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Wayne Messam: From the Choke at Doak to 2020 presidential candidate

The Miramar mayor was a receiver on Florida State’s 1993 national championship team.
Then-FSU receiver hugs legendary coach Bobby Bowden after their 34-16 win at Miami in a top-10 showdown in 1996. (TIMES 1996)
Published May 17

When Miramar mayor Wayne Messam announced he was running for president this spring, his time as a Florida State receiver became an impossible-to-ignore part of his story.

The first image in his campaign’s kickoff video features Messam running along an unpaved path in a garnet compression shirt. His 1993 national championship ring flashes. And when he talks about the problems facing America, his No. 89 Seminoles jersey hangs in the background.

So it shouldn’t be a surprise that when the 44-year-old thinks about the long odds he faces as perhaps the biggest underdog among the 20-plus Democrats in the 2020 presidential race, he brings up another monumental comeback he knows well.

The Choke at Doak.

RELATED: Wayne Messam: FSU football 1993 champ, now 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful

“My experience at Florida State helped me to have the discipline to prepare as well as to endure challenging spots,” Messam said, “like being down (31-3) against your archrival to come back to tie the game.”

Messam had two catches in that famous 31-31 tie with Florida in 1994, which is a fitting summary of his Seminoles career. Messam was never the star, but he was a valuable role player from 1992-96 in the middle of the Bobby Bowden dynasty.

“He wasn’t a talker,” said Derrick Alexander, a former FSU teammate and All-America defensive lineman. “He just came in and brought his hard hat and got to work all the time.”

Messam learned that work ethic early as the son of Jamaican immigrants. His father toiled in the south Florida fields, cutting sugar cane.

The 6-foot-4 athlete didn’t have the speed usually associated with the muck of Glades Central, so he had to make up for it with dedication.

“Not the fastest guy, couldn’t jump the highest,” former FSU teammate Kevin Knox said. “Probably didn’t have the most athletic gifts, but he was real consistent in what he did.”

It took a few years for that consistency to show up on Saturdays because Messam had to compete on a star-studded roster just to get on the field. He redshirted in 1992 and caught only five passes for 39 yards and a touchdown during FSU’s title run.

Messam’s production grew over his final three seasons, when he caught 57 passes for 757 yards and three scores. Although the numbers still weren’t gaudy, there were flashes of glory: 122 receiving yards in a rout of Maryland in ’94; clutching a clump of Orange Bowl sod to bury in Tallahassee after FSU’s first road win over Miami in 22 years; a team-high five catches in a loss to the Gators in the ’96 title game.

Wayne Messam catches a pass during the national title game against the Gators in January 1997. (TIMES 1997)

“What I remember about Wayne is that he was a fierce competitor, a hard worker and very committed,” said FSU and Bucs legend Warrick Dunn, who played with Messam from 1993-96. “I have seen him in recent years, and he has definitely grown his leadership skills which didn’t surprise me given how he played.”

Or how Messam carried himself when he wasn’t playing. He was the senior class president at Glades Central, then FSU’s student body vice president.

Messam started his post-football career in construction before turning to politics in 2011. He won a spot on Miramar’s city commission and was elected as the city’s first black mayor four years later.

And now, he’s running to lead the most powerful country on earth.

In this Wednesday, March 27, 2019 photo, Miramar Mayor Wayne Messam, right, laughs with Stephen Turrisi, left, the director of training and technical services at JL Audio during a tour in Miramar, Fla. Messam announced on Thursday, March 28 that he is running for the Democratic presidential nomination. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

“That’s Wayne,” Knox said. “I thought he was going to go the route of the governor first, but he decided to go ahead and just skip that and go straight to the top.”

Consider it another embodiment of the ambition Messam showed just to get to FSU as a first-generation American.

There are other ways FSU continues to shape Messam and his political career. He has organized a fitness fair at city hall to share his passion for health with his constituents. He builds coalitions in the community, just as he did on campus and in the locker room. And the competitive fire he uses to attract businesses to Miramar is the same one he kindled with the ’Noles.

“Obviously as a mayor, I’m in competition with my neighboring cities as well as cities around the country…” Messam said. “It’s always about competition.”

Messam and his teammates kept competing 25 years ago in one of the most famous comebacks in college football history. He’s not going to stop now.

Wayne Messam celebrates during his time at FSU. (TIMES 1996)

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

Contact Matt Baker at mbaker@tampabay.com. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.

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