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Gaffney survives error in judgment

By DARRELL FRY

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- They were calling his name Saturday, although the names they used weren't nearly as obscene as the ones they called him almost a year ago. Back then, Jabar Gaffney wasn't the savior he was Saturday in Florida's 27-23 escape from Tennessee, the courageous redshirt freshman who caught the game-winning touchdown that made an entire city cry and another one rejoice all at the same time.

No, back then the only thing most people knew about Gaffney was that he was a thief, a stranger who quickly turned the Gators' trust into transgression.

He had been at Florida only a few months, another among a list of highly touted Steve Spurrier recruits, when the Florida high school football championships were played at Florida Field.

Gaffney, a receiver from Jacksonville, was sitting out as a redshirt. With some free time on his hands, he attended the high school games, using his UF team status to access locker rooms.

He allegedly stole some items, cash and some jewelry from the players' lockers. Spurrier found out and kicked him off the team.

Gaffney's college career could have ended there. With his scholarship gone and his name tarnished, he could have just forgotten about football and tried to stay out of the spotlight by becoming just another UF student.

He would have none of that. He admitted he had been a bonehead, that what he did was terribly wrong and brought disgrace to the team, the university and to his family, which probably hurt him the most.

He comes from rich football lineage, after all. His pops is Derrick Gaffney, the former Gators receiving star who had a generous career with the New York Jets. His 99-yard touchdown reception in 1979 is the longest in Gators history. Jabar's uncle, Don, is a former UF quarterback from the '70s. And his godfather is Wes Chandler, the ex-UF receiver who starred for the New Orleans Saints and San Diego Chargers.

It was that Florida football ancestry that saved him, that allowed him to be in that end zone at the end of the game Saturday, clutching that game-winning ball briefly and squeezing the last gasp of life out of the Vols. Ordinarily, Spurrier would have rid the team of a kid who stole, but he said he gave Gaffney a break because he comes from a family of Gators.

"People were saying "You should have done this, you should have done that.' But the kid had never even played a down for us. No one knew how good the guy was," said UF athletic director Jeremy Foley, who let Spurrier decide whether to reinstate Gaffney. "(Spurrier) told him, "Jabar, you want another chance? You work hard and good things will happen to you.' "

And, apparently, to the Gators.

Spurrier let Gaffney back on the team this season, but refused to restore his scholarship. If Gaffney really wanted to make amends and play again, he'd have to pay his own way, at least for this season.

Needless to say, there are probably legions of Gator fans who would gladly pay Gaffney's tuition now if it were legal. He led UF with six catches for 91 yards, but his shortest one, the 3-yard curl with 14 seconds left, essentially accounted for one of the most dramatic wins in school history.

"Jabar wouldn't go away," Spurrier said. "We sort of encouraged him to transfer somewhere, and a lot of schools wanted him, but he wanted to play for the Gators. Thank goodness he wouldn't go away."

As he left the maddening aftermath of his remarkable and somewhat controversial catch (Did you think he held on long enough?), Gaffney understandably was a bit reluctant to talk about his past. But he couldn't help but acknowledge the obvious, how he had gone from being hated to hailed.

"It was great redemption," he said surrounded by reporters at midfield. "Coach kept his faith in me and I just pulled through."

The Gators indeed have faith in Gaffney now. He made them have faith, made them believe in the value of second chances and the wonders they can create at the beginning of a career and at the end of a game.

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