August 13, 2017
The former UF quarterback died Aug. 1 but his place in Gators football history is safe and one worth remembering.
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – The death of former Gators quarterback John Reaves 12 days ago reminded young and old of the place Reaves holds in Florida football history.
Longtime Gators chronicler, author and radio host Buddy Martin covered Reaves for nearly 50 years and shared the following remembrance of Reaves for use on FloridaGators.com:
The magnificent “Reaves-to-Alvarez” play will be treasured forever by all Gators, because it came like a thunderbolt, splitting a blue sky without warning. The 70-yard bomb served notice to Florida’s opponents: You’d better put your track shoes on when you play these Gators.
–“The Boys From Old Florida: Inside Gator Nation,” by Buddy Martin
The Pass came flying out of John Reaves’ hand on that Sept. 20, 1969, like it had been launched from Cape Kennedy, arcing high and long, purposing toward the intended target of Carlos Alvarez, who would stick the 70-yard landing in Florida Field’s north end zone. One play never had more impact as a surprise for Gator fans.
Exactly two months earlier, on Aug. 20, 1969, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin had lifted off 165 miles to the Southeast of Gainesville as the first humans to land on the real moon. It was exhilarating, unmitigated joy for Gator fans, who felt their Eagle had landed, too.
They laid John Reaves to rest Saturday (Aug. 5) at South Tampa Fellowship Church with an overflow standing room-only crowd.
“John would have loved it,” said one attendee. “He probably didn’t know he had so many people who loved him.”
Who knew they would all remember?
* * *
I couldn’t help but wonder if younger Florida football fans could ever appreciate the historical significance of his mission. The season. That Pass. The Game. Florida 59, Houston 34 — and it wasn’t even that close.
Sept. 20, 1969, opened a magical era for Gator fans, coming off a bitter and traumatic 51-0 loss to Georgia in the Jacksonville rain just three games and 10 1/2 months earlier. Agony and ecstasy.
It all cuts close to home, because the 1969 Florida Gator football season was my most memorable as a twenty-something sports columnist. John Reaves and Carlos Alvarez have been my longtime friends — exact opposites, but both highly treasured. Alvarez remains my all-time favorite Gator player. Reaves had a million-dollar smile, Hollywood good looks and a golden arm. He was also fearless. And his personality was engaging.
I saw it all and could tell you a million stories. This is just one.
* * *
The prior season, Houston had rolled over Tulsa, 100-6, and was capable of embarrassing a young team like Florida. That meant the Gator offense would have to put big numbers up on the board as an equalizer, because nobody had figured a way to contain Houston’s vaunted Veer-T option.
“As we prepared to play Houston,” said Reaves, “We watched the films—everybody in the Southwest Conference was running the ball then. We noticed that Houston was running man-free coverage, or ‘cover one,’ as we called it. Their cornerbacks lined up five yards off the receivers, and they played man-to-man. It’s almost impossible to cover anybody man-to-man from five yards off.'” — The Boys From Old Florida.
* * *
We had heard all about this strapping 6-3 quarterback from Tampa Robinson but we had seen only a glimpse of John Reaves as freshman football player at Florida, which had pulled off a recruiting coup over 50 others schools. But we had no earthly idea what was about to be unveiled on the third play of the 1969 season, called “Split Left, 79 Streak.”
Word traveled fast of the shocker-in-progress. In fact, as the Gators began opening up a bigger lead trouncing a preseason No. 1-ranked Houston team, fans from around the area drove up to Florida Field and bought tickets at halftime.
Alvarez: “John knew my speed exactly—and he was a wonderful passer. He hit me right in stride. I didn’t lose a step. I never, ever doubted that I would catch it. People have asked me that. I knew I would catch it. And the only thing I was thinking running down that sideline was, ‘Don’t get caught from behind.’
“When I finally got to the end zone it was like a time warp. It was like time floated—I could hear people screaming. It was a foggy kind of thing. I turned around, and my teammates were on me. I don’t know how those big offensive linemen ran 70 yards so fast. It was just a glorious moment.”
* * *
These were not the best of times for Ray Graves, who, unknowingly, was on his way out. Oddly enough after what would become Florida’s best season ever. So, The Pass was a momentum changer for an entire program — not just a game or a season.
This young SuperSoph team of mostly average talent had found sudden inspiration and now was infusing it into a Gator Nation starving for hope. The turn of events in Gainesville was staggering. If there was such a thing as a football Camelot, this was it.
The late Lindy Infante, backfield coach of the SuperSophs and recruiter of Alvarez, remembered: “We weren’t supposed to be very good in football, but we pretty much destroyed a team that was supposed to be No. 1 in the country. They had scored 100 on a couple of teams the year before.”
Amazingly, Reaves had predicted in a letter to his friend, Leonard Levy, that he would throw five touchdown passes, which he did—four of them in the first half.
