in for nine plays in the spring game. The best nine plays of his brief career.
He admits those nine snaps were not always pretty. He got triple-blocked on one. The best moment came when he made a block on an interception that allowed fellow walk-on David Campbell to gain a couple of extra yards on the return.
The day is one Carrie Reichardt will never forget. The Reichardts are rooted in sports history and have been close to UF athletics since they relocated from Wisconsin 32 years ago.
When they owned Joe’s Deli, they got to know some of the Florida coaches who stopped in for a sandwich for lunch. They once attended a basketball game at Florida State as a guest of former coach Lon Kruger and traveled to LSU with the gymnastics team years ago. One of their nephews, Rick’s son Frederic Reichardt — named after John’s grandfather, an orthopedic doctor for the Packers during the Vince Lombardi era — played baseball for the Gators in the early 2000s and later signed a pro contract with the Mets.
When fall practice started, Jack and Carrie were often the only ones in the stands at the UF lacrosse facility watching the team in the early morning sun or late-evening darkness.
“One of our children being on an athletic team, when we know what a really big deal it is, it’s just really unbelievable,” Carrie said. “It’s almost like we didn’t even think there was a possibility. To have your child do that is so cool.”
Jack didn’t hesitate to agree with his wife.
“We go to every practice we can just to support him any way we can,” he said. “He’s got a second chance in life. He is way past that first chance. That’s usually for kids 18 to 22.”
Reichardt finished spring and returned for fall camp without many of his teammates aware of his unique story. That changed one day recently when Gators coach Will Muschamp, after a particularly hot and grueling practice, unexpectedly told Reichardt to stand up as the team huddled.
Muschamp asked if it was hot compared to those days Reichardt spent in the desert in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“This is nothing compared to 17 months in the desert,” Reichardt said.
As the Gators get set to open the season on Saturday against Bowling Green, Reichardt’s name is not listed on the depth chart. He moved to the offensive line this fall to make better use of his 303 pounds.
Offensive line coach Tim Davis, whose parents met in the Marines and who had plans to enter the military out of high school like Reichardt until his dad told him otherwise, beams when talking about what Reichardt has done.
Davis wishes he had a roster full of guys like the bearded Reichardt, whom his teammates now call “Sarge.”
“He brings life from a whole different perspective,” Davis said. “He was over there — bullets flying, life on the line. It’s funny to watch him because he really wants to play football. You always open your heart to those guys. He is trying his butt off. He shows up every day early, learns, he watches tape, he asks good questions.
“Whether he can play or not, he deserves a look and to be in the running. This is like a vacation for him. He wants to think about football, playing O-line. He’s not the biggest guy, he’s not the fastest guy, but you love a guy who wants to embrace it.”
Perhaps the most difficult challenge of playing for the Gators is balancing his life with Abby, school and the commitment to his new team. When the Gators moved into a hotel for a week during camp, Abby and John didn’t see each other for a week.
Finally, Abby stopped by the stadium one day to check in on her husband of five-plus years.
“I stalked him like somebody would stalk a star player,” Abby said. “I can’t imagine anyone else who deserves it more, not just because he loves the game, but he’s such a leader, a team player.
“Sometimes I’m kind of like soccer mom — pick him up or drop him off. He takes his bike to school when he can. By the end of the day the last thing he wants to do is get on a bike and ride home. I’m very lucky to have him as a husband and never imagined I would be married to a football player, that’s for sure.”
Neither did John when they surprised their families by getting married right before John was deployed to Afghanistan. But now he is a guy who is living out his childhood dream, playing for the Gators. Not many guys in the stands on Saturday at The Swamp can say that.
Sometimes when Reichardt gets home after another 15-hour day, all he wants to do is sleep. Still, before he can call it a night, he shares a story or two with Abby.
After all, it is a rather unusual story he is living.
“This is just so exciting,” he said. “I really don’t know what to expect. I understand my role on this team. I understand I’m here to help these other guys. I know I’m not going pro, I know I’m not going to be an All-American football player. I know that, so my whole purpose of being here is to help the other guys around me in whatever way possible.
“I’m 100 percent enthralled to be a part of this family. It’s truly amazing. Even if they call me tomorrow and say, ‘Have a good life, we don’t need you anymore,’ I’m still going to ask what way I can be involved. It’s a good story to tell my kids one day.”