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Standing next to greatness

In my parents’ living room in Boca Raton, Fla., there’s a collection of University of Florida Gators football paraphernalia they like to call “The Shrine.” They have the shrine because my brother Alex played on the team. Well, sort of.

He never did get out on that field during a game. Not for one minute. Not for one play. Not ever.Inside the shrine are framed photographs of my brother’s hand clad in championship rings and the back of his head meeting President George W. Bush. There’s a Plexiglas-encased 2007 BCS national championship pigskin, a game helmet and several laminated game tickets. There’s also a painting entitled “A Meeting of Champions,” that displays two alligators dressed in Gators football and basketball jerseys, shaking hands in a swamp. It commemorates the greatest year in Gator history, when the school secured national championships in both sports.

As a 5’9, 179-pound walk-on, my brother was all but ignored by the coaching staff, even though he was required to work out until he collapsed, attend all practices and take hits from huge guys on a regular basis. Alex rarely got to wear a uniform or travel, and he never did get out on that field during a game. Not for one minute. Not for one play. Not ever. For me, though, the most telling aspect of the shrine is a photograph of my brother and Tim Tebow standing next to each other in identical blue and orange football uniforms. If you look closely at the picture, though, you’ll notice that my brother isn’t even standing next to Tebow; there’s another player in between them. My dad snapped the photograph off our television screen at the exact moment the camera’s angle obscured the gap between my brother and the superstar.

Alex with Tebow

Few people ever notice that. My brother’s tentative spot on the team elevated our family from relative nobodies into relatives of somebody who sometimes stood next to Tim Tebow.

Florida Gators Shrine

On the day my mom brought home our first and only dog – a dachshund that would later be dressed in a Gators jersey of his own – the name was not up for debate. He would be Cobi Jones, after the American soccer player.

Sports have always been hugely important to the family, and we each saw limited success in our chosen athletic endeavors. My dad was a college wrestler at the University of North Carolina-Chapel-Hill and my mom played first position on a women’s tennis team. I had been a competitive gymnast and later an all-conference high school basketball player. My brothers – who are both younger – played travel soccer for years, and Evan, who is three years older than Alex, went on to play for Duke University.

Alex had not been a standout in anything. He started out as sort of a chubby kid, which Evan and I made sure he knew, and his soccer skills were no match for his older brother. Our family often would play heated games of doubles tennis, and nobody wanted to be on Alex’s team. He got back at us by blasting the ball over the fence.

After Evan and I went away to college, though, Alex sort of stumbled into his own. During his junior year of high school, he went out for spring football. The coaches had him pegged as a wide receiver, but one day during a scrimmage, the regular punter started throwing up.

The coaches knew my brother had played soccer, so they asked him to fill in. With no idea about technique, Alex punted the football as hard as he could, and it soared more than 40 yards. From that point on, Alex was the team’s punter.

During his senior year, he averaged 42.5 yards per punt – the best in Florida for divisions 1A-3A – and he was named all-state. Schools like Dartmouth College and Washington and Lee University began recruiting him, and only then did he realize he might be good enough to play college football.

The balls he kicked went up and over buildings. They got stuck in trees. They sailed out of parks and nailed streetlights.

When Evan came home from Duke for the holidays, Alex insisted on going to the park to practice punting. They had contests to see who could punt the ball farther, and Alex – for the first time – was the clear winner. The balls he kicked went up and over buildings. They got stuck in trees. They sailed out of parks and nailed streetlights.

Through the winter, my brother made college visits and followed up on interest from various schools, but none of them wound up being the right fit. Dartmouth was too academic, Washington and Lee too small, and UNC-Chapel Hill – where I went – was going to make him wait a year to start. On a recruiting trip to a tiny school in upstate New York, Alex was surprised to learn that the entire team was white. A black kid on the same recruiting trip called the group “a bunch of crazy crackers,” and my brother agreed.

Instead he gave up and went to the University of Florida in Gainesville, a school that had no interest in his punting. He didn’t talk about it much, but he carried around a hope that he could to walk on the team. He wanted to dedicate himself to something big – something that would challenge him and make us proud.

He carried around a hope that he could to walk on the team. He trained with a private kicking coach and practiced constantly, then showed up at spring tryouts in 2006 as one of about 20 aspiring walk-ons. They were made to run until they vomited and lift weights outdoors in the 100-degree heat of a Gainesville afternoon – my brother remembers the hot metal burning his hands. The trainers repeatedly told the kids they weren’t good enough and should just go home. Most did.

