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Two stars, one really big victory

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000


JACKSONVILLE -- Lito Sheppard has Deion Sanders' abilities, with less glitter. Not so much motor in the young mouth.

Watch the Florida sophomore, you see a Deion kind of playmaking. Lito's flair for memorable, game-busting moments, it triggers flashbacks to when ol' Neon was so special at Florida State.

But there's another ...

Jabar Gaffney's skills, speed, agility and verve as a Gators receiver remind you of Jacquez Green, Ike Hilliard and Reidel Anthony when they were Florida's finest in the sizzling mid-1990s. Playmakers. Blessed with big-catch knack, matter not the level of stress.

Gaffney and Sheppard are from Jacksonville, teammates at Raines High School. Jabar/Lito excellence on Saturday, in their old neighborhood, that's what separated the Gators from scrappy, overmatched Georgia.

"Lito is so dangerous on runbacks," said Florida coach Steve Spurrier. "Jabar, along with Reche Caldwell, is doing big work when we need it most from receivers. We're not running the ball well, so passing and clutch defensive plays are vital."

Florida was in a first-half mess. Barely two minutes before recess, Georgia led 17-9 and quarterback Quincy Carter had the red shirts moving. Look dangerous, those Under-Dawgs. But then, as if the work of a young Deion, came a killer play from Sheppard that revived the Gators.

Carter threw over the middle. Lito made a stretching, straining interception. Terrific catch, but only the beginning. "I thought about running out of bounds," Sheppard would say, "but then my teammates threw a couple of great blocks."

Sheppard began dodging Bulldogs like a fly avoiding flailing swatters. Making the moves of a balletmeister, including a gasping 360-degree spin. Showing patience too. Waiting for openings to develop. "I thought I was stopped about five times," he said.

With the slippery touch of an athletic ghost, or a Deion Sanders, the 5-foot-10 sophomore would dash, then hit the brakes, then sprint again. Alltell Stadium shook with noise from 84,404. Lito was making 42,202 UF fans joyous while disgusting 42,202 rooters for Georgia.

It's that kind of scene.

"When the return finally came to an end, I was whipped," Sheppard said. "Out of gas. I felt as though I'd run 150 yards." It did go a dazzling 61, giving the Gators an unexpected turnaround chance at the Georgia 26. Bulldogs coach Jim Donnan said it was "the biggest play against us all season."

Jesse Palmer, a Gators quarterback who didn't start and who eventually departed with a bum ankle, wasn't about to waste the Sheppard wonderworks. Palmer drove them to a touchdown, then flicked a pass for two points after, making it 17-all 39 seconds before halftime.

Gators took deep breaths.

Dangers were subsiding.

From there, when the Gators felt heat or need, they consistently looked to the 6-1, 190-pound Gaffney. Like in UF glory seasons past when targets were Green, Anthony or Hilliard. Jabar kept producing. Catching eight for 138 yards and a touchdown.

This gem is a freshman.

"It's amazing, Lito and me, being Jacksonville guys, coming home and making some big plays to help us keep Coach (Steve) Spurrier's streak (10-1) going against Georgia," Gaffney said.

"I must've had a dozen family members in the stands. Gaffneys are so linked to Gators football. There's nothing like Florida-Georgia, where half the people cheer you and have boo you. It's a great feeling to walk off a winner."

Although just 19, Jabar is a comeback story. A year ago, in his first UF term, Gaffney was redshirted. He went to a high school playoff game in Gainesville, slipped into a locker room and stole money and other items. He admits that. It was about $200 worth.

Spurrier dismissed Jabar. That went through the Gaffney family like a lightning bolt. This is a kid whose father (Derek Gaffney) and three uncles (Warren, John and Don) all played football for the Gators.

Derek and Don went to the Florida coach, begging another chance. Jabar made impassioned promises. Spurrier went for it, "But they all knew that one little slip could end it forever."

An opportunity craved.

When he was 9 or 10, elder Gaffneys were already working to train Jabar to be a splendid receiver. They would stand on one side of a huge willow tree, putting the kid along on the other. Footballs would be thrown, splashing through the limp limbs. Jabar could barely see them coming, but he learned to sense and feel, eventually catching almost everything.

"We all make mistakes," Spurrier said. "Such things as Jabar did are not tolerated in our program, but his family was so involved and convincing, we decided to give him a second chance. He's making the most of it. I hope Jabar now understands all the downsides of doing things that are wrong."

Now, a lot is going right.

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