Updated: Oct 31, 2020
The real story of Carlos Alvarez may have died a natural death in the archives, except for a documentary by a fellow Cuban-American.
As The Swamp opens back up and Florida footballers resume this fractured season of Sweet Dreams and Flying Machines and Pieces on the Ground*, we are left wondering where we last were, what we were doing and who these guys are playing for Dan Mullen. (*Sorry about the old James Taylor lyrics – they just seemed to fit).
Now that they’re finally back, will there be any electricity, or will the high energy have been drained in The Swamp? Will they sizzle or fizzle in this once boisterous arena that rocked the heart and soul with a full house, but is now reduced by over 70,000. How will this team push restart and find the inspiration to fill its tank?
My suggestion is that they go backwards before going forward. That is to say, embracing the spirits that abide in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, sort of like “Waking Up The Echoes” of Notre Dame Stadium. But instead of invoking the names of The Four Horsemen (Stuhldreher, Miller, Crowley and Layden), give us Spurrier and Wuerffel and Tebow – and Carlos Alvarez.
Some of you Gator fans still may not know that last name, or perhaps even realize the powerful story of Alvarez, who was the topic this week of the ESPN documentary: The All-American Cuban Comet.
Or, maybe you’ve heard of Carlos, but only from the dusty tomb of ancient records. You know – the old guy whose records for career receptions (176) Andre Caldwell broke it in 2007 -- but in 53 games instead of 31. That Cuban guy whose induction into the College Football Hall of Fame was most likely delayed because of his controversial stands on certain issues, like being lied to by his coaches about leaving the team to move upstairs to an office job.
The real story of Carlos Alvarez may have almost died a natural death in the archives, except for the brilliant documentary of fellow Cuban-American Gaspar Gonzalez waking up that echo of a 50-year-old story which was possibly nearing an expiration date. Were it not for that masterful piece and recovering of some vintage footage by producer Gonzalez on the SEC Network, the tale of the 10-year-old boy who came to America with his family on a boat in 1950 could have almost faded into oblivion?
Carlos Americanized himself through learning a new game called football. His brave father who fled Cuba and, once reaching Key West from Havana, had said to his family, “We’re not going back, so learn to be an American.” Carlos didn’t just learn football, he excelled at it.
If you watched All-American Cuban Comet, maybe you were among those hearing the full story for the first time. Like Augie Greiner Jr., son of the former Gator basketball player and Ocala businessman whose orange and blue blood ran deep. Augie Jr. was raised on Gator lore and had heard of Carlos but only in a football context. He watched the documentary Tuesday night and became aware of the backstory, comparing Alvarez to a giant American icon and pioneer.
“Just watched the program on Carlos Alvarez,” Greiner texted me. “It was REALLY GOOD. I have to say, I knew about all his football exploits but I had no idea how much he meant to the Cuban American community. He is like their Jackie Robinson. Very cool.”
That’s when it occurred me just how long a half-century really is. And why old stories and old farts fade into semi-invisibility. It reminded me of my youth when people kept talking about ghosts like Dale Van Sickle – or for that matter, The Four Horsemen of Notre Dame – and I thought to myself, “Who cares about all those old farts?” And then I became one.
Lee McGriff will never forget Carlos Alvarez. The former Gator coach, All-SEC receiver and coach for UF, NFL player and current color analyst for the IMG Gator Radio Network readily confesses: “He was my hero!”
It was the summer of 1969 that the diminutive McGriff, only 5-9, 163, found himself working out alongside several Gator players as a high-schooler – including Carlos and quarterback John Reaves, who were about to burst on the scene. They let him take reps, catch passes from Reaves and it was heady stuff. McGriff was a junior looking to find his position, but because of his size didn’t know where he fit. It was Alvarez’s work ethic was that inspired him to get into football and become an All-SEC receiver.
