I had dressed out for the four home games up to this point but hadn’t traveled to any of the road games. Coach Cottrell had promised me that he would try to let me dress for one of the road games and he proved to be a man of his word. “Ryan, I’ve got good news. Since you are from Georