- Friday, October 16, 2009 5:51 AM
- Written By: SportsFanLive Reports
Bobby Sabelhaus was the nation's top-rated quarterback prospect in 1995. He signed with Florida and coach Steve Spurrier but never played a down for the Gators. This weekend, Sabelhaus returns to Gainesville
for the first time in 13 years, and in this exclusive to SportsFanLive.com, he shares the details of his recruitment, his struggles and his eventual departure from Florida. Honest, unvarnished and unfiltered ... Sabelhaus gives us an unprecedented look inside the high-stakes world of big-time college athletics. Here is Part Two: Why He Picked The Gators and How He Started Drowning In The Swamp.
If you missed Part 1 of the story about recruiting, click here.
By Bobby Sabelhaus
My path to the University of Florida began in 1992 when Baltimore was looking to attract an NFL franchise to the city. Its mantra was “Give Baltimore the Ball.” The New Orleans Saints played the Miami Dolphins in a preseason game. My father and I attended the game and afterwards we were introduced to Archie Manning, who was doing the color commentary for the Saints. He found out I was an aspiring quarterback and volunteered to guide me through the recruiting process because his son, Peyton, was getting heavily recruited at the time.
My father ended up reaching out to Archie a couple of times for advice, and he recommended I attend Steve Spurrier’s summer football camp at the University of Florida between my junior and senior year. After spending a week at UF, my interest was definitely piqued. I got some time with Coach Spurrier while at the camp and was hoping in the back of my mind that they’d end up recruiting me. To my surprise they did.
My recruiting trip to UF was everything I’d hoped for and more. My family came down with me because their opinion mattered the most to me. I spoke with my dad recently and he recalled a fun story about that visit. Spurrier called my parents’ hotel at 9 p.m. on a Friday night and asked them to join him and his wife Jerri at their house for a drink. Later that evening, he brought my dad into his living room and on the mantel was none other than Spurrier’s 1966 Heisman Trophy, which he had won while playing quarterback at UF. My father said his heart skipped a beat; he had never seen a Heisman before. It meant the world to me that my father got to experience this.
A lot of time and thought went into choosing a school but I finally narrowed it down to Florida and Michigan. My father and I made up a pros and cons list of everything from weather to women, along with categories like: how many times each team threw the ball per game, how many quarterbacks each school had on its depth chart, football tradition, etc. You get the idea. The point is we took this decision very seriously. The one intangible we overlooked was MY GUT FEELING and looking back this was the most important thing of all.
On paper UF looked good, but deep down there was something that didn’t sit well with me. My father and I knew Spurrier was going to be a challenge to play for. Many people warned me and I was well aware of his tumultuous relationship with Terry Dean, former standout quarterback who was benched his senior year and replaced by Danny Wuerffel. But when you’re an overly confident high school football player getting recruited by every college in America, you feel invincible to a degree. I didn’t take into account how crucial my relationship with the coach would be. I needed a mentor and a coach all in one, someone who knew when to be tough and when to give praise.
I remember it like it was yesterday, Coach Spurrier visiting my house in Baltimore along with assistant coach Bobby Pruitt. Spurrier never promised me I’d start but said he’d give me the opportunity to compete. I understood that and wasn’t looking for assurances. I was only concerned about two things prior to committing to UF. First, was Spurrier equipped to handle my dyslexia? I was diagnosed with dyslexia at a very young age. I even went to a school that specialized in meeting the challenges of students with learning differences. I definitely had to work hard at it, but I did learn to cope with my dyslexia and went on to excel both in the classroom and on the field. I knew the UF playbook was not light reading. In fact, it was about 6 inches thick, so I wanted Spurrier to commit to me that I’d get the help I needed in learning the intricacies of it.
My other concern was that Spurrier would attempt to make significant changes to my sidearm throwing motion. When I attended his summer football camp before my senior year, he had started trying to tweak it a bit. I had thrown the same way for as long as I could remember, and the changes he introduced early on were not going to work for me. I was by no means above being coached. I realized I had a lot to learn about playing the quarterback position and was eager to learn as much as I could from Spurrier, who truly is an offensive genius. But I also knew that each starting quarterback in the NFL had a different throwing motion. And Spurrier promised me he would not change mine.
