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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
OCALA - The Brantley family's routine Sunday dinner out took a wild turn Dec. 10.
Trinity Catholic quarterback John Brantley, the 2006 Gatorade national player of the year, was the talk of this bustling horse town.
Before the then-Texas oral commitment finished his meal, he had signed four autographs and was handed a note with a phone number by a young woman.
Then came the preacher.
One of the town's biggest Gator fans, the Rev. Ed Johnson, prayed for John to make "the right decision" on signing day.
"You don't know how many times people would greet Johnny with the Gator Chomp," his father, John III, said, laughing. Ten days later, the preacher's prayer was answered. Brantley changed his nonbinding commitment to Florida to be closer to home and follow in his father's and uncle's footsteps.
What the Gators will get in the youngest Brantley, the Times' 2007 Blue Chip player of the year, is a 6-foot-3 pure passer, a state champion with fleet feet he runs a 4.57-second 40, a quarterback with what his coach calls, "John Elway qualities."
"I'm a Gator for life," Brantley said. "It's part of who I am."
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Brantley put on his first Gators jersey at age 3, and it had all the trimmings: white pants, plastic helmet, miniature football.
Brantley plopped onto his parents' king-sized bed, placed a cone on each corner and simulated his own games.
"Johnny would fly off the bed, slam against the wall," his father said. "He was everywhere."
Brantley also was a fixture at Gators games. His dad started at quarterback in the late 1970s. His uncle, Scot, was a linebacker (1976-79) and member of the school's All-Century Team.
The brothers' framed pictures, along with John's orange No. 12 jersey, blanket the wall of the "sports room" in the Brantley's one-story home.
"Johnny has that same competitive edge," said Scot, a former Bucs linebacker who works for Gator Radio Network. "He's got all the intangibles of a quiet leader, and I played with (Hall of Famer) Lee Roy Selmon, the quietest of all leaders, who led by example. Johnny has a lot of that in him."
Brantley led Trinity Catholic, in just its fifth year of football, to the Class 2B state championship in 2005. He came up one victory short of Marion County's first back-to-back state titles in a generation (Scot's Ocala Forest team won in 1974-75).
Brantley, 27-1 as a starter, broke the state record for career TD passes with 99, topping Tim Tebow's and Xavier Lee's 98.
"He's got a chance to make money at the next level," said Kerwin Bell, a former UF quarterback who was drafted by the Miami Dolphins in 1988 and played in the Canadian Football League. "He's got the three qualities you have to have in order to be a superstar at that position: He's got great feet, he can make all the throws and he's got the intangibles."
When Brantley emerged as one of the nation's top high school quarterbacks, his father made sure he didn't miss out on any college options.
The two traveled by RV and bonded during the summers of 2004-05, visiting the campuses of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Florida State and Georgia Tech.
Brantley, born in Columbia, S.C., 1 mile from Williams-Brice Stadium, would be a perfect fit for Steve Spurrier's offense, his father thought; he loved Spurrier, his friend and former coach, who affectionately called him, "my first quarterback."
But Brantley said his first trip to Austin in March "blew me away." He loved Mack Brown, the campus, the nearby mountains, the Ocala-like flat lands and lakes.
During a news conference two weeks later, Brantley put on a Texas cap and announced his oral commitment.
But after three subsequent visits to Austin, he began to question his decision.
"It came down to distance," he said. "I've always been a Gator, all my friends are sticking around here. It was just the right fit."
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Brantley shies away from the attention, the accolades, the fanmade Web site JohnBrantley.org. The 17-year-old would rather hunt and deep-sea fish with friends.
A light brown, elk-doe skin rug stretches for about 5 feet across Brantley's bedroom floor. The soft-spoken senior shot the deer last year during one of his few hunting trips during football season.
Brantley's love for the outdoors rivals his passion for football; his blue jeans have holes, his hands are hardened by summer construction jobs. He enjoys camping and fishing with friends at Lake Weir. Like his passes, he casts deep, catching a barracuda and a dolphin on trips to the Keys.
But though he inherited his father's rocket right arm and his uncle's love for the outdoors, Brantley's softer side includes his mother Karen's sensitivity.
A youth minister at Trinity, Brantley says, "Yes, sir" and "Yes, ma'am" more than an Army cadet; his nickname is "Johnny Be Good."
"John never wants to disappoint anyone," TC athletic secretary Vicki Dubie said. "He's incredibly kind, incredibly loyal."
That's why Brantley's phone call to Texas at 11 a.m. on Dec. 20 was the toughest he ever had to make.
Brown was more understanding than the Longhorn bloggers. Knowing that, Brantley called from outside a Nextel store, changing his cell number immediately afterward. His MySpace page, however, wasn't taken down in time.
"Some people," his mother said, "have too much time on their hands."
At Florida, Brantley will have time to develop. He plans to enroll in July and compete with good friend Tebow and fellow blue chip recruit Cameron Newton, a 6-4, 230-pound dual threat in the Daunte Culpepper mold.
Can Johnny become the best Brantley?
"He's still got a ways to go," his dad said, chuckling. "But he's on the right track."