ST. PETERSBURG — It was a dream come true for the Marine.
"Meeting Coach Bowden was one of the true highlights of my life," Michael Jernigan said.
Great day for the coaching legend, too.
"He lifted me up," Bobby Bowden said. "Boy, he did. I couldn’t hardly believe his outlook."
Saturday is Veterans Day. It’s as good a time as any to talk about Michael Jernigan recently meeting the former Florida State coach at Bowden’s home in Tallahassee.
Jernigan, 39, a St. Petersburg native and resident, nearly died in 2004, while deployed in Iraq with Company E, 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine regiment. An improvised explosive device hurled Cpl. Jernigan 20 meters from his Humvee. His body was torn to pieces. A large part of his cranium was crushed. Shrapnel left him blind. He underwent 30 major surgeries and spent 16 months in hospitals and rehab facilities. He medically retired in 2005.
Jernigan slowly put his life back together. He earned a college degree from USF. He co-founded a nonprofit to help provide guide dogs and service animals to veterans. He became a motivational speaker. He was in Dallas on Wednesday, talking to a rotary club. On Saturday he will ride in a Veterans Day parade in Fort Worth.
"My overall message is emphasis on education, mentorship, team building on community service," Jernigan said.
"I lived that day. I have life. What do I want from it? Do I want to be the guy on the couch who collects his government check and blames everybody? I’m a United States Marine. I get up, brush myself off and move forward."
He has life. Oh, and a team. And a coach.
His first college football game was FSU’s win at LSU in 1991. His father, a Marine, was stationed in Louisiana, and the game tickets were a 13th birthday present for his son. Jernigan became caught up in Bowden’s wizardry.
"He’s Bobby Bowden," Jernigan said. "You know how you say the name Muhammad Ali, you don’t have to say anything else? That’s me with Coach Bowden."
Jernigan’s wife, KimberLee, arranged a visit to Bowden with the help of the producers and staff of The Bowden Dynasty, a documentary on Bowden that premiered last January. The Jernigans arrived at Bowden’s home on Nov. 3. There were pictures and autographs. The two men spoke for an hour and a half. Florida State’s miserable 2017 season came up.
"Hell, yes, we can turn it around," Jernigan said. "This season is a freak thing."
Bowden, who turned 88 Wednesday, did not serve in the military, but he devours books on military history and leaders.
"I’m so in awe of these men and women," Bowden said. "They’re all heroes to me."
Jernigan admires Bowden but said he doesn’t idolize him or anyone else, with a few exceptions:
"I have great respect for the men I served with, and there are a few I have a hero-crush on."
He thought of Marine Sgt. Crutcher — he never found out his first name — who led Jernigan and 12 other Marines out of murderous ambush fire. He thought of Navy corpsman Christopher Thompson from Wilkesboro, N.C., who instantly was there to save Jernigan’s life that day in 2004.
Thompson died 14 months later in an IED blast. Jernigan attended the funeral in Wilkesboro.
There are American flags all over Michael Jernigan’s front yard. His favorite colors are red, white and blue. He likes garnet and gold, too.
"And what’s more American than Bobby Bowden?" Jernigan said.
"I couldn’t believe he was that thrilled to meet little old me," Bowden said. "I still can’t get over his positive attitude. We could all use some of that when we’re complaining about something."
Jernigan has been asked about athletes’ protests during the national anthem. One person who asked was Bucs defensive tackle Clinton McDonald, who Jernigan met at a recent event for Wounded Warriors Project.
"I don’t condone (the protests), but the oath I took was to the Constitution of the United States and it’s their right to peacefully protest," Jernigan said. "Those are rights that I fought for."
He said, "Veterans Day is a day when we should stop as a country and celebrate the men and women who have laid it on the line and sacrificed time, sweat, blood, tears and sometimes their lives for this country."
"Where would we be without them?" Bowden said.
Michael Jernigan loves his Seminoles.
"There’s always next year," Jernigan said. "You move on. You press on."
Bobby Bowden has a new buddy.
"Guys like this make you proud," he said.
Saturday is Veterans Day.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029.