GatorZone.com Senior Writer
GAINESVILLE, Fla. – Those harrowing images remain fresh in the world we know today.
Two commercial jets crashing into the World Trade Centers, bodies dropping from the sky, buildings tumbling to the ground, smoke plumes rising from the Pentagon in Washington.
No matter where you were 10 years ago, you remember the chaos and fear that was Sept. 11, 2001.
“It seems like it was yesterday to me,’’ Gators coach Will Muschamp said this week. “An attack on our country … you can’t explain it. What happened was totally irrational.’’
Jesse Schmitt remembers working on multiplication tables when someone came into his fifth-grade classroom at the St. Clare School in North Palm Beach and told Mr. Uvanile to turn on the TV.
“Everything just kind of came to a halt,’’ Schmitt said. “Everyone was just watching the coverage. In fifth grade, we were old enough to know that this was real life and this was something big, but I didn’t realize this would shape the world forever after.’’
That reality began to sink in for Schmitt in the months and years to follow. As he got older, matured and graduated from St. Clare and later Cardinal Newman High in Palm Beach Gardens, Schmitt never forgot 9/11.
There was no way that was happening. The burst of patriotism that followed and a country’s deep resiliency all seemed so familiar to Schmitt, who grew in a family heavily rooted in the military and surrounded by patriotic images.
Schmitt’s dad was a Marine. His paternal grandfather served in the Army. Schmitt grew up listening to his maternal grandfather tell stories about flying missions in a B-29 during World War II.
The world instantly changed on that morning 10 years ago that started with Schmitt working on his math. As it reshaped the world, that same morning helped shape Schmitt’s future.
“I know that that day had an impact on him as it had on all of us,’’ said Bruce Schmitt, Jesse’s father. “That’s got to be part of it. It certainly affected him.’’
Most Florida football fans had never heard of Jesse Schmitt until late July. A 5-foot-7, 177-pound former starting offensive lineman at Cardinal Newman, Schmitt arrived at UF about 25 pounds lighter and burdened by the fact his football career could be over.
To say he was not heavily recruited by the Gators would be highly accurate.
“It’s certainly no secret that I’m not the greatest athlete the Florida Gators have,’’ Schmitt said. “If football had weight classes, then I would probably be pretty good.’’
Shortly after enrolling at UF, Schmitt tried to join the team as a walk-on in the spring of 2009. He was told goodbye and good luck at whatever he tried next. Schmitt likes to add “surprise, surprise’’ when recounting the story.
Instead of giving up on football, Schmitt rededicated a part of his life to it, determined to make the team. Now a junior (academically) at UF, Schmitt spent his sophomore year training toward his goal.
“I realized how much I missed football,’’ Schmitt said. “I missed playing, being part of a team, having something to work toward. So I said, ‘OK, this is an opportunity. I’ll take the entire year to get bigger, faster, stronger, and I’ll try out again.’
“I did that and they took me.’’
The day in March when Mark Pantoni, Florida’s director of football administration, called with the news, Schmitt said he nearly did laps around the dining hall where he was eating.
Schmitt’s football career wasn’t over after all.
His former high school coach, Don Dicus, is now offensive coordinator at Division III Cornell (Iowa) College. In his final season as Cardinal Newman’s head coach in 2008, Dicus named Schmitt one of the Crusaders’ team captains.
Dicus started Schmitt at left guard, used him on the defensive line and pretty much anywhere else the team needed help. The Crusaders sometimes faced teams loaded with South Florida talent like Pahokee, so Schmitt would often be going against players more than 100 pounds heavier.
Whatever Schmitt lacked in size he made up for with his leadership skills and those intangibles handed out only at birth.
“He was like a 160-pound guard in high school,’’ Dicus said. “You don’t see that much in certain areas, especially in the state of Florida. He worked very hard and was as strong as he could be. He was able to use his strength and his leverage and his tenacity just to get things done.’’
When Dicus heard in the spring that Schmitt had earned a walk-on spot with the Gators and even won the team’s push-up contest at the Gator Charity Challenge on July 29 – the night Schmitt was introduced to most Gator fans by beating Chris Rainey and Jeremy Brown in the finals – he didn’t blink.
Schmitt’s story reminded Dicus a little of another former player of his at Cardinal Newman, former Florida walk-on Nick Schiralli, who played on special teams under Steve Spurrier in the late 1990s and later joined Urban Meyer’s staff as a graduate assistant for two seasons. Schiralli is now a regional scout for the Denver Broncos.