My brother was one of five who stayed.

alex kickingApparently having a son that was a Gator – any Gator – permitted my mother to break the rules of social etiquette.

At the time, I was living in my parents’ house, having boomeranged back home for the second time since college. I saw first-hand what it meant to my parents that my brother had become a Gator.

One time I was shopping with my mom at Nordstrom, looking through racks of shirts, when a woman near us found a blouse she liked. “Oh, I’m so excited,” the shopper said to her friend. “This is exactly what I’ve been looking for.”

My mother smiled and scooted closer. “No, I’m so excited,” she informed the strangers. Then she paused expectantly.

“Why is that?” one woman finally asked.

“My son’s football team is going to the national championship,” my mother said. "He plays for U.F. – the Gators.”

Although I got caught up in an interior debate on how to subvert my own genetics, I did catch snippets of the unfolding conversation. “That’s wonderful news,” the women were saying, and they seemed genuinely impressed. Apparently having a son that was a Gator – any Gator – permitted my mother to break the rules of social etiquette. What the hell was going on?

I had friends who attended U.F., and when they heard my brother made the team, they too went ballistic. They insisted that I attend the games to see what it was like to be among the 90,000 people packed into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, which I was told to call “The Swamp.” Everybody would be wearing orange and blue (two colors I thought looked hideous together) and rocking together to "We Are the Boys of Ol' Florida" when the third quarter ended. This was the university where Steve Spurrier, Danny Wuerffel and Emmitt Smith – all apparently football legends – got their start.

Oh, God, I thought. Let the milking begin.

My mom told all her friends and everybody at her nail salon and in her bridge group. Her exercise class knew, as did the people who worked at Publix grocery store. Anyone who did work on our house knew. Anyone who waited on our table knew.

My dad had previously considered college football “an obscenity” for all the money and attention it received, and as a doctor he had been appalled by the toll it took on men’s bodies. But suddenly he began acquiring Gators souvenirs at an alarming rate. He bought shirts and hats and little flags for our car. Around that time, he also developed a keen interest in photography, and he even composed a song for the team entitled “Gator Bait.” The chorus went like this:

Florida’s got the Gators
The football team’s for real
On the field, we’ll make you our next meal
Livin’ in the Southland
Well it’s totally first rate
But if you ain’t a Gator, son, you’re Gator bait.

Evan also took advantage of his little brother’s sudden “rise to fame.” He was living in New York at the time, and eventually he would bring up Alex’s proximity to Tim Tebow around attractive girls. Even Evan’s friends brought it up to try to pick up women. “Pretty much everybody was using Tebow’s name to get girls,” Evan told me recently. “Well, except Tebow.”

At our dinner table in Florida, the conversation always seemed to revolve around my brother and football. At least this was a temporary distraction from the question my parents most liked asking me: “When will you write a book?” (At the time, I was interning at a local weekly newspaper, working on my first story to exceed 2,000 words).

“Pretty much everybody was using Tebow’s name to get girls,” Evan told me recently. “Well, except Tebow.” When my brother came home for Thanksgiving that year, I couldn’t believe how thick his neck was. He regaled us with stories of tough workouts, and told us what it was like to be making friends with fellow walk-ons and coming into contact with rising stars, Tebow included.

One time, upon being asked to babysit the young kids of a wealthy donor, my brother took them into the Gators’ weight room. Tebow happened to be there, and he talked with the kids and even let them pose with him for a photograph, which pretty much made their decade. “Tebow is exactly like everyone says,” my brother told us. “Nicest guy ever.”

The most entertaining stories involved practical jokes that went down in the Gators’ locker room. Any gear left lying around was inevitably filled with baby powder or Icy Hot, he said. Also, some team members were fond of tricking others into “atomic sit-ups,” where one person is blindfolded and convinced to do a sit-up into the bare ass of another player.

These pranks were especially amusing to the walk-ons, who had limited opportunities to laugh outside the locker room. In practice, they were targets forced to run gauntlets, with linebackers diving at their knees. Strength training was also brutal, particularly during Friday sessions, which were only attended by the players who didn’t travel to away games. Those who did were encouraged to rest up.

