GAINESVILLE — Florida defensive end Jermaine Cunningham was sitting in the back of the room this week when coach Urban Meyer was overcome with emotion, trying to put into words what this senior class has meant to the Gators program. As Meyer spoke, the reality finally hit Cunningham.
He and the 22 other Gators seniors will run out onto Florida Field on Saturday afternoon for the last time. Suddenly, the prospect of facing that final game overwhelmed him a little.
"I was sitting back there thinking about senior day and how close this team is," said Cunningham, who will graduate next month with a degree in anthropology. "For the senior class, I think it's going to be real emotional. Just knowing that it's coming down to the last game in the Swamp, and through the four years we've been here, this is the end of the road."
This Gator senior class has won more games than any other in SEC history (46-6). They are 27-5 in the SEC, 25-2 at Florida Field, 14-3 against ranked teams and 11-1 vs. Tennessee, Georgia, FSU and Miami. The class includes a national defensive player of the year and a Heisman Trophy winner.
But this senior class is special to Meyer for myriad reasons, most notably linebacker Ryan Stamper, receiver David Nelson, kicker Jonathan Phillips and linebacker Dorian Munroe — the only remaining players from his first recruiting class.
While Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and linebacker Brandon Spikes have become the marquee names of the class, Meyer wants everyone to remember that more than just two people have led the Gators to two national championships, and their current 21-game winning streak.
There's wide receiver Riley Cooper, the team's leading receiver who delayed a chance to play professional baseball to return for his final season.
"I can't believe that Saturday is my last game in the Swamp," said Cooper, the former Clearwater Central Catholic standout. "It has gone by too fast. I'm really happy that I decided to come back and have the chance to finish with my class."
And there's return specialist/running back Brandon James, the 5-foot-8 guy who many passed on because of his size. There's Munroe, who has endured three ACL injuries, the most recent suffered this month ending his career, and cornerback Wondy Pierre-Louis, whose position coach Chuck Heater traveled to Pierre-Louis' native Haiti on his behalf shortly after he signed with the Gators to help resolve immigration issues that threatened to send him out of the country. And the list goes on.
"I just think, you've got Jermaine, you've got Riley Cooper, who do you want to take out of that class?" Meyer said. "That's the thing I want to be very cautious about. There's two guys that are very visible for us and deservedly so. But take Coop out of there and this doesn't happen. Take Jermaine out, this didn't happen. It wouldn't happen. And there are many guys in that class that have done a great job. Take Ryan Stamper out of that recruiting class and I assure you that this record, those accomplishments don't occur."
The Gators close out their home careers against rival Florida State, a game that won over many players in this class when they were high school recruits attending the 34-7 victory in 2005, Meyer's first season.
"There were a lot of big recruits at that game and I think that game probably got a lot of our guys here," James said. "It was a real big-time college football atmosphere, and the Gators won that night. After that win, a lot of our class just decided that this was the place we wanted to play college football."
The Gators' biggest challenge Saturday may be making sure they don't get lost in the emotion of senior day. After all, this isn't their last game. It's just the last one at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. There's too much still at stake to get caught up in saying farewell and overlook FSU. Including the chance to say for the rest of their lives they never lost to Florida State. The Gators have won five in a row.
"It's real big time," Stamper said. "This is a big-time rivalry because as far as Georgia, Tennessee, those are big-time rivalries but this is (the state of) Florida football right here. Those guys, we played high school football with them. I actually have three high school teammates that play for Florida State. The wide receiver Rod Owens, me and him are real good friends. It's like you're playing against your friends and you want to really beat them. It's like a love-hate thing."
Antonya English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3389. Check her blog at blogs.tampabay.com/gators.