“As a young guy, I dreamed of being a wide receiver because that's a place I figured out, since I wasn’t going to be a great big guy, that I might could play,” said McGriff, whose son Travis followed in his footsteps as an All-SEC receiver and member of the 1996 national champions. “And so in a very formative time, as I went into my junior year in high school, there's Carlos Alvarez. Carlos was tough. He was smart. He trained like a Spartan.” And he became a legend and a legacy that has been passed down through the seasons.
For many of us, the joy Carlos Alvarez brought to the game and shared with everyone is what stirred our souls. And even his celebrations made joyful noise. He will tell you that it’s a gladness thing from his culture to celebrate the Cuban way.
There were those choice cameo moments, none greater than Reaves to Alvarez, 70 yards, touchdown, vs. pre-season No. 1 Houston, on John’s first pass as a Gator, Alvarez’s first touch. Leaving the partisans among the 55,000 at Florida Field – long before it was ever The Swamp – aghast in a Butch Cassidy-Sundance Kid moment … “Who are those guys???” It was the signature echo for the pre-Steve Spurrier-Florida Field era. And it brought great joy to the downtrodden Gator Nation, who only the previous season had watched Georgia beat the bejabbers out of their Gators, 51-0, as a few hard core fans sat in the rain to observe the massacre.
Carlos, himself, is a sucker for joy. When fellow Cuban-American Randy Arozarena of the Rays fell down rounding third and got up, escaping a hot-box run-down and diving to home plate, joyfully tapping it for the winning run in Game 4 of the World Series, Carlos came out of his chair.
“What was really fun, if you love sports in any way, is seeing the joy when he fell and then scored in the ninth inning and was just tapping home plate,” Alvarez recalled gleefully. “It was pure joy. It was a lovely, lovely moment! That’s what this is all about. I could watch any sport to see that kind of joy. He was totally lost in the moment right there.”
In what we storytellers call perfect symmetry, Carlos took us back to a time when another young Cuban athlete celebrated the moment by shimmying up a flagpole on a late November night in the Orange Bowl and beaming a smile that lit up like the Moon Over Miami. While pumping his fist, down below his Gator teammates and the remnants of the one-time proud SuperSophs splish-splashed in the pool where Flipper once resided, all in full football gear except for helmets. Meanwhile, Alvarez surveyed the site of his final football game from his flagpole perch.
Incredibly, Carlos had no recollection of being up there – like Arozarena, lost in the tapping – and had to be reminded by the director’s grainy film. The reason Gaspar had that film was that I was there that night in the Orange Bowl, wrote about it and told him. “I just had had no recollection of that,” he said.
A moment of joy maybe, but also the requiem for a broken dream. This was more emancipation than stunt. One has to grasp the full measure of despair which gripped these young players who had fallen from Camelot to Catastrophe in the past two years. Those SuperSophs from the autumn of 1969 who posted a school best 9-1-1 season with a bowl victory over SEC Champion Tennessee had endured back-to-back winters of discontent and disappointment. Alvarez suffered a debilitating knee injury in 1970 and could only play, not practice, after being stuck with a big needle to drain it. For the next two seasons Dickey’s teams would go 11-11.
In one tiny piece of pseudo-retribution, they were helping their beloved quarterback, John Reaves, break the NCAA career passing yardage record held by Jim Plunkett. It was only one short pass completion of 14 yards away. The problem was that Miami stood in the way. Even though the Hurricanes trailed 45-8, they made no attempt for a comeback, opting for clock-killing runs.
After consulting with Coach Doug Dickey on the sideline, they agreed to let the Hurricanes score so Reaves could get the ball back and break the record. Dickey did so reluctantly. Except when the ball was snapped, all the Gator defenders fell to the ground as quarterback John Hornibrook walked uncontested into the end zone. Not good optics in the New York Times photo the next day. But worth it.
Finally, once the ball was retrieved, Reaves flung a long-enough pass to his gimp-legged and almost crippled receiver for his 176th and final reception. The record of 7,581 yards only stood for a few seasons but that night it was the emotional equivalent of a gold medal for a comeback story. Now that Carlos has seen himself on that flagpole, yeah, that was a moment of joy to be revered. A lovely moment.