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John Reaves, former Robinson, Gators and Bucs quarterback, dies at 67

Tampa Bay Bandits quarterback John Reaves (7), under pressure from Arizona Wranglers end Karl Lorch (71), gets off a pass in the first half on March 3, 1984, at Tampa Stadium. [Times files]
Published Aug. 3, 2017

TAMPA — He sprouted on the college football landscape when psychedelia was at its heyday. In the immediate wake of Woodstock, John Reaves dropped back and tossed spirals with fearless, free-spirited aplomb.

"I never saw him intimidated, afraid, in the least," former University of Florida backup center Larry Morris said.

"He would throw an interception and never think twice about dropping back the next time he got the ball and letting it go. He was just a damn gunslinger."

It was the type of abandon that partially defined the era. On and off the field, Mr. Reaves experimented, took risks, flourished, fizzled. As decades passed, he became a legend.

And a cautionary tale.

Mr. Reaves, a former Robinson High quarterback who became an All-American at the University of Florida and pro quarterback for the Bucs and Bandits, was found dead in his South Tampa home on Tuesday. He was 67.

The cause of death is under investigation. His son David, who discovered him Tuesday afternoon and called 911, said Mr. Reaves — divorced father of three grown children and grandfather of five — appeared to pass away in his sleep.

"A good man," said Steve Spurrier, who coached Mr. Reaves with the Bandits and later gave him a job on his Gators staff in the early 1990s.

"He had some demons that crept in, but he was a good, fun player to coach and one of the best quarterbacks I ever had. He's a big reason I had the success I had."

According to a death investigator for the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner, David Reaves last heard from him by text on Saturday but couldn't reach him afterward.

Mr. Reaves was born in Alabama in March 1950. His father died when he was 9, and he moved to Tampa with his mom and grandmother soon thereafter. In time, he became one of the best quarterbacks in state history, carving a prolific Florida niche at the prep, college and pro levels.

"Maybe the best pure drop-back passer I ever coached," Spurrier said.

He initially brandished his passing talent at Madison Junior High School, then at Robinson. Mr. Reaves led the Knights to the Class 2A state championship game in 1967, earning state player of the year honors. In 2007, the Florida High School Athletic Association honored him as one of the best 100 players in the first century of Florida prep football.

Mr. Reaves' success continued with the Gators.

"I still think he's got the greatest arm of any Florida quarterback," said former Gators All-American receiver Carlos Alvarez, Mr. Reaves' classmate and favorite target at UF.

In the wake of two nondescript six-win seasons following the departure of Spurrier (the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner), Mr. Reaves started as one of the "Super Sophs" for a '69 Gators team that finished 9-1-1.

He left UF as the NCAA's all-time leading passer (7,581 career yards) with an SEC-record 54 touchdown passes. He broke Jim Plunkett's NCAA mark (7,544) notoriously via the "Gator Flop," in a 45-16 rout of Miami in the 1971 regular season finale.

Reaves was 10 yards shy of Plunkett's record when UF's defensive players fell to the ground — literally — and allowed Miami to score a meaningless late touchdown, enabling Reaves to get the ball back and eclipse the record.

"The team carried John on their shoulders after the game," Alvarez said. "That's how much we loved John.

Former longtime UF sports-information chief Norm Carlson, widely considered the foremost Gator football historian, called Mr. Reaves "unflappable."

"Could make plays and if he made a bad play, he shook it off immediately and never thought about it the next few plays."

That audaciousness, while reinvigorating the fan base, also put Mr. Reaves into football infamy. In a 38-12 loss at Auburn in '69, he threw nine interceptions — an NCAA record that still stands.

"I think he was all we had," Carlson recalled.

"He was the best option, and John wasn't afraid to throw the ball. Two interceptions or nine, it didn't matter to him, he was gonna fling it. You needed a guy to stand in there and has got the guts not to say, 'Oh my god, I've already thrown six, I might throw another.' He didn't even think about that.

"(Spurrier) was the same way."

The Philadelphia Eagles chose him with the No. 14 overall pick in the 1972 NFL draft, and he's still one of only five quarterbacks from Florida high schools to be chosen in the first round.

Mr. Reaves' pro career included 17 NFL starts — including two for the "scab" Bucs during the 1987 players' strike. His best season with the Bandits came in 1984, when he threw for more than 4,000 yards.

"He was sensational (in '84)," Spurrier said. "Every game, he was really something."

Carl Franks, a Bandits teammate of Mr. Reaves, golfed with him at Palma Ceia on off-days. He remembers Mr. Reaves as a devoted dad heavily involved with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at that time, but willing to indulge his adventurous side.

When a ditch near the Bandits offices — on the fringe of Hillsborough Community College across from the old Tampa Stadium — became filled with rainwater, players took turns driving their four-wheel-drive trucks through it.

Mr. Reaves' Jeep got stuck, Franks recalled.

"He enjoyed life, he enjoyed playing, he enjoyed kidding around," said Franks, who later coached with Mr. Reaves on Spurrier's UF staff. "Those are some really fun days as far as my interaction with John back then."

After his football career, Mr. Reaves served as an assistant to Spurrier, and later spent three seasons as a South Carolina assistant. Among the players he recruited to UF: diminutive receiver Jacquez Green, who evolved into an All-American who later played for the Bucs.

"Just thankful he believed in a 5-foot-8, 155-pound kid from tiny Fort Valley, Ga.," Green said. "He believed I could play at UF more than myself."

Yet that daring nature, which compelled him to fling a spiral between multiple defenders, resulted in an adult life filled with torment.

Mr. Reaves battled drug and alcohol problems throughout adulthood. He lectured children about his problems — including a $1,000-a-day cocaine habit, two drunk driving arrests and a marijuana possession — and found redemption through religion and real estate sales. In 2008, he was arrested on gun and cocaine charges.

At Morris' behest, he entered a rehab facility in the spring of 2009.

"He was there for a month, got sober. I know he was stone sober for an extended period of time," said Morris, a retired attorney living in Pensacola.

"And I know he had drank some after that, but to my knowledge, he never got out of control. He didn't have the issues he had earlier. I had not been around him the last couple of years, but if he had really, really struggled I'm sure I would've heard because I'm good friends with his family."

As recently as last fall, he was an occasional visitor to USF practices, where David Reaves served as an assistant. His body visibly ravaged by a lengthy football career and the off-field demons that besieged him, Mr. Reaves walked with a cane and observed from a portable folding chair.

David Reaves said his father was among the plaintiffs in a suit filed by former NFL players against the league over concussions and brain trauma. The family is looking to donate Mr. Reaves' brain toward research for chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the degenerative brain disease linked to repeated head hits.

"He was in a better place," David Reaves said.

"He struggled obviously physically, just with the physical beating that he took through his career. He was doing everything he could as far as trying …to rehab his body and things of that nature. But he was obviously struggling physically."

A public funeral will be held Saturday at 1 p.m. at South Tampa Fellowship Church at 5101 Bayshore Blvd.

"It's a day to remember John, celebrate. That's the way it should be," Spurrier said. "Shed a tear a little bit, more than a little bit, then celebrate what he did while he was here on Earth."

Times sports columnist Martin Fennelly and staff writer Roger Mooney contributed to this report. Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @ TBTimes_Bulls.

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