GAINESVILLE — When Florida strength and conditioning coach Mickey Marotti approached senior receiver David Nelson about serving as a captain on one of this year's Gator Charity Challenge teams, Nelson immediately knew it wasn't something he could take lightly.
"I'm the kind of person if I'm going to do something, I want to do it 100 percent," Nelson said. "I want to take charge of it and I want to go with it."
So Nelson made it his own personal mission, along with his teammates who served as captains for five other charities, to do everything in their power to inform not only the public, but the rest of the Gator players, about how diseases such as cancer and cystic fibrosis and premature births can take a profound toll on those involved. And how much these organizations need help.
What Nelson didn't realize was the profound effect it would have on the players.
"We got the guys in the hospital, we got them around the charities, we got them to know the actual families going through these hard times," said Nelson, captain of the March of Dimes team. "We went to the hospital and really got to have a hands-on experience. A lot of the guys never imagined what a premature, 6-month-old baby looks like. We actually put one of our championship rings around one of their arms and around one of their legs. It was so powerful.
"It was a life-changing event for a lot of the guys because they don't ever really see that side," Nelson added. They are in a little bubble, they see football, they see their classes, but they don't really see families going through these hard times. There were babies that were as small as my hand, lying in incubators. And guys could see the pain on the families' faces."
They have participated in events around campus and Alachua County promoting the Gator Charity Challenge, including painting the famed 34th Street Wall in Gainesville. On Friday Nelson and his teammates hope to find out that the massive public relations campaign has paid off.
The football team, including Florida quarterback Tim Tebow and linebacker Brandon Spikes, will join together for the second-annual Gator Charity Challenge, hoping to spread awareness about six charities: the American Cancer Society, American Heart Association, Children's Miracle Network, March of Dimes, Cystic Fibrosis Foundation and the North Florida affiliate of the Susan G. Komen for the cure breast cancer foundation.
The event, which begins at 6:30 p.m., will feature the Gator football team broken into six groups of about 14 players in an intra-squad competition of strength and conditioning drills including the obstacle course, tire swing and sled pushes.
The event will be held at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and is free and open to the public.
The Gator Charity Challenge is being held in association with Uplifting Athletes, a charitable organization that tries to use college football to raise the awareness of rare diseases and push them into the national spotlight.
Because NCAA rules prohibit players from raising funds, pledge cards will be given to fans who attend, encouraging them to make a donation to the charity of their choice.
"These are all charities that are associated with the Gainesville community and (people who) are directly affected in the areas we're surrounded by," Nelson said. "And there are a lot of guys on our team that are directly affected by various cancers and other things through a family member or someone they know. So I knew it would be very special for all the guys on the team to go out and make it a bigger deal."
Last year's event drew about 1,800 people. The players are hoping for a much larger crowd Friday night.
"Last year was successful but we felt like we kind of just threw it together in about two weeks," said redshirt senior wide receiver Cade Holliday, captain of the Cystic Fibrosis team. "We talked about it and we thought we could make it a lot better this year. We started going to the hospital and trying to learn more about (their charity). You see and hear what the disease does to people and how it breaks them down. But there are a lot of really great stories about how people are overcoming."
The players said fans who attend will see competition at its best.
"Everybody on this team is so competitive," Nelson said. "At the end, there is going to be a winner and every team wants to be the winner."
The competition aside, Tebow said watching how his teammates have embraced this project has been the greatest satisfaction.
"It means so much to me, I honestly think that's the best part of it for me is watching how much the guys take ownership of it," Tebow said. "They want to make a difference for these kids and for their charities. Even when the whole team is not going to the hospital, they want to actually go see the kids, or they want to do this or they want to make everything as special as they can for these kids. And I think that's really special to see these guys' hearts grow for underprivileged kids, for kids that are going through struggles in their lives. To see them care about the kids so much, it really touches me and makes me very thankful. It really makes me so proud of my teammates for doing that."
Antonya English can be reached at [email protected] or at (813) 226-3389.