After that pivotal meeting, I committed to UF and wanted to hit the ground running as the newest Gator. I offered to help the coaches in the recruiting process by calling other recruits who were still on the fence about attending UF. I called future NFL superstar Randy Moss’ house and spoke to his mother. He ended up signing with Notre Dame but it would’ve been sensational to get Moss on board with an already super talented recruiting class! Our 1995 class was one of the most highly touted classes in UF history. Jevon Kearse, Reggie McGrew, Johnny Rutledge, Erron Kinney, Cooper Carlisle and Tim Beauchamp all signed with Florida that year.
My first couple weeks on campus were a blast! Getting to know my teammates and having the freedom of being away from home to begin a new challenge was exciting. But it was a bit of a wake-up call too. I remember the first day of summer conditioning. A bunch of bright-eyed freshman ready to conquer the world, until about halfway through the drills when we're all hunched over gasping for a breath. The party had officially ended and the courtship of recruiting was over. We were all freshmen trying to earn the respect of our coaches and teammates. We all said goodbye to our high school glory days and said hello to working harder than we ever had before.
But going into the summer of 1995 I felt really confident. Confident in my abilities and confident I had made right decision. I was throwing the ball better than I ever had. I remember articles after seeing me in summer two-a-days that praised my performance. One reporter wrote that the program was going to be in good hands with me at quarterback once Wuerffel graduated.
Spurrier had told me before the season that I’d be red-shirting my first year at school, which was common for quarterbacks. He hadn’t signed a quarterback in three years, so the idea was for me to red-shirt my first year and by my red-shirt sophomore year, I would take the helm from a departing Wuerffel. It was the perfect plan because unlike other freshmen who stayed at home, I got to suit up, be on the sidelines and travel with the team. My one responsibility, which obviously led us to the SEC Championship that year, was to block our offensive signals from the opposing team. Yep, not one signal got past me. Wuerffel also made me sit next to him on the team plane because he was superstitious and when I sat next to him, we won. The team went undefeated up until the Fiesta Bowl National Championship game against Nebraska. I didn’t sit next to Danny that game.
Just as I felt like my career at UF was off to a good start, I was running the scout team at practice one day and Spurrier pulled me off to the side, instructing me to lift my elbow when I threw. He
wanted my delivery to be higher; he told me a guy with my height needed to utilize it. I immediately thought back to the promise he made me about my sidearm throwing motion and within an instant, I knew that all bets were off. But he was my coach, so I did what he told me.
The simple fact is I had never thrown any other way and changing it now seemed impossible. I always had the ultimate confidence in my ability to deliver the football accurately and with velocity. The minute he started planting these seeds of doubt and criticizing my style I knew I was in trouble. I was already having a tough time grasping the playbook, so when my physical ability was under attack, my confidence began to erode. To add insult to injury, he never lived up to his other promise either. We didn’t have an offensive coordinator so I didn’t have anyone to discuss the offense with besides the other QBs. I recall being in the film room one afternoon, studying the playbook and game tape by myself. Learning the Florida offense wasn’t exactly a walk in the park but I was determined to master it. As I was busy running through tape, Spurrier walked by the room and peeked his head in to see what I was doing.
He said nothing else other than, “Do you even know what you’re looking at?” A couple days later at practice, after throwing a touchdown pass to Chris Doering, Spurrier came up to me and asked if that play was “just a bad decision or a lack of talent?” I hadn’t run the play exactly like he wanted. I could feel myself drowning in Spurrier’s sink-or-swim coaching tactic. It got to the point where I would dread going to meetings and practice. Wuerffel knew intimately well what I was going through. He had been there before with Coach and he tried to help me cope. But Danny had the unique ability to deflect Spurrier’s criticism and prioritize his life differently. For Danny, God always came first, then family, then football.
Even though I too had a strong foundation, I still couldn’t shake the constant berating; I internalized everything. The thought of disappointing my parents and letting everyone down back home was too much to bear. I could feel myself slipping into a depression, which was something I’d never felt before. At the time, I couldn’t begin to understand how difficult it was going to be to pull out of it.
I had a good relationship with my academic advisor who was assigned to me for personal and academic development at the university. Every school has them for the student athletes. He suggested I sit down with a campus psychologist. Although I was a bit apprehensive, I was open to anything to help me get through this difficult time. I met with the psychologist who wasn’t too much older than I was. He ended up trying to hypnotize me. I just remember sitting in a dark room thinking: How did it come to this?
Part Three: Life after Gainesville.