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Stars align for Palmer's night

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 12, 2000


GAINESVILLE -- The moon. Jesse Palmer will remember the moon.

It hovered above the stadium, as brilliant as you can imagine, as full as possible. And from the field below, it looked as perfect as a quarterback can feel.

He stood on the field, lingering behind, soaking up the moment. And why not? Finally, Palmer had a night he could not let go of, and a night that would not let go of him. He was going to make it last, every second, every image. He saw the teammates on the field, and the colors in the stands, and the scoreboard in the background.

The song. Jesse Palmer will remember the song, too.

He stood in the end zone, grinning at the world. That was when Steve Spurrier, his coach at the University of Florida, approached him, embraced him. Spurrier leaned forward and whispered something to Palmer.

"They're playing our song," Spurrier said.

Sure enough, they were. It's called I Hope You Dance, by Lee Ann Womack, and it has been an unofficial fight song for the Gators for weeks. So what else would you play on the soundtrack of the moment of Palmer's life?

The odors. For goodness' sake, Jesse Palmer will remember the odors, too.

This is what it is like when you have ridden a long, bumpy road all the way to victory lane. You pay attention to the moment, and you try to take as much of it with you as you can. You pack the memories like suitcases. Because this is the night you will best remember, and perhaps the night a university will best remember you.

"You notice the small things," Palmer said. "The sights. The smells. The smell of the grass and your pads and your sweat. The smell of victory. I will remember this for the rest of my life."

This is Jesse's World now, and you might say, it's about time. Playing his final home game, Palmer turned it into a game worth remembering. He came off the bench and made sense of a game destined for craziness, and he led his team from 18 points down to 20 points ahead and the SEC Eastern Division title.

This made it all worthwhile. The injuries and the benchings, the dark cloud that always seemed to hover over him, instead of the full moon. In three quarters, he threw for 250 yards and three touchdowns, and he provided a level of leadership that should continue into the Gators' next game.

Can there be any doubt now? After this, who else can Florida coach Steve Spurrier turn to against FSU? Yeah, yeah. Rex Grossman throws a prettier pass. But there is more to quarterbacking than the tightness of a spiral.

Mind you, when Palmer entered in the second, he was boarding the wackiest ship in the navy. The first half Saturday was something out of Loony Tunes. The Gamecocks led 21-3, and rumor was Al Gore called George Bush and said "Forget Palm Beach. If you want to see something silly, turn on this game."

Palmer, too, has some strange moments. His second pass should have been returned for a touchdown. He threw a 40-yarder that plinked off a defender's helmet. He had a ball batted into the air that offensive tackle Thomas Moody caught and ran in for a touchdown. He threw a 5-yard pass that Jabar Gaffney turned into 70.

For once, it seemed, Palmer was getting the breaks. And isn't it about time?

His entire career, it seems, Palmer has been cursed. He would win the job then, oops, something bad would happen. He broke his collarbone. He sprained his ankle.

This year, there has been a settling quality to Palmer, something that spreads through the huddle. Even this year, when all the talk has been about Grossman, it is Palmer who has guided the Gators through their toughest moments. He led the 91-yard drive to beat Tennessee. He led the Gators from behind against Georgia. And he led his team to 38 unanswered points against South Carolina.

"I think he's the guy for us against FSU," said Kenyatta Walker, the Gators' right tackle. "I'm not a coach, but he's proven to me he should be the guy."

And that's the thing. Palmer has won the trust of his huddle. He has proven he can take a punch. He has proven that the lean of the scoreboard, and the size of the moment, don't affect him.

Yes, Spurrier could return to the two-headed monster he has used from time-to-time, where he shuttles in his quarterback by the play. But whatever advantage there is to be gained from the coach-quarterback communication often seems to be lost in the lack of continuity on the field. For Florida, it seems better to start Palmer, but to have his bullpen ready. After all, this is Spurrier we're talking about.

Palmer deserves the start. If nothing else, Palmer has persevered. He has shown every other young quarterback here the lesson of playing quarterback at Florida. You stay tough. You absorb the criticism. You realize the bench is not a lifetime sentence.

And you wait. And all the little discomforts add up to a night like this, where every sensation was a souvenir.

Maybe it will last forever. Certainly, it should last another week.

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