Tyrie Cleveland dropped to a knee in the south endzone, hand to his head and just, stopped.
Van Jefferson, Tre Grimes, Kadarius Toney and linebacker James Houston squatted to offer a quick word to Cleveland but the receiver didn’t lift his eyes, instead he focused on the debuting blue paint in the endzone and took a deep reflective breath.
He had taken his time leaving Steve Spurrier Florida Field and stepping out of that endzone meant stepping off the field for the last time as a player. Stepping out of the endzone meant his four years as a Florida Gators, years that saw bleak downfalls and steady rises marked by magical moments that will forever tie his name to perpetual memories—it meant it was all over. So he waited.
“Before I left the field I just wanted to look around and look at the stadium, look at the people there, soak it all in,” said Cleveland.
“I was getting emotional on the bus ride so you know just coming to the stadium, just walking down and Gator walk and seeing all the people, I just tried to hold it all in but when I got in the locker room, little tears started coming out…[So] I was just taking a moment [in the endzone] to thank God for the opportunity to be at the University of Florida. It's been a long ride, been a long journey for me. A lot of ups and downs, but I stayed strong and true to myself. I was just grateful to play here.”
Senior receiver Josh Hammond wasn’t far behind.
“You kind of soak it in a little bit, you realize that it's the last time and you kind of just want to take every step a little slower than normal, kind of visualize it just a little bit more and just take a deep breath and realize that you're walking off for the last time."
It was a night intended to be soaked in; on Senior Night as the Gators honored 22 guys who helped reshape the program, the No. 7 Florida Gators defeated Florida State 40-17 in a game that UF had a stronghold on from opening kick. It was the first time the Gators had defeated the Seminoles in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium since 2009.
After a Senior Day ceremony that rattled the stadium with cheers from the 89,409 in attendance, the Gators trotted out their four senior receivers—Van Jefferson, Josh Hammond, Freddie Swain and Tyrie Cleveland—to start. It was a tip of the hat from head coach Dan Mullen on what he called a near perfect night for a class that believed in him during the program shift.
“Ooh, I’m pretty critical, so a lot of little things we could have done better. But you know for our seniors, I think it went really well. Got touches, and we made a concerted effort. I know it’s always a big deal, I really love what our four senior wide-outs have done this year and that’s why I made a concerted effort, they all played on the first play of the game so they could go get that start, they officially start that first play of the game. Just the unselfishness of a lot of guys on our team, but I was pleased a lot of those guys had big nights.”
The Noles had won the toss and elected to defer, putting the ball in the hands of an offense that has averaged 420 yards and 33 points per game. The Gators immediately made them pay.
Following a Kyle Trask quarterback keeper to move the chains on 4th down, Trask (30-41, 342 yards, 3 TDs) tossed a screen to senior Freddie Swain (5-62, 2TDs). The guy teammates call the alpha dog in the locker room took the pass and cut through the Noles defense like hot butter and scampered in for the 19-yard touchdown.
At 61 degrees with a sticky humidity creating an atmosphere unique to Florida, everything about the night seemed scripted. So was the Noles first drive and it put the Gators defense back on their heels for a moment. James Blackmon (14-23, 150 yards) hit Tamorrion Terry on a 45-yard post that flipped field position quick. Using a rotating quarterback, FSU pushed forward in the redzone with Jordan Travis and the freshman quarterback was able to push in for an answering touchdown.
That is where the Noles script ended.
“They had a couple of trick plays when we first came and we settled down,” admitted linebacker David Reese (six tackles)
“They had a good script coming into the game because every offense has a select script of plays they run fast. We handled the script after that, settled in, and pretty much had a good day.”
The day was only getting started for the Gators and their seniors. Following a Dameon Pierce score to make it 13-7 (Evan McPherson missed his first P-A-T as a Gator) a classic Kadarius Toney sweep that broke approximately 128 tackles—slight conjecture—and picked up 47 yards, then Trask went to Swain again. The Ocala native broke a defensive backs ankles towards the sideline, stayed in bounds and roped the line to pay-dirt.
Before the half would end, Trask got other seniors involved with a toss to the back of the endzone to Van Jefferson (5-48, 2TDs). As fireworks erupted from the south endzone, Jefferson did a dance to the sidelines, accompanied by half his team that had sprinted from the benches to the pylon to celebrate with one of their leaders.
On the defensive side, Jon Greenard—playing his last game in the stadium the Louisville transfer had always dreamed of making it to—had three sacks. Todd Grantham’s unit had eight total on the night, bringing their season total to 46 which is 4th in FBS. It’s the most a Gators defense has had since tallying 50 in 1997. On the last one of the night, seniors Adam Shuler and Luke Ancrum brought down Blackmon. Greenard grabbed his teammates and pointed up into the stands, smiling at their success and showing them the fans doing the same.
These are the moments the team will remember. Each guy has had their play, their iconic Mick Hubert call; but it’s the opportunity to watch their teammates that meant the most of their final night in the Swamp.
“Guys understand it’s the start of a new journey, the start of a next year. We wanted to make sure we leave a mark on the last game. I think we were very successful in that,” said Greenard.
The defense held Florida State to 250 total offensive yards and 5-14 on 3rd down.
"I wanted Tyrie to score the kick return. That was probably my favorite moment, I wanted him to score that so bad,” laughed Hammond about Cleveland’s 40-yard return.
“Then he caught the screen and almost scored on that one too. But those were kind of exciting and KT [Kadarius Toney]. Imma miss that, watching him play, it's very electrifying, you don't see that often. I've never seen it before until I met him, he's one of a kind and I'm gonna miss watching him play a lot."
"I think they mean a lot to this team,” commented Trask, a redshirt junior who has already clarified he will return for his final season.
“A lot of those guys I came in with and it's kind of a very humbling experience just to know that this is their last game in the Swamp and it made me cherish every single moment. I couldn't be more proud of how this class went out with their last victory in the Swamp.”
Added Cleveland of the groups bond, “It’s like no other. Through the ups and downs we always try go motivate each other. Just keep our head and just going through practice, just working hard, working on our craft and outside of football, just linking up, just being with each other.”
Each of these men accepted the responsibility of rebuilding a program, something that Mullen admitted on Saturday was humbling to him. They boldly took up the call to become the standard bearers and fought through the growing pains that required. In the process, they finished with a 10-win regular season, state champs with wins over Miami and Florida State to bookend the season and undefeated in The Swamp.
As Cleveland rose from the endzone and turned towards the tunnel, his fellow seniors flanked him. Lamical Perine jogged over, having just completed his last victory lap around the stadium and Jon Greenard, who had unabashedly let tears fall during his own victory lap, took a slow step into the locker room doorway.
No one was ready to leave and no one is ready to see them go.