Reaves also had a healthy sense of self-deprecating humor.
The night after the game he turned on the television to watch the sports news—before the days of ESPN. “I believe it was ‘The Prudential Scoreboard’ back in those days,” Reaves once told me. “The guy said, ‘Houston has beaten Florida, 59-34, as expected.’ And later, he came back and said, ‘We have a correction here. It was Florida that beat Houston, 59-34! And quarterback Jack Reaves’ — Jack Reaves! –‘threw five touchdown passes.’ I saw it myself!”
* * *
Reaves had such a cannon that he could have been his own entire U.S. Army regiment. He was constantly firing it. Or he could loft it with precision. In his mind, he could knock the dust off a flea’s butt from 30 yards. And he was tenacious. The next pass was always going to be the home run.
Nothing could deter Reaves from throwing the football. Not even nine interceptions in one game. He would throw and throw and throw. Small wonder that his right arm was larger than his left. On the strength of his arm, Florida won the next five games to go 6-0. And then there was the debacle at Auburn.
Even after setting an NCAA record of nine interceptions against the Tigers, the relentless Reaves would get off the bus firing the next week. And the next week … and the next. With a wingman like Alvarez, they soared to new heights and provided the spark for a sophomore-laden squad with average talent as it posted the best record in school history: nine wins, one loss, one tie. With a Gator Bowl victory over SEC Champion Tennessee (although it didn’t count in the conference standings).
* * *
When Carlos could finally stop crying and conjure up the words, he wanted to talk about the enduring qualities of John Reaves, The Man. His longtime friend had fought alcohol and drug addiction, walked with Jesus his last eight years, but couldn’t fight off the demons of addiction.
Reaves’ son David found John dead in his home — cause of death not immediately known, but his struggle with alcohol and drugs was well-documented by his own testimonials.
“The two words that come to mind when I think of John,” Alvarez said the day before they buried his good friend, “are courage and tenacity. John was fearless. And his last two seasons he didn’t have a senior offensive line, so he got hammered. He took a beating. He never complained. He never stopped fighting. But it took a toll on his body and later in his life he was in a lot of pain.”
Carlos acknowledged his friend’s “demons.” And so did his friend and former Tampa Bay Bandit coach Steve Spurrier.
“Like Carlos said, John had some demons in his life that would go away and come back,” said Spurrier, who coached Reaves in the USFL and later hired him as an offensive assistant at Florida. “At the end, I don’t think he was in a good place.”
Spurrier chose to reflect, instead, on John’s good qualities as a USFL quarterback. “He was really eager to learn how to play and coach the quarterback position,” said Spurrier. “And he was a joy to coach. He was one of the best drop back quarterbacks I’ve ever coached — and one of the best in the country.”
To hear Alvarez tell it, Reaves’ heart was pumping blood and adrenaline throughout the whole SuperSoph squad.
“It was his courage that gave us the confidence to do what we did,” said Alvarez. “And it was his tenacity that kept us fighting. Unfortunately, that tenacity kept him throwing, throwing, throwing against Auburn until he set the record with nine interceptions. But he never quit trying. And he loved to throw the football.”
Tommy Shannon, former Gator teammate of Spurrier’s, once said if Reaves had played in Spurrier’s collegiate offense, “He’d have thrown for 20,000 yards.” There is some evidence of that being true. For two and a half seasons as Spurrier’s starting Bandits quarterback Reaves passed for over 10,000 yards.
To me Reaves was the best-looking Gator quarterback I ever saw in the pocket because he stood so tall and spun the ball so beautifully. Alvarez says there were times when Reaves’ pass was so perfect he could almost count the laces on the football. That was the case the day when Carlos hooked up with John on what would be their last hurrah at Florida Field.
* * *
The SuperSoph Camelot season didn’t carry over. With just two wins to their credit as the 1971 season wound down, playing in a run-first/pass-second Doug Dickey offense, the Gators were trying to put away a win over Kentucky in John and Carlos’ final home game. Florida had the ball at midfield on third and about six, ahead by four points with only a little time left.
“We knew what was coming,” Carlos recalled last week.
“But when I came back to the huddle, I told John both of Kentucky’s safeties were cheating up.”
Dickey signaled in the play: Run it.
Reaves looked at Alvarez in the huddle and said: “Go deep.” Suddenly No. 45 was wide open.
“It was one of those beautiful late November afternoons at Florida Field,” said Carlos. “The sun was low. I looked up and saw the ball dropping out of the sky. The perfect pass! I could even see the laces on the football. John hit me in full stride at the 10-yard line. And I scored.”
Overcome with emotion, frustrated by two years of playing with injuries in a system that did not fit his skill level, Carlos took the football and tossed it into the stands in a display of semi-defiance never before seen of him.
“It was the only personal foul I ever got called against me in my college football career,” Alvarez said.
And you could tell by his voice that it was well worth it.