When UF's Summer of Steve collided with terror

Published August 31 2015
Updated August 31 2015

GAINESVILLE — She was driving by the 34th Street wall and quickly did the math. Had it really been 25 years?

Amy Moody started to explain what happened a quarter-century ago to her son, Jake, who was about to become a student at the University of Florida, and his roommates. But how do you explain a summer that had two deafening buzzes, one of excitement and one of evil?

Moody's dad was about to coach his first game at his alma mater. And like a lot of people in Gainesville, she was scared to death.

"It was so scary, especially when it happened to Manny (Taboada)," she said. "There was a realization he wasn't just looking for women. He was capable of killing a strong man."

She was Amy Spurrier then, a third-year student at UF and a member of the Alpha Delta Pi sorority. After a third student was murdered, she moved in with her parents on Parker Road.

It was 25 years ago last week that Danny Rolling brought terror to Gainesville. The excitement of the Summer of Steve was replaced by the unthinkable. Someone was preying on the students. Five total were murdered.

On the football field, it was about to be the best of times at UF. But first, it was the worst of times.

"It was a terrible time in Gainesville," said Spurrier, 70, now the coach at South Carolina. "That cowardly guy. Obviously, you never forget the murders. Terrible. It was just a tragedy. There was some fear, some insecurity. We told the players who had steady girlfriends if they wanted to stay with them, that was fine."

• • •

Spurrier had been called back by his old school to lift the Gator football team out of mediocrity and an NCAA investigation that had cost Galen Hall his job. Spurrier, then 44, had been offered the job, but he didn't want it to be official until his Duke team had played in its bowl game.

On New Year's Eve 1989, he finally appeared at a news conference and announced that he was bringing back blue jerseys and ripping out the artificial turf. He was about to change Florida football forever in so many ways.

The spring game was played in Jacksonville because of construction at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. The summer months were for conditioning. Finally, the Gators began camp for the 1990 season.

Then, the first bodies were found. Then a third. Then two more.

"I can remember being out at practice and hearing ambulance and police sirens, and you wondered what was going on," said Shane Matthews, then UF's starting quarterback. "It was bizarre."

Eventually, then-UF president John Lombardi closed the school. Many students had already gone home anyway, frightened out of their minds as the details of the grisly murders began to emerge.

"The football team was pretty much the only people left on campus," Matthews said. "We felt safe as players in Yon Hall. It was like a prison."

Kirk Kirkpatrick, a tight end out of Brandon High, was one of those players who stayed with his girlfriend, Leslie.

"That's the kind of guy Steve Spurrier was," he said. "He knew we were all worried. It was a weird time. The whole first month of the season was very, very strange."

The season opener was surreal. The pall of the murders weighed heavily on the fans who made the trip to Gainesville to see the beginning of the Spurrier Era.

By the time Florida took the field on Sept. 8, the murders had stopped. The day before the game — at about the time the Gators were having their first walk-through under Spurrier — a man was arrested in Ocala after robbing a Winn-Dixie. It was Rolling, who eventually pleaded guilty to killing the five students in Gainesville.

Spurrier had a team to get ready in the strangest of environments. In a scrimmage that took place in the middle of the terror, his defense dominated.

"The week of the game, I told our offense, 'We're not very good against our own guys, but we'll go up and down the field against Oklahoma State,' " he said.

And it did, scoring in four plays to start the game. The Gators eventually won 50-7. It was as if everyone could get lost in the distraction of a football game.

But you couldn't help wondering if they would have been at the game, cheering and soaking in the experience.

Sonya Larson. Christina Powell. Christa Hoyt. Tracy Paules. Manuel Taboada.

• • •

"I'm glad it's still there," Moody said of the 34th Street wall painting honoring the victims with the word "Remember" and their names.

Almost all the students at UF today weren't born when the murders happened. None of the players on the current team were.

But for those who were around, it will always be there.

We were about to see something impressive on the football field. Spurrier's team won at Alabama the next week and finished the season with nine wins and the best record in the SEC.

"Tennessee clobbered us that year, but they were celebrating all week and lost to Alabama the next week, and that allowed us to win the SEC," Spurrier said.

The title is one Spurrier is always quick to count, even if the NCAA probation didn't allow Florida to compete for the title or play in a bowl game. It was just the beginning of a new way of playing football in Gainesville.

"He changed the University of Florida, changed the SEC and changed college football," Matthews said.

Said Kirkpatrick, "He made everybody proud to be a Gator. We were just mercenaries before that."

Kirkpatrick, playing a hybrid receiver position, went on to lead the SEC in receptions that year. Matthews was SEC player of the year.

Florida got its first legitimate conference title in 1991 and won five more under Spurrier, and a national title in 1996.

The wall saw it all.