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College football

Gator bucks tradition, awaits Michigan

Growing up in Ohio somehow made Keiwan Ratliff a Wolverines fan. CB faces the team to which he once committed.

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 29, 2002


TAMPA -- Keiwan Ratliff grew up in the shadows of Ohio Stadium, where everyone around him adored the storied Ohio State football team.

They cheered the dotting of the 'i" when the band performed at halftime. They loved Woody Hayes and heckled fans with Michigan license plates after a Wolverines loss. Archie Griffin was a god.

It all irritated Ratliff, ultimately turning him into something most Columbus natives can't fathom: a Michigan lover.

"I think when everybody is going one way, sometimes it might send you another way, and I think that's what it did for me," the junior cornerback said. "Everybody in school was always talking Buckeyes, so I can say I was doing a little bit of hating. I just got tired of hearing about Ohio State, and I just wanted to see somebody else do good so I could see all my classmates and how angry they were."

He rooted for the Wolverines. And although he admits he was also a Penn State fan, the Michigan part was a well-guarded secret.

When Florida plays Michigan on Wednesday in the Outback Bowl, Ratliff will wear the Gators orange and blue and for the first time he'll root against the Wolverines.

"I want to win," he said. "There will be no more cheering for Michigan. I'm going to be real excited. A lot of players get pumped up over the Florida State game, but I didn't grow up on that rivalry. I grew up on the rivalry of Ohio State-Michigan. So just seeing Michigan out there and playing against them, it's like a dream to me."

Just how much do they love Ohio State in Columbus? When Ratliff held a news conference and announced he would attend Florida, his classmates let their feelings be known.

"I got booed," Ratliff said.

But it wasn't just the annoying Ohio State fans who pushed Ratliff toward becoming a Michigan fan. It was his fascination with some of Michigan's famous players.

Ratliff fancies himself a flamboyant type. He's outspoken, a little flashy, proudly trading in the bald head he sports in the Florida media guide for braids. And he likes his heroes the same way.

Michigan had those types of players. And the Wolverines were at the top of Ratliff's list of the many schools that came calling. An All-American two-way star at Whitehall-Yearling High, he made a soft oral commitment to Michigan, then backed out a few weeks later.

"I loved Charles Woodson," he said, smiling at the memory. "Charles Woodson played two ways, and in high school I played two ways. He made plays on offense and defense, and that attracted me. And they had Desmond Howard and players like that. ... I used to like the flashy players. Ohio State had real good players and first-round draft picks, but they weren't as flashy as I like."

Ratliff might well be wearing the green and white at the Outback Bowl if not for the weather. When he left Columbus for a December recruiting trip to Florida it was 25 degrees. When he arrived in Gainesville it was about 85.

"That had a lot to do with it," he said.

Ratliff isn't the only Gator with Michigan connections. Florida coach Ron Zook grew up in Ohio and coached against Michigan while an assistant at Ohio State. And defensive tackle Ian Scott was recruited by Michigan, but ultimately the weather played a part in the Gainesville native's decision.

"It was a little too cold," Scott said.

Even if it had been snowing in Florida, Ratliff most likely would have ended up a Gator, thanks to former coach Steve Spurrier. Ratliff planned to play receiver, and Spurrier pulled out all the stops.

"I came down here and he showed me film of Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green because I wanted to play wide receiver," Ratliff said. "And if you see highlights of the '96 national championship game, any receiver is going to commit."

Ratliff is now a 5-foot-11 member of Florida's secondary and has started every game this season. His performance in the Sept.28 game against Kentucky (he returned an interception for a touchdown and had another interception on a two-point conversion) earned him SEC player of the week honors, and he is second on the defense with 901 total plays.

His reward for a solid season is a game against his old favorite team. And it's being well-received.

"Oh, yeah, this is a real big game," he said. "This is probably the next best thing to playing Ohio State."

OUTBACK BOWL SCHEDULE

Today

OUTBACK BOWL BEACH DAY*: The teams, marching bands and cheerleaders gather at the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort. The event includes music, skydivers, tug of war and other contests from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.

Monday

BUSCH GARDENS BATTLE OF THE BANDS*: Florida and Michigan bands square off at 11 a.m.

Tuesday

MICHIGAN PEP RALLY*: 2 p.m. at the Tampa Convention Center ballroom. Admission is free.

TECO ENERGY PARADE AND YBOR BOWL BLAST*: Ybor City celebration features a pep rally with marching bands and cheerleaders and a fireworks show. The parade, which includes floats and 30 marching bands, starts at 5:30 p.m. on Seventh Avenue. The fireworks show begins at 8:15.

Wednesday

MICHIGAN TAILGATE BRUNCH*: 8:30 a.m. at Hillsborough Community College (corner of Tampa Bay Boulevard and Dale Mabry Highway). Admission is $25 for adults and $15 for children under 12. Call 1-877-GOBLUE1 for reservations

PREGAME BOWL BASH*: Fans can warm up for the game at 8 a.m. at Tampa Bay Center with live music and a pep rally.

OUTBACK BOWL: 11 a.m., Raymond James Stadium, Tampa.

*open to the public

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