ORLANDO — They offered him an ovation. Instead, Drew Weatherford chose integrity.
It was the final minute of a lopsided and meaningless bowl game, and the final memory of Weatherford's college career. Coaches sent word to the huddle that Weatherford should come out of the game, and enjoy one last moment of recognition from the Florida State fans already celebrating what would be a 42-13 victory against Wisconsin.
Given this opportunity for a parting moment in the spotlight, Weatherford declined. He stayed in the game for one more insignificant, and ultimately forgettable, handoff. Which, really, is all Weatherford ever wanted. Just a chance to play.
Sometimes, we lose sight of the emotions of the athletes we follow from afar in bleachers, press boxes and living rooms. Oh, not the big moments. We're all over them. Those huge grins, and the embarrassed tears? The hugs with Pop, and the tortured look for the 11 p.m. SportsCenter?
It's the subtlety we miss. The way a one-time hero hides his pain, and the way a young man bites back his disappointment. The loneliness a senior quarterback feels the night before a game, knowing he has gone from first- to third-string, from irreplaceable to inconsequential.
You might remember Drew Weatherford from his starmaking days at Land O'Lakes High in Pasco County. You might recall he was something of a sensation as a redshirt freshman at Florida State. You might also have been part of the chorus that was screaming for his head when the Seminoles' offense struggled at times in 2006 and '07.
No matter what you thought of Weatherford before this season began, you should think more of him today. In 2008, he became a lesser football player and a greater person.
"I'm a kid who started his freshman year in high school and has played all the way throughout. I hadn't had to deal with a whole lot of disappointment," Weatherford said. "This season, I had a whole semester of dark moments. It was pretty tough. I finally had to realize this was going to make me a stronger person for the future, whether it's football or anything else in life. There are times in life I'm going to have to deal with adversity, and I've learned a lot from this year."
Just days before the opener, Weatherford learned offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher had given his starting job to sophomore Christian Ponder. Just like that, Weatherford's world had been turned upside down.
This was his senior year. A final chance to impress NFL scouts. A last opportunity to return Florida State to its days of glory, and a shot for Weatherford to finish atop the program's record books.
Instead, he spent the season on the sidelines, listening to Fisher on the headphones and signalling plays to Ponder on the field. At times, he was angry. At times, he was depressed. At times, he couldn't even describe his feelings.
There were mornings he wanted to complain, and evenings he wanted to shout. But, other than a brief moment when his guard slipped late in the season and he admitted he thought the coaching staff had made a mistake, Weatherford kept his disappointment from slipping into headlines.
He hardly played at all this season, save for a hopeless comeback attempt against Florida last month. Then, with his college career about to expire, Weatherford was granted mop-up duty on Saturday, completing 5-of-6 passes for 77 yards in the fourth quarter of a rout.
And when it was over, he grabbed Fisher on the field and thanked him for the offer of a curtain call-like exit.
"I have such respect for him as a human being. And I told him that on the field," Fisher said. "After what we went through — and we get along great — but there's got to be some hard feelings on his part. And I understand that. But I told him, "I have the utmost respect for you, if I can ever help you … and I love you.'
"He's the ultimate team guy. A super guy. I just wanted to let him know that one more time."
From here, the road for Weatherford is uncertain. He graduated this month with a degree in finance, but figures he still has a shot at pro football. He hopes for an invite to an all-star game and, perhaps, the NFL combine.
To be honest, the odds are long. Maybe even insurmountable. But you never want to bet against character. You never want to take perseverance or intelligence for granted.
Sometimes, it's a mistake to measure an athlete's progress by numbers.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.