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Boost helps Bulls' McFarland overcome adversity

USF tight end Mike McFarland is tackled by linebacker Nick Temple after one of his team-high four catches against Cincinnati.
Published Oct. 11, 2013

TAMPA — With one leap and an outstretched left hand, Mike McFarland altered the trajectory of both Cincinnati kicker Tony Miliano's field goal and USF's season.

A few seconds later, Nate Godwin scooped up the blocked kick and dashed down USF's sideline for a 75-yard touchdown. It kick-started a 26-20 Bulls triumph and the best night of McFarland's collegiate life.

"It feels amazing," the former Blake High blue-chipper said moments after the win.

"The coaches put me in a position to make a play, and I made it."

Somewhere in Citrus Park, Calvin Barrs grinned. From his celestial suite, Winston Davis might have also. Charles Smith probably beamed as did Sean Washington and Uncle George Ellis. His Bulls coaches and teammates sure as heck did. All with good reason.

Well before McFarland showed his hand Saturday, these patriarchs in the villages of his adolescence and young adulthood lent him one.

As a result, he's conquering the tragic one fate dealt him.

"He's had it tough," Barrs said. "And the most important thing is he had a good supporting cast around him."

Indeed, McFarland's journey to the epicenter of USF's inaugural 2013 victory was arduous.

There was a stopover in Gainesville followed by grief a few exits later. Along the way, he relinquished one full ride and caught another. His one living parent likely never will see him play for the Bulls in person.

Yet the 6-foot-5 tight end with the soft voice remains so driven, he texted coach Willie Taggart shortly before the Miami game, asking him to use a pass play McFarland liked. Against Cincinnati, the redshirt junior had a team-best four catches.

"I feel like I'm in a great place," he said.

The way McFarland sees it, it's the only place, ideal philosophically and geographically. After all, Taggart employs tight ends as liberally as McDonald's employs teenagers. Even if he didn't, McFarland still would be here.

Michael McFarland Sr., victim of two strokes, resides in a nursing home about a half-hour away in Plant City. After practice and study hall each Sunday, Mike drives to see the man with whom he has shared a profound yet complicated bond.

"Without my dad being here," McFarland said, "it just goes to show me that what family I do have is that much more important to me."

This is the paradox of Michael McFarland Jr. The kid with the fractured upbringing might have more de facto fathers and surrogate siblings than any teammate. Today, the Bulls represent the most stable family force in his life.

Before that, there was Barrs, not to mention a throng of other former Blake coaches such as Washington, Davis and Smith.

Rewind a half-decade or so. To that point, McFarland never had known a structured home. His mom, of whom he speaks little, died when he was in high school. The friction between him and his dad, a Vietnam War veteran with periodic jail stints, had grown insufferable.

Barrs, a veteran social worker who was then coaching junior varsity basketball at Blake, stood on the periphery and watched McFarland's various stages of anguish. Eventually, he invited the rangy teen to move into his Citrus Park home with his wife and young son.

"It was basically like, 'Whenever you feel like you're ready to come, just know that me and my family will be here with open arms,' " McFarland recalled.

Suddenly, McFarland had his own bedroom and a set of guidelines. He washed the dishes, did his own laundry and honored the Barrs' 10 p.m. curfew. When he needed a ride home from varsity football or basketball practice, a coach always seemed to come through.

"The goal was to get Mike stable and to get him through school and get him to college," Barrs said.

On the field, he flourished — in a variety of capacities. On a given night, McFarland would line up at quarterback, tight end, defensive end and punter for Blake. As a senior, his team went 1-9, but Scout.com ranked him the nation's No. 12 tight end.

He signed with Florida in February 2010 after orally committing months earlier and redshirted his first season. In 2011, coach Will Muschamp arrived with a more traditional pro-style offense. Michael Sr.'s first stroke arrived at roughly the same time.

"It was just crazy," McFarland recalled. "I used to think nothing could happen to my dad. He was like, 5-10 or 5-11, but he was jacked. Couldn't nobody touch my dad."

This is what some never understood. The resentment McFarland harbored toward his father coexisted with the love but never supplanted it. He wanted to be at his side. As a result, he transferred to USF as a walk-on and was granted a hardship waiver from the NCAA that allowed him to play right away.

Shortly after the Bulls broke preseason camp in August 2011, then-coach Skip Holtz summoned McFarland to his office and informed him he had earned a scholarship.

Two years later, he finds himself smack in the middle of a tight end-friendly offense. McFarland's eight receptions are three more than he had in his first two seasons at USF combined.

"That's the beauty for me," Taggart said; "just watching that kid grow up and get better from spring through training camp and to where he's at now and making those plays for us."

Mike tries to tell Michael Sr. about each of them. Sometimes, the elder McFarland will mumble. Other times, he'll stare. Mike knows he hears, and that's sufficient. He believes his dad understands what he's conveying — that he's in a great place.

Surrounded by family.

"I think he's pretty much on his way," Barrs said.

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