The walk-ons and third stringers were in constant suspense over who would dress, who would travel and who might someday get a chance on the field, but they couldn’t complain about any of it. They had chosen to be part of the team, and their role was to help in any way they could.

A couple of weeks into the fall season, Alex was called into the coaching office. His mandatory urine test had come back. A normal test result shows a 4:1 ratio of testosterone to epitestosterone. Disgraced cyclist Floyd Landis, who was stripped of his victory in the Tour De France, was found to have an 11:1 ratio. My brother came in at 13:1.

When his teammates learned of this, they were incredulous. “You?” walk-on quarterback Andrew Blaylock, a good friend of my brother’s, said.

“Yeah, look at me,” Alex said. “Do I really look like I’m on steroids?”

“I don’t mean to hurt your feelings,” Blaylock told him. “But absolutely not.”

From that point on, even though my brother was one of the smallest players on the squad, he was known to the rest of the team as “Roids.”

My brother knew it was hilarious, but he was also nervous that he’d be cut. Instead, the coaches allowed him a probationary period, during which his urine was tested for 18 straight weeks. Each time, results were normal. My parents believed that the original, suspect urine might have belonged to a more valuable player and been switched with Alex’s. But nobody could ever say for sure, and eventually the drama subsided. People didn’t care much about a positive drug test when the culprit was a third-string punter.

Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow

My mother has hated Urban Meyer ever since.In November of 2006, my parents traveled up to Gainesville for Parent’s Day, where they had a long-anticipated chance to meet the coach, Urban Meyer. My dad remembers an annoying speech from Meyer about how the more talented players deserved better treatment. When it came time for my mom to introduce herself, she didn’t hold back. At that time, the Gators held a record of 11-1, and they had just killed Western Carolina, 62-0, at home. Alex still hadn’t played. With the end of the season was drawing near, my mom wanted to get a word in before it was too late.

“My son Alex Harrell loves the team, and he would so much like to play,” she told Meyer. “What would it take for him to play one down?”

Urban Meyer looked right through her and said, “I guess he would have to have talent.”

My mother has hated Urban Meyer ever since.

The truth was my brother was luckier than Rudy.

“He’s not even Rudy.” That was the joke I used to make at my brother’s expense, citing the 1993 film about the ambitious but diminutive football player who eventually walked on to the team at the University of Notre Dame to fulfill a lifelong dream.

My joke almost always got a laugh, but the truth was my brother was luckier than Rudy. Sure, fans never chanted his name to demand that he enter a game, and teammates never carried him on their shoulders. But Rudy’s team didn’t go 13-1. Rudy never went to the 2007 Tostitos BCS National Championship Game where his team played The Ohio State University Buckeyes. Neither did his parents.

My parents, Ronni and Mack, arrived three hours early for the game at the new University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz. They were covered in Gators gear and had their free tickets – worth about $1,000 each – laminated and strung around their necks. During the pregame ceremony, my parents watched from their seats – two sections up from the 10-yard line – as Navy jets flew over the dome. Channing Crowder, an ex-Gator who was then a starting linebacker for the Miami Dolphins, was seated a couple of rows behind them.

When the 125 Gator players ran on the field – with number 97 among them – my mom cried. “To see your son coming out of the tunnel on to the field,” she said. “It was just surreal.” My dad also felt overwhelmed. He couldn’t believe how much bigger of a deal football was than anything else he had ever been part of. “This was the American dream taken to its wildest,” he told me recently.

There was no free ticket for the sister of “Not even Rudy” to attend the championship game and I can’t say I was all that disappointed. I watched the game – well, let’s be honest, parts of the game – from our television at home.

My dad started hooting, “Go Gators!” at pedestrians whenever he stopped at an intersection.

Although I don’t remember much about it, I do recall Ohio State’s Ted Ginn Jr. returning the Gators’ opening kick-off 93 yards for a shamefully early touchdown. Ginn and his teammates piled on top of each other in the end zone to celebrate, and Ginn wound up injuring his ankle so bad he had to leave the game. This, I thought, is what happens when people make a big show out of unexpected success.

Nothing good happened for Ohio State for the remainder of the game. The underdog Gators stormed back for a 41-14 victory, with Tim Tebow running for one touchdown and throwing for another. My friends and family went completely crazy.

The Gators became heroes, and in the two weeks they had off from practice, they partied constantly. Back in Gainesville, Alex got so drunk one night that he passed out cold on top of his own hand, giving himself nerve damage.

When my parents got back to Florida and walked into our house, I barely recognized them. Their hair was wild and their faces glowed and they made a lot of noise. My dad started hooting, “Go Gators!” at pedestrians whenever he stopped at an intersection. My mom took my brother’s championship ring around and showed everybody, including the guys at the Publix meat department. When one guy took the ring to the back to show a coworker, my mom panicked over whether he would bring it back. Somebody had told her the ring was worth around $10,000.

Everyone on the football team received iPods and got flown to Washington D.C., where that photo of my brother’s head and George W. Bush was snapped. My family went to a celebration dinner at one of the best restaurants in Florida – Joe’s Stone Crabs. I didn’t go, but I certainly heard about it. Everybody ordered the medium crabs, but upon hearing the big news from my mother, the waiter upgraded them to jumbo. No charge.

Nearly a year later, my parents and I drove up to Gainesville for my brother’s last home game – Senior Day – and I had no idea what we were in for. It was the first Gators game I had ever attended, and I only realized an hour before the game that I had no University of Florida clothes of my own.

I borrowed a blue tank top from my mom that said “Florida Gators” in tasteful orange lettering on the front, but even this felt odd to me. I’ve never been one to wear team gear.

The other parents and families were fully Gatored-out, though – in buttons, jerseys, face-paint and everything else. When presented with a button with my brother’s name and number, it seemed required that I wear it, and I did.

As we scaled the stairs to our seats, surrounded by thousands of screaming fans, it was hard not to feel a little bit elated. So what if their chant – “Gator bait!” – still made absolutely no sense to me.

When the game started, I found myself scanning the mass of players, looking for 97. Each time I located him, I felt a little bump of adrenaline. “This is cool,” I told my parents. They gave me a look that said, yes, we know.

What would have been a lot cooler, of course, is if my brother actually got to play. Even though the Gators won games that season by scores of 49-3 and 59-20, Alex still never got in there. In the final game against Florida State, the Gators were again killing their rival. But for my brother to play there would have to be a reason to punt the ball in the final minutes. Also, Urban Meyer would have to decide that my brother had talent.

To be honest, I can’t even remember the final score. I just know Alex never got in. He did, however, see some time on the field that day – and much to my surprise, so did I.

I was finally grasping that my brother was a small part – but nevertheless a real part – of a very big thing.

One of the traditions of Senior Day involves the families of the players taking the field, and as we walked out there amid the rumbling seas of blue and orange, I was shaking with exhilaration. An announcer began to call the names of the seniors, and the players ran across the field one by one, carrying bouquets of flowers.

"A punter from Boca Raton, Florida, joined by his family, number 97, Alex Harrell." And there he was running toward us – this thick-necked, grown man in a football uniform. I looked at all the fans and back at him and back at all the fans, and it was too much. I was finally grasping that my brother was a small part – but nevertheless a real part – of a very big thing. And he deserved it.

There was a time during tryouts, I recalled, when he nearly passed out and one of the coaches told him to leave the field, because he “didn’t have it.” My brother got up and told that guy the only way he was leaving was in an ambulance. The punter said that.

He had never once complained about not dressing or traveling for games. When he got used as target practice for stars like All–American safety Reggie Nelson in tackling drills, he did the best he could, because he wanted his teammates prepared to win.

He sacrificed himself for something bigger to make our family proud. Meanwhile, all I had been worried about was how our family would be perceived, instead of what really mattered: my brother was a Gator and proud of it. And, he had taken us with him.

Although my family was sometimes an embarrassment even to Alex, he understood. “It was embarrassing,” he says. “But they were proud. I get it. Looking back, it makes me happy that they had something to brag about.”

When I think about how disengaged I was with my family during some of the greatest years of our lives, I get pretty sad, and pretty embarrassed about myself. How did I only find out six years later that my mom’s best moment was watching Alex run on to the field? Or that my dad never cared about college football until his son became part of it? I can’t have another chance to be more involved. But there is one thing I’ll always have.

Some wayward pieces of the shrine are now scattered throughout out house. One of those is a photograph of my brother and me on the field at Senior Day. I’m hiding behind sunglasses because my face is puffy and red from crying. I’m also wearing a huge smile, though, and it looks a lot like my mom’s.

I figured out what it means to stand next to greatness.

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