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The pressures of excellence

Editors note: Football is more than a game; it's a way of life. In this series, we focus on one player at each stage of the game, from pee wee football through retirement. Through their eyes you, too, may experience the life of football.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2001


GAINESVILLE -- Sirens wailing, a police motorcycle escort led two team buses onto North-South Drive for the final mile to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, home of the Florida Gators.

Mike Pearson stared out a tinted window.

What he saw gave him goose bumps.

"I saw all these fans run into the street just to wave at you on the bus," Pearson said. "They have no idea who they're waving to or who they're looking at, but they just love the Gators.

"Then, running out of the tunnel onto the field, there's 85,000 people just going crazy. It gave me chills. It was neat to realize I'm part of something big here. I'm part of a tradition. A lot of people die bleeding orange and blue."

In the life of a football player, perhaps no level is more complicated than college. Every day is a mind-boggling mix of NCAA rules, classroom lectures, playbooks, autograph seekers, exams, meetings, weight lifting, national rankings, practices, tutors and more meetings.

And pressure. Lots and lots of pressure.

Such are the daily demands upon 20-year-old Pearson, sophomore offensive right tackle for the Southeastern Conference champion Gators. This is what it's like to be a big-time college football player.

"Each and every year, you're expected to win the SEC championship and maybe play for the national championship," said Pearson, a second-team All-SEC selection. "That's why you come here, to know that you're going to have pressure on you each and every year to win a championship, and to see if you can really come through and do it."

'The drive' and the drill

Quarterback Jesse Palmer was shouting, but the sound of his voice did not reach Pearson in his three-point stance. It was drowned out by 108,768 screaming Tennessee fans at Neyland Stadium. Florida trailed 23-20 with 2:14 left, victory 91 yards away. The season, just three weeks old, teetered on the outcome.

For nearly 20 minutes of real time, every second was tense, every yard precious. When Palmer drilled a 3-yard pass into the chest of freshman Jabar Gaffney, who held it in the end zone for the split-second necessary for officials to signal a touchdown, the game clock showed 0:14.

"It would have been nice if the clock had been zero-zero and we wouldn't have had to wait through the kickoff and two long passes," Pearson said. "But that's what you dream about. We marched right down the field like clockwork."

The September victory was a huge step toward Florida's ultimate goal, the same one it has set every season since Steve Spurrier returned to coach his alma mater in 1990: the SEC championship. Just like that, the Gators' season had promise.

Thirty-six hours later, after the most exhilarating Saturday of Pearson's life, the alarm clock sounded the start of another Monday, the longest day of Pearson's week.

A business major and education minor, Pearson awoke in his off-campus apartment at 8:30 a.m., got dressed, picked up his girlfriend, Melissa Merrill, and grabbed a quick breakfast on campus before his historical foundations of education class at 9:30. Over the next 12 hours, he had 30 minutes to himself.

At 11, he lifted weights. At noon, he ate lunch. At 12:50 p.m. he went to a 90-minute environmental economics class, "the kind where you write notes the entire time and try to stay awake." At 3, he reported to a two-hour meeting in which the game plan for UF's next opponent, Kentucky, was introduced. At 5:30, he ate dinner. At 6, another meeting. From 7 to 9, practice.

"I get home about 9:30, and by that time I'm too tired to study," he said. "So, most of the time during the season I grab something to eat and try to watchMonday Night Football."

Later in the week, Pearson found time to watch the TV replay of his marketing class, the live session of which was the same time as economics class; attend a media interview session; read to a fifth-grade class at Williams Elementary School; meet with his marketing tutor; meet with classmates to work on a group term paper; lift weights, again; pack and be ready for the bus ride to the team hotel by Friday at 3 p.m. And don't forget daily practices and up to six more hours of meetings, opponent scouting and game-tape review.

"That's the life of a college football player -- meetings upon meetings," he said. "There's a real routine. It's a lot of time-management -- knowing where you have to be, when you can get your studying in, when you can get your sleep in, when you have meetings and when you need to watch some tape on your own.

"By the end of the season, when you start the new semester, it's like, "Hey, wait a minute, I'm supposed to be doing something here.' Then you realize you have some free time. It's nice."

In November, the week No. 4 Florida played at No. 3 Florida State in a regular-season finale with national championship implications, Pearson had two choices. He could study for Wednesday's environmental econ test or study the moves of All-America defensive end Jamal Reynolds.

Pearson learned the value of an education from his mother, Carol, a former teacher. He was named to the SEC academic honor roll in 1999 and 2000. But his scholarship was awarded for, and his starting job depended upon, his ability to impede lightning-fast defensive ends.

