Hundreds remember Tampa football icon John Reaves

Friends console David Reaves after his eulogy Saturday for his father, the late John Reaves, at the South Tampa Fellowship Church. Mr. Reaves is survived by three children and five grandchildren. He was 67.
Friends console David Reaves after his eulogy Saturday for his father, the late John Reaves, at the South Tampa Fellowship Church. Mr. Reaves is survived by three children and five grandchildren. He was 67.
Published Aug. 6, 2017


The trademark smirk momentarily dissipated, as did Steve Spurrier's composure. One of the most mimicked voices in college football lore briefly cracked.

"In 1983-84, there were four of us that were 37 years old and head coaches in pro football. Four of us," Spurrier told a standing-room-only crowd inside South Tampa Fellowship Church.

"One guy lasted one year and got fired, the other two got fired in mid-season, and never were head coaches again."

Spurrier cleared his throat, then continued.

"And the other guy got to be a head coach for 30 years. And one of the big reasons — I had John Reaves as quarterback of the Bandits."

Spurrier would be neither the first nor last to struggle for poise Saturday during the funeral for Mr. Reaves, whose complicated legacy included dazzling success as a quarterback at Robinson High, the University of Florida and the Tampa Bay Bandits.

Mr. Reaves died Tuesday at his South Tampa home. He was 67.

On a humid Saturday, an assortment of Reaves' mentors and peers — including Spurrier, former Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, USF coach Charlie Strong, former Gators quarterback Shane Matthews and former Robinson and UF tailback Larry Smith — joined the congregation.

More than a dozen current Robinson High players, wearing their black home jerseys, sat in the back of the church. Steve Hill, a Robinson High classmate of Mr. Reaves', led the congregation in stanzas of Amazing Grace and Just as I Am.

"It kind of feels like the Swamp (nickname of UF's stadium) outside today anyway," senior pastor JJ Johnson said. "So (Mr. Reaves) would be happy."

A quintet of eulogists recalled Reaves' smoldering competitiveness, unmistakable cackle, Christian faith and adoration of his family (three grown children, five grandchildren). Son David spoke of how he'd arrive at Fourth of July gatherings with "this huge, big ol' thing of fireworks."

They also spoke of how his once-troubled spirit was mending even as his body — ravaged by a life of football and struggles with drugs and alcohol — broke down.

"He was physically hurt," close friend and former Gators teammate Larry Morris said. "For all of us that were around him and knew him, it hurt to watch him walk, because he was in such tremendous pain. It had been that way for 10 or 15 years."

Before the agony and self-infliction, there was a 6-foot-3 matinee idol of sorts who led Robinson to the Class 2A state title game in 1967, and guided the Gators to a 9-1-1 record as a sophomore two autumns later en route to setting a then-NCAA record for career passing yardage.

Close friend J. Leonard Levy noted how Sports Illustrated named Mr. Reaves its Player of the Week following his collegiate debut, a 59-24 rout of presumed national title contender Houston. Before a Florida Field crowd that grew as the game progressed, Mr. Reaves set school records for passing yards (342) and touchdown passes (5).

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It was the first time a player ever received Sports Illustrated's Player of the Week honor in his first college game, Levy said.

"I can imagine, David and Stephen, you caught a million passes from your dad," Spurrier said, gazing toward Mr. Reaves' two sons. "Because he loved to throw the football. I mean, some guys love playing golf, he loved to just throw that ball, and he was a natural. He was such a pleasure to coach."

That potent right arm and fearlessness led to a pro career stretching more than a decade and a half, highlighted by three prosperous years with Spurrier and the Tampa Bay Bandits of the United States Football League. Spurrier recalled how many projected the Bandits, saddled with the league's lowest payroll, to flop.

The Bandits won at least 10 games all three of their years in existence, going 14-4 in 1984, when Mr. Reaves enjoyed a totally healthy season.

"No matter what happened, if it was fourth-and-long from his own 1 or even better, fourth-and-short, John Reaves was ready to go deep," Morris said.

Then, Morris shared how Mr. Reaves went deep — into his soul — one final time.

Sober for roughly two decades, Mr. Reaves suffered a relapse about a decade ago, according to Morris. After much prodding, he agreed to admit himself into a recovery center in Atlanta.

"He came out sober, he came out restored with his family, he came out restored with the Lord," Morris said. "John Reaves was a winner. He never quit."

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.