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The deep family ties between FSU’s Tate Rodemaker and Gators’ Napier

“There’s no better people in the world,” Rodemaker’s dad says, than the Napiers.
 
FSU football will start Tate Rodemaker vs. Florida after Seminoles star Jordan Travis' leg injury.
FSU football will start Tate Rodemaker vs. Florida after Seminoles star Jordan Travis' leg injury. [ PHIL SEARS | AP ]
Published Nov. 22, 2023

Alan Rodemaker and Bill Napier had coached thousands of kids together over a quarter-century’s worth of summer camps in mid-Georgia, Alan working with receivers as Bill and a camera went under a tent to break down quarterbacks.

This time, however, was different. Bill was in a wheelchair from the effects of Lou Gehrig’s disease; he didn’t have many more reps left to coach.

That’s why someone pulled Alan from his station so he could sit down under the tent and watch his friend and colleague fine-tune the mechanics of an up-and-coming passer one more time.

“The last person he instructed with a video under that tent,” Alan said, “was Tate Rodemaker.”

Even by the small-world standards of the football coaching community, the connection stands out. Tate Rodemaker — Alan’s son and the new starting quarterback for No. 5 Florida State — training under the late father of second-year Gators coach Billy Napier. And it’s not the only tie between two of the the state’s most important college football figures, who face off Saturday at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium with College Football Playoff hopes on the line for FSU and bowl eligibility at stake for the Gators.

“When I was growing up, heck, Coach Rodemaker was always around at different events and camps and things we would go to,” Billy Napier said.

Florida Gators coach Billy Napier is the son of Bill Napier, who was a big name in Georgia high school football circles.
Florida Gators coach Billy Napier is the son of Bill Napier, who was a big name in Georgia high school football circles. [ JOHN RAOUX | AP (2022) ]

Somewhere along the line, though, Coach Rodemaker — who led Valdosta High to the 2016 state championship — stopped being known as Coach Rodemaker and started being known as Tate’s dad.

That’s a credit to Tate, who blossomed from the backup on his freshman team into Georgia’s prep player of the year and a three-star prospect as a senior. His recruiting process, in retrospect, looks like a fascinating set of what-ifs.

His first college offer came from Kerwin Bell, then the head coach at nearby Valdosta State. Their relationship continued after Bell became the offensive coordinator at USF, and Rodemaker committed to the Bulls in the summer before his senior season.

“The level of football South Florida was, was still really good,” Alan said. “Kerwin, we thought, would still be there.”

He wasn’t; Bell and Charlie Strong’s staff were fired at the end of the 2019 season.

Tate had other options by then because his stature skyrocketed. His strong senior year attracted late offers from the likes of Pitt, Virginia Tech, Utah and Baylor. One coach even offered him a second time: Mike Norvell.

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Norvell made Tate one of Memphis’ first offers in that cycle and offered him again within three days of starting at FSU that December. The Seminoles desperately needed young quarterbacks after Norvell’s predecessor, Willie Taggart, failed to sign a prep passer in either of his two recruiting classes. Norvell landed two — blue-chip headliner Chubba Purdy and Tate.

“I’ve always loved the way that he’s played the game,” Norvell said of Tate on the 2019 early signing day. “He’s very intellectual, he’s extremely accurate. I think his best days are in front of him.”

Florida State quarterback Tate Rodemaker led the Seminoles to a win at Louisville.
Florida State quarterback Tate Rodemaker led the Seminoles to a win at Louisville. [ TIMOTHY D. EASLEY | AP (2022) ]

Though Tate has spent most of the last four seasons since then on the bench awaiting his turn, his dad said he has “never even uttered the word ‘transfer.’” After Jordan Travis’ record-breaking FSU career ended with a gruesome leg injury last week, the Seminoles hope Tate’s best days have finally arrived; their chances of the program’s first playoff appearance since 2014 hinge on how he performs Saturday in Gainesville and the following week against Louisville in the ACC championship.

But those best days could have been under Billy Napier, who recruited Tate in his last job at Louisiana. Had Napier been at a comparable program to FSU at the time, Alan said, the decision would have been tough because of the mutual, familial respect that started decades earlier with Bill Napier (who died in 2017).

“The man Billy comes from, the family he comes from and the man Billy is — there is no better,” Alan said. “There’s no better people in the world.”

Alan got a reminder of that last year, after his son came off the bench to lead FSU to a win at Louisville. Amid all the congratulatory text messages and phone calls he received, he still remembers one that came out of the blue from a longtime family friend:

Billy Napier.

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