Carrying himself like a captain

Gators receiver Cornelius is a leader to teammates and the children he mentors.

Published November 1, 2006

GAINESVILLE - The son of a small-town minister, Jemalle Cornelius is so respected among teammates they tone down the bawdy language when he's around and treat him with the respect generally reserved for someone decades older.

Don't call him your typical football player. The stereotype just doesn't fit.

Whether it's reading to elementary school children in his spare time or acting as mentor, friend and counselor to other players, Cornelius has earned a reputation as one of the most well-liked members of the Gators football team.

"He's just an all-around guy," junior defensive end Ray McDonald said. "He's good in the classroom, good off the field. He's a Christian guy. He makes sure that his teammates are doing the right thing. And when it all matters, he comes out on Saturdays and makes plays."

His role has even greater significance this week.

As captain and one of the most influential players, Cornelius is among the seniors who have taken it upon themselves to keep the No. 7 Gators on an even keel.

Florida controls its destiny in the chase for its first SEC East title since 2000. It has to win the next two games.

One of those games is at Vanderbilt 4-5 on Saturday, a team vastly improved over previous last-place finishes. So it's up to Cornelius, 22, to lead, as he has so many times before, by example.

"It's a one-game season for us from here on out," Cornelius said. "So we've got to make sure that we're focused on the team that we're playing. Vanderbilt has got a good team this year. They beat Georgia, they can put some points up and they can play some good defense. We've got a lot of seniors, and it's definitely upon us to make sure we get everybody focused and we stay focused ourselves."

If anybody can make sure of that, it's Cornelius. The wide receiver from Fort Meade is softspoken and humble, but when he talks every Gator player listens - and responds.

"He's not a vocal type like you would say I am, but he's a leader that you can step to and talk to you in private," linebacker Brandon Siler said. "He is an inspiration because he does everything the right way. I guess that's the kind of leader he is. ... When he says something, you know it's probably in stone."

Florida coach Urban Meyer calls Cornelius one of the best college football players in America.

"He just does everything for me," Meyer said. "He makes play after play, especially when you need a play to be made. He's a very disciplined football player. He's a guy that you need to continually try to get the ball to."

After suffering through injuries that hampered him the second half of last season, Cornelius has made the most of his opportunities this year. Although he had a streak of 12 games with at least one reception end against Auburn, he has 18 catches for 337 yards, a team-leading 18.7 average. He also has three touchdowns.

"I don't think there's anybody that can adjust to the ball better than him," tight end Tate Casey said. "As far as coming up with the catch, he's pretty acrobatic and at the same time he's not going to let a lot of things hit the ground."

His leadership, work ethic and play have made him the only player who has been a captain each week.

"We rotate captains each week, but he's the one consistent guy," Meyer said. "He's out there, he does the talking. He's my guy. The other guys that are out there, they're hood ornaments. They go out there and wave to the crowd so their mom and dad can take pictures of them. But Jemalle Cornelius is the captain of this football team. ... I trust him. He has earned that right."

Cornelius enjoys reading devotionals and writing his thoughts and prayers. His dream job is to one day run a YMCA. And ultimately, he may become a youth minister.

"Working with young people and helping them in life, that's something that I think about often," he said. "My father (Clinton Cornelius) is a pastor so I got to see that. My best friend right now is a children's pastor and he and I talk a lot, so I can definitely see myself going into that arena.

"I'm not a perfect citizen," he added. "I just try to be as good a citizen as I can."

According to his coaches and teammates, he's as good as it gets.

Antonya English can be reached at english@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3389.