Dicus shared Schiralli’s story of overcoming the odds with Schmitt and won’t be surprised at anything Schmitt does at UF or beyond.
“I knew the thought was in his head,’’ Dicus said. “He will be successful in life no matter what avenue he chooses to pursue. He is an extremely intelligent kid, he is goal-oriented, and he puts himself in positions to attain his goals.
“It’s kind of a neat thing – not quite a Forrest Gump story but just hard work and perseverance. He’s just a little guy with a huge heart.’’
As the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 arrives this weekend, Schmitt will have more on his mind than Florida’s game on Saturday against UAB. He’ll be thinking of those in the military who go to work each day to serve their country.
As a walk-on fullback who plays primarily on the scout team during practice, Schmitt is doing something he loves while serving an important out-of-the-spotlight role for the Gators.
He is using the experience as more preparation to serve his country.
The 20-year-old Schmitt is on track to be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Marine Corps the day after he graduates from UF with a double major of political science and economics. Schmitt, who must complete a final six-week training session at Quantico, Va., next summer, also has minors in public leadership and international relations.
“We are proud to have someone like Jesse be part of our program,’’ Muschamp said. “I tell our players if you think you are facing adversity, here is a guy that is going to protect and serve our country. His level of commitment and unselfishness is at the core of what you are looking for when you are building a solid team or unit.
“It is an honor to have the opportunity to coach him.’’
As he worked toward adding muscle and speed to his frame for another shot at football, Schmitt also spent part of his 2010 summer in Quantico. That is home to the Marine Corps Base and Officer Candidate School.
Schmitt sent six weeks of grueling mental and physical training to pass the first major test of becoming a Marine, or “one of the few’’ as the motto goes.
Capt. Robert A. Brooks is a U.S. Marine Officer Selections Officer based in Gainesville who is responsible for recruiting UF students. In his time around Schmitt, Brooks sees a candidate ready to be one of the few.
“He has that fight in him,’’ Brooks said. “He may not be the biggest or strongest, but he’s the one that not’s going to quit.’’
As part of the process, Brooks meets with approximately 25 UF students currently on track to join the Marines three days a week at 6 a.m. for physical fitness testing. With Schmitt currently on the football team, Brooks isn’t too concerned if Schmitt is unable to make it following a tough practice.
Brooks was a reserve forward on the 2004 Georgia Tech basketball team that made the Final Four before losing to Connecticut in the title game.
“He’s a Rudy,’’ Brooks said. “Jesse has the motivation required. He’s got that self drive that is illustrated through his academic as well as him playing football. He’s a walk-on, so there is no guarantee of playing time, but he still goes out there and busts his [butt] every day.’’
The defining thread of Schmitt’s journey from Mr. Uvanile’s classroom to here and beyond is about family and country, two topics that took center stage in the wake of 9/11.
Schmitt is the only child of Bruce Schmitt and his wife Jerri Blaney, an attorney in South Florida.
“He was very positive, very creative,’’ said Joe Uvanile, Schmitt’s former teacher. “He always had a unique way of looking at things, and as a teacher, it’s always exciting to have a kid in class like that.’’
Jesse’s parents will be at The Swamp on Saturday anticipating their only child running onto the field with the Gators, living in the moment but touched by the events of a decade ago and with an eye squarely on the future.
They have their concerns about Jesse entering the Marines in these volatile times. But Jesse made up his mind in high school when he started to give serious thought about his life’s direction.
He made a list of people he admired and the reasons why they earned his respect.
“I wanted to be like these people,’’ Schmitt said. “My dad was on there, my grandfather, historical figures – some of them were movie heroes; they weren’t even real people. Regardless, I kept looking at it and a lot of them were veterans or had been in the military.
“I decided on the Marine Corps partially because of my father and partially because I like to challenge myself and go for the best.’’
Bruce said that is Jesse in a nutshell. Once he makes up his mind, he usually accomplishes his goal.
“He’s an American kid. He is very proud of his country,’’ Bruce Schmitt said. “I never really encouraged him to do so, but I’m proud of the fact that he is and I’m proud of the fact that he wants to serve his country. You are always scared about your son being in harm’s way, but on the other side of the coin, you are very proud that he chooses to defend his country.’’
Schmitt already has goals set beyond serving in the Marines. He wants to one day be an elected official in Washington, D.C. No one who knows him well is counting him out.
“I feel like I can positively impact the world there,’’ Schmitt said. “Immediately following 9/11, there was a huge surge of Patriotism and gung-ho about America, and I got swept up in that as much as anybody else.’’