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Rex is slingin' in the rain

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- Rex Grossman wants you to get this straight. The dance meant nothing, okay?

He stood on the soggy field of Rocky Top, hipping and hopping, movin' to the groovin'. Hey, a guy gets happy feet sometimes. Is that so wrong?

Oh, and answering critics? This had nothing to do with that, either. So what if people had used him for a dart board lately? So what if his own fans were acting as if the best part of him had boarded a jet for Washington? Hey, a guy has to take a little heat, right?

The Heisman? Nah, this had nothing to do with the Heisman. This was just a guy taking 108,000 people to his back yard, where he proceeded to put on a show.

On the day of his greatest performance, Grossman almost pulled off another one. He stood in a concrete room in the bowels of Neyland Stadium, shrugging off vindication and stepping around validation. Every time someone asked him a question that suggested a compliment, he would retreat to team-speak. Motivation? What extra motivation?

Yep, you could believe that this meant absolutely nothing beyond a big victory to Grossman.

Or you could believe that, as soon as everyone left the room, he was going to put on a party hat and dance all over again.

This was the best Grossman has been. Yes, that includes those nine 300-yard games in a row. It includes the 464-yard, five-touchdown day at LSU. It includes every pass that piled up until he was second in the Heisman Trophy voting last year.

This was better. The Gators never have asked Grossman to do more, and he never has responded better. He was playing at the bottom of a waterfall, and it didn't matter. He was chased and knocked the ground, time and again, and it didn't matter. The critics had ripped at his flesh for two weeks, and his team had looked ordinary, and only his coach was being roasted at a higher temperature. And it didn't matter.

"Don't count out Rex Grossman," guard Shannon Snell said. "Don't ever count out Rex Grossman."

Lately, it had become quite fashionable to count out Grossman who, for the past two games, had looked pretty much like a systemless system quarterback. He was poor against Miami and mediocre against Ohio, and it reminded everyone of last year's suggestion that Grossman was just the latest in a line of quarterbacks to be body-snatched by Steve Spurrier.

Then came Saturday, when Grossman threw for 324 yards and three touchdowns to lead Florida to a swagger-saving victory over the Vols.

No, it wasn't the first time Grossman has done great things for Florida. But the Gators never needed Grossman to do great things more. We have seen Grossman play the part of pretty passer; we never have seen him show this kind of grit.

Four games into the Ron Zook era and already some Gator fans were looking for large hunks to fall from the sky. Florida was staring a 2-2 start in the face, and the reactionaries in the crowd -- and they know who they are -- were wondering where Nero went to buy fiddles.

Even at Tennessee, the Vols were looking at this as if it weren't just one game, but an opportunity for Florida to hand over the keys to the kingdom. It was as if Phil Fulmer Way was going to be turned into an interstate that would run through every campus in the SEC.

Grossman stopped the talk. He made plays with his arm, with his legs, with his head. He threw as he was being knocked backward, little flips that looked dangerous until a receiver was rolling downhill. "Backyard ball," Grossman called it. Maybe, but when it's General Neyland's backyard, it's pretty impressive.

"Sometimes, you have to make something out of nothing," Grossman said, grinning. "I'm not going to take it upfield for long, but I'm pretty shifty in the pocket."

You wanted the kid to yell "yippee." You wanted him to claim his vindication, waggle a finger. Not Grossman. Rex was, well, imperious.

Take the second quarter, where there was such a deluge that Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen couldn't manage a center snap. Grossman? He threw for 167 yards and two scores.

There was the play where he shrugged off blitzing safety Steven Marsh, rolled right and weaved his way upfield for 18 yards. Two plays later, he scrambled, pulled up and launched a 52-yard pass to Taylor Jacobs to set up Florida's first score.

After that, Tennessee seemed shellshocked. Or, perhaps, Grossed out. The Vols spent the next five minutes wandering aimlessly, bumping into one another and dropping the ball to the turf. You have never seen a team disintegrate more completely.

In response, Grossman threw more two touchdowns. Who has ever been this good in the rain? Gene Kelly?

Ah, but Grossman wasn't done. After Tennessee scored twice in the third quarter, just enough to make Florida fans a little nervous, Grossman went back to work. He drove his team 80 yards in 11 plays, completing all six passes for 66 yards along the way.

"I don't see how you can criticize Rex Grossman," Zook said. "He's been a great quarterback, and he's going to be a great quarterback. Rex is a competitor, a winner."

More than that, on this day, Grossman was a response. He was a statement to remind his fans that winning isn't something in the past tense. He was a memo about patience, about perspective, about poise.

As for the rest of you? Well, if you've been one of the critical Florida fans, you're on notice.

For the meantime, however, you can do this.

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