"If I study for a test a couple hours, I can at least get a C," Pearson said. "I don't strive to get Cs, but my brother always tells me, "Cs get degrees.' We're supposed to be student-athletes, but sometimes we kind of flip-flop that."

Propositions, proposals and premiums

When Pearson arrived at Florida, he broke up with Merrill after two years of steady dating because he wanted to experience college life guilt-free. He lasted three weeks. The opportunity was there, but the big-man-on-campus image didn't fit Pearson's 6-foot-7, 291-pound frame.

"You walk into a bar or club and, for guys on the team who do like to drink, it's all there right in front of them, and a lot of times it's probably free," Pearson said.

"You're in a college football town, and it's not like you're an 0-29 team. You're the SEC champs, a great team. For the big-name guys it's a temptation, but it's all in how you deal with it. I'd rather be low key. I don't go out much, just hang out with my buddies and spend time with my girlfriend."

Between beating Auburn in the SEC championship game on Dec. 2 and playing Miami in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2, Pearson asked Merrill to marry him. She accepted.

The future is taking shape.

Nicknamed "Baby Boselli" after NFL lineman Tony Boselli -- both wear jersey No. 71 and possess amazing size, strength and agility -- Pearson was a sophomore at Armwood High School in Seffner when he realized he might have the ability to play professional football. Many experts predict Pearson will have the opportunity to forgo his senior season to enter the NFL Draft.

"It's nice to have NFL scouts know who you are, but if your whole life is making the NFL -- "If I do, I succeeded; if I don't, I failed' -- then you have a problem," Pearson said. "Unfortunately, for some guys that's how they look at it."

Though Pearson has not been contacted by agents -- it is an NCAA violation for a player to accept benefits from or sign a contract with an agent before his eligibility expires -- his earnings potential means his phone likely will start ringing.

Pearson is prepared.

"We have a real big support group with the NFL and agent stuff," he said. "Trace Armstrong comes in a lot, and he always tells us, "If they'll cheat to get you, they're going to cheat you when they get you."'

Pearson likely will purchase an insurance policy next season to safeguard against career-ending injury. Most are worth $1-million.

"I'm not sure how the premiums work," he said, "but I know it's a good idea to have one."

Excuse me, Mr. Pearson?

Like the fifth-grader who refused to believe a real UF football player visited his classroom once a week until Pearson brought a program as proof. Or the freshman who bragged Pearson was her boyfriend, though the two had never met. Or the man at the mall who stopped him to say, "Mike, you're doing a great job." Or the boys who interrupted his Sunday breakfast at Cracker Barrel to ask for his autograph.

In Gainesville, Pearson is a celebrity.

"It's kind of funny," he said. "That's one of the neatest things about being a college football player, having people like that come up to you and call you "Mister' and treat you like you're a grown man and ask you for your autograph like it's worth something."

Children who approach Pearson ask fun things about being a player, like if he ever gets to throw the football or what it's like to smack people around. From adults, Pearson fields one standard question: What's it like to play for Steve Spurrier?

"I wish I had the answer printed on a card that I could just give out," Pearson said. "It means you're expected to win. If we don't win 10 games around here, it's almost considered a bad season. And that's fine with me. I didn't come here to win nine games and go to a bowl game."

Headaches, stitches and decorations

Pearson was perched on the toolbox in the bed of teammate Rob Roberts' pickup truck, steadying his motor scooter for a trip to the repair shop, when the back of his head struck a cement overhang in a campus parking garage, fracturing his skull. Had Pearson's head been turned two inches to the left, he would have struck the dangerously soft temple.

"You're sitting in a hospital bed with a neck brace on and stitches in the back of your head, and they won't let you go to sleep because they want to keep watch over you," he said. "You have the worst headache of your life and you start wondering if you're going to be able to run around and lead a normal life. It's pretty scary.

"It makes you value life."

Recovered ahead of schedule, Pearson began practice in time to start the Sept. 2 opener against Ball State. He was there for it all: the come-from-behind wins against Tennessee, Georgia and South Carolina; the 6,000-word econ term paper on the Everglades; the cherished SEC-title victory against Auburn; the autographs; the motivating Sugar Bowl loss to Miami.

Years from now, Pearson will decorate his den with plaques, team pictures and other mementos of his days as a Florida Gator. These, he knows, are the good times.

"Being able to play big-time college football was a big thing for me," Pearson said. "If I'm fortunate enough to go to the next level, that would be a dream come true. But coming away from here with a degree and winning a championship, with hopefully more to come, is going to be good enough for me.

"I'm living a dream already."

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