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Former Gator great John Reaves' legal problems weigh on him

TAMPA — Times are tough for every Realtor, but they seem to be a bit tougher for John Reaves. Sure, the market is awful. The legendary former University of Florida quarterback hasn't sold anything in months.

But perhaps what Reaves fears most is the thought that his public image may be tarnished by legal troubles stemming from assault and drug possession charges.

"You don't see me smiling a lot, really," says Reaves, 58, sprawled on a velvety mustard green couch in his South Tampa office. "It's just something that just hangs over your head every day."

All these years later, Reaves is doing penance once again.

In the early 1980s, his football fame came crashing down after he revealed a long-standing habit of drug and alcohol abuse. He found God. He got clean. He lectured high school students about staying clean. He focused on real estate.

But now Reaves awaits the outcome of his arrest on charges of aggravated assault with a firearm, possession of cocaine and bringing contraband into jail. He has pleaded not guilty.

It all began as an argument over one of Reaves' real estate signs on West Shore Boulevard, according to a July 28 Tampa police report. Words were exchanged after a man moved the sign. Reaves flashed a gun, according to a witness statement (the witness also said the other man threatened to produce a gun). And cocaine was allegedly found on Reaves when he was booked into jail.

Declining to comment on the matter because it is still in court, Reaves nevertheless suggested it was all a misunderstanding and he remains clean. He also offered this: He had put the sign up, he says, to help an elderly widow who had medical problems and needed to sell her home.

He was just trying to be a good guy, Reaves says.

• • •

It used to be that everyone loved Reaves, a onetime Robinson High School football star and All-American at the University of Florida from 1969 to 1971.

He was a first round draft pick for the Philadelphia Eagles in 1972. He also played with the Tampa Bay Bucs, the Cincinnati Bengals and for three years with the Tampa Bay Bandits in the United States Football League.

In the 1990s, Reaves returned to UF to coach under Gators legend Steve Spurrier, and also at South Carolina and Cornell.

But he has admitted in interviews that he sabotaged his own career over the years with drug and alcohol abuse, massive debt and self-destructive behavior. He was twice arrested for drunken driving.

Reaves says he finally turned to Jesus Christ and found financial redemption in a lucrative real estate market.

"I got on my knees," he told high school students in Central High School in Brooksville in 1992, according to a St. Petersburg Times story, "and prayed to God to give me another chance."

• • •

Thomas Johnson Reaves was born in Anniston, Ala., in March 1950. His father died when he was 9. His mother, Emily, and grandmother, Gussie, brought a young Reaves to Tampa.

The two women worked blue-collar jobs and raised him as a god-fearing Christian, Reaves says. It was an upbringing that valued singing in the choir at Bayshore Baptist Church, hard work, and sports.

Football stardom for Reaves began at Madison Junior High School and continued through college.

"There's always been a confidence in John, that maybe some people see as a little arrogant," says J. Leonard Levy, a UF alumnus and businessman who helped recruit Reaves to the Gators. "John can be one of the nicest people you've ever met, but he's had a problem and he's had to work on it."

That boisterous confidence was on full display recently at the Palma Ceia Golf and County Club, a frequent Reaves haunt. He moves around the dining room with ease, waving at two former Gators, tight end Kirk Kirkpatrick and lineman Brad Culpepper. His booming voice is the loudest in the room.

"I wasn't a bad person back then — just partying, that's all," Reaves says over a cup of seafood chowder. "I don't know what I can say or do that would make people change their minds about me."

• • •

Shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, Reaves saw a 7-foot-tall, 300-pound model of the Statue of Liberty on a lot on MacDill Avenue. He paid $1,500 for it and transplanted it to one of his own properties down the street.

A collector of Americana and sports memorabilia, Reaves says the Mexican-made statue inspired him to inspire others. He bolted it to a pedestal. At night, her torch lit up, and spotlights shone on the aluminum-cast Lady Liberty from below.

She represents hope, Reaves says.

"That's what my life has been about. No father, grew up impoverished, had an opportunity to reach the stars. Of course, I didn't do it. I made a lot of mistakes and blew my opportunity, but at the same time I've presented an opportunity for my children to have a much better lifestyle than I did."

Several years ago, Reaves' Lady Liberty was pried off her moorings in the middle of the night with brute force. He put up signs on S MacDill Avenue offering $500 for her return.

He's still waiting.

• • •

Today, Reaves insists he remains a changed man.

Divorced and a father of three grown children, he says he may not go to church every Sunday, but Jesus Christ is in his heart. He may still have a drink or two, but you will not find him bombed out around town.

"I've made a lot of mistakes, some temper flare-ups and stuff, but I'm trying to lead an honorable life," says Reaves. "I'm not a person who wakes up in the morning thinking of doing evil things."

He finds refuge in his South Tampa office, which is littered with framed mementos and cast-away objects. Stuffed alligator heads. A White House portrait with former President Ronald Reagan. Old photographs of Hugo Zacchini, the daredevil known as the first human cannonball, soaring above Tampa.

The office also is a cocoon for his glory days, Gator blue and orange scattered everywhere. There are faded newspaper and magazine clippings, his old Gators helmet here, several musty leather footballs there.

His cellphone rings with calls about football, real estate, or his children. Sons David and Stephen play college and pro ball, while his daughter, Layla, married a pro coach.

And there is still fan mail, all these years later. Among the pile, an admirer from Maryland has sent a '72 rookie card from Reaves' time with the Philadelphia Eagles.

But someone else writes that they remember his worst game. Why can't they mention his unmatched record for yards passed in 1969-71 as a Gator, Reaves wonders?

He whisks an autograph on the rookie card with a Sharpie.

"Some people don't like athletes or the persona of success," says Reaves. "But I don't hate anyone."

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.

Former Gator great John Reaves' legal problems weigh on him 01/18/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 20, 2009 1:48pm]
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