GatorZone.com Senior Writer
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – His teammates and coaches were dressed and already on the team buses, burdened by a fourth consecutive loss.
John Brantley limped slowly down a corridor deep inside EverBank Field in their direction. The protective boot that has been his right foot’s constant companion for a month was back on.
Brantley had shed it for four hours Saturday for a game that’s in his blood. He grew up attending and watching the Florida-Georgia game as a diehard Gators fan. After all those years dreaming about playing in the game one day, there was no way Brantley was going to miss his final one as a member of the Gators.
Fresh off finishing his postgame press conference Saturday night, Brantley hobbled past a golf cart. The security guard resting on the cart asked Gators football official Dan Apple if Brantley wanted a ride.
“He toughed it out for four hours,’’ Apple said, “I think he’ll be OK to make it to the bus.’’
As Florida’s season dipped to its deepest low point on Saturday – a 4-4 record and the program’s first four-game losing streak since 1988 with Saturday’s 24-20 loss to the Bulldogs – the Gators don’t have to look far for their inspiration.
If the Gators are going to turn their season around in the final month, the guy who returned to the huddle Saturday is their best chance.
He wore his usual No. 12 and played for the first time since being helped off Florida Field on Oct. 1 with an injury that looked bad and appeared worse. A severe right ankle sprain was the final prognosis.
When Brantley fell to the turf that night and TV replays showed Alabama’s Courtney Upshaw sacking Brantley and twisting his leg in a way that legs don’t normally bend, many questioned if we would ever see Brantley in a Gator uniform again. At first it seemed that bad.
Four weeks later, there Brantley was back in his element. The road back included more hours spent in the trainer’s room than he ever imagined possible. Florida-Georgia served as his inspiration.
“I wanted to be back out there with the guys,’’ he said. “I missed that. As a Gator fan growing up, this is the one game you always want each year.’’
And wouldn’t you know it, Brantley picked up right where he left off after passing for 190 yards in the first half against Alabama – a career-high for a half. He had the Gators in front 17-10 at halftime on Saturday by throwing for 226 yards in the opening half despite getting sacked five times and decked to the ground several other times.
Brantley kept getting back up.
“I think that he’s a warrior,’’ Gators running back Jeff Demps said. “I’d say he was about 75 percent this whole week. For him to come out and battle through it like he did and play like he did and to take the shots and still stay in – and never complained one time – to me, that’s the definition of a warrior.’’
The Gators showed the kind of life that had been missing the past month during Brantley’s absence. If there was any question about Brantley’s importance to the first team of the Will Muschamp coaching era, there should be none now.
The Gators go the way Brantley goes.
And now they must follow his lead more than ever.
Brantley laid out the plan in its simplest form following Saturday’s disappointing defeat.
“We’ve got to stick together,’’ he said. “We’ve got to forget about these past four games and just move forward and stick together. There is no pointing fingers, we’re a family.’’
The second half of Brantley’s comeback start was not nearly as kind as the first. Brantley looked slower as his ankle grew bigger. Brantley said he didn’t take shots for the pain, instead opting to grind it out and see if he could will Florida to its first victory since Sept. 24 at Kentucky.
In the end Brantley’s gallant effort was not enough. He finished 12 of 34 for 245 yards and one touchdown. He was sacked six times and beaten up by a Georgia defense that could smell blood as Brantley’s mobility stiffened. His ankle was so sore he could only take snaps from the shotgun.
While Brantley struggled to move his body or the Gators’ offense, his teammates took notice at what was happening before their eyes.
“He’s tough, man,’’ defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. “I told him all the time [since he got hurt] that I missed him being out there. He brings a lot of the juice to me personally. He brought me a lot of juice tonight, seeing him to be able to make those plays when he was hurting.
“I know he was hurting.’’
Brantley downplayed any questions about what type of pain he was in. He just wanted to go out and help the Gators and hopefully lead the seniors to their fourth consecutive win over Georgia. That’s Brantley’s style.
The Bulldogs prevented that from happening, overcoming a 14-point deficit for their first win over the Gators since 2007.
Muschamp, the former Bulldog trying to make his mark now as a Gator, said there was no mystery as to why the Gators lost.
“We had our opportunities in the game,’’ Muschamp said. “When you have two turnovers inside your 25-yard line and you give up 14 point [on] two critical fourth-down plays, the lack of being able to run the football, too many penalties in critical situations …”
Those were the reasons and none had to do with Brantley. Stuck in the dark and looking for a way back, Brantley is the Gators’ flash light. How do they get out of the black hole they are in? They have to tough it out, stick together and do all those things that teams talk about doing when times get tough.
That’s what Brantley did over the past month. The Gators didn’t win a game in October, but their quarterback won perhaps the most difficult stretch of his career. He played against Georgia.
“It was a gutsy performance on his part,’’ Muschamp said. “I’m proud of him and his effort – a guy who really laid it on the line.’’
It’s time for the Gators to do the same. They don’t have to look far for their inspiration. He was the last guy standing Saturday, hobbling toward the team bus.