GAINESVILLE - Even at his brightest of moments, the doubts would not disappear.
Chris Rix danced in the moonlight Saturday night. He stood on the chilly grounds of the enemy, and he listened to his critics call his name. And still, the questions lingered.
He had been Joe Montana. For 10 minutes, for two drives, he had been John Elway and Johnny Unitas and Roger Staubach and all the other kings of the fourth quarter. For one brief passage of time, Rix was everything anyone ever hoped to be and more than anyone has expected for a very long time.
And still, you wondered:
What if he had been this good all along?
How good might the Seminoles' season have turned out then?
Rix went a long way toward redefining his image against the Gators. He took an eraser to all those doubts, all those jeers, and he erased most of them with a singularly brilliant final period.
Twice, Rix led FSU from behind in the final quarter. He ran. He passed. He made plays. He made the right decisions. He rolled out. He stood up. He came back. And back again.
It was then, as Rix pumped his fist into the air, the thought slipped into your head of just how close the Seminoles were to a really special season.
Yes, FSU is 10-2 now and headed toward a BCS game. But add in a victory over Clemson, or better yet, add in another one over a Miami team that has since proved to be vulnerable, and maybe FSU figured into this championship picture yet. Two more victories, maybe even one, and you could add FSU to the alphabet soup discussion of whether the BCS should select USC or LSU.
That's the thing about Rix. Even when the world has seen him at his best, he seems mere inches from his worst.
There is a special scale for weighing Rix's performances. It is impossible to talk about how good he was without balancing it with the memory of how frustrating he has been.
Ask Bobby Bowden, who tried to praise Rix after the game. Really, he did. He just couldn't quite manage it.
Someone asked Bowden about the way Rix played, and the first thing he said was this: "I'll give ya'll one (touchdown) and I'll get three. As long as he keeps up that ratio, he'll be our quarterback. As soon as it gets to even, we'll get someone else."
Hey, Bobby, how about that game plan?
"I kept reading in the paper (last) week about how afraid they were of Rix. We aren't used to hearing that comment."
But, Bobby. Could this game change the way people think of him?
"Yeah, it could. But I don't know why in the world he lays the ball down like that. He lays the stinking thing on the ground. But I still love him."
That pretty much sums up Rix, the junior quarterback who has spent much of this year closer to the bench than the end zone. Even in the Seminoles' last game, against North Carolina State, Bowden had to be talked out of benching Rix.
Poor Bobby. Rix's constant fumbling leaves him talking to himself.
"Sure, I frustrate him," Rix said. "I don't blame him for that."
And so it was FSU went into Saturday night's game, it appeared, with one thought in mind: For goodness' sake keep the game out of the hands of Rix.
For most of the night, the Seminoles were determined to run the ball, especially on third down. Rix threw only nine passes through the first three quarters, only twice on third downs. Even on third and 11, FSU chose to play it safe. Bowden said it was because of Florida's secondary. Then again, he was being nice.
Then came the final two drives, and Rix was unchained. And this time, he was terrific. On an 80-yard drive, Rix passed for 78 yards. On a 72-yard drive, he passed for 76. On those two possessions, against a Florida team that would not die, Rix was a special player. He ran for one touchdown. He hit a fourth and 14 to keep the final drive alive. Then, rolling to his right to buy time, he found P.K. Sams in the end zone for the winning points.
In a career that has been unbelievably confounding, it was an unbelievable ending. Against that same secondary that made Bowden nervous, he hit six of his last seven passes.
Gee, where was that precision against Clemson?
Gee, where was the poise against Miami?
It has been a tough season for Rix, and it has been a tough one on him. There are easier places to play quarterback, places where the head falls on the coach or the offensive coordinator. At FSU, a quarterback who leaves the ball laying around like car keys on the kitchen table is going to hear about it.
For instance, after the Clemson game this year, someone hung a bedsheet across from the stadium. It read: "Rix (expletive)."
Wide receiver Dominic Robinson, who caught Rix's fourth-and-14 pass to keep the final drive alive, tore the sheet down.
"I can't stand it," Robinson said. "Whenever Chris and I talk about it, he just says, "It's part of the position.' But it bothers me. No one wants wants to look up and see a sign that says you (expletive) or hear that you aren't any good. He can't even go to class without hearing someone talk about how he can't play."
For one night, for one quarter, Rix stopped most of the chatter. This time, he left the other team frustrated, not his. (And for all the Florida talk about officiating, it comes to this. The Gators had Chris Rix fourth and 14, and it wasn't enough).
That's not exactly a fresh canvas. Maybe, however, it will change the message on the bedsheet.
For one night, at least, all things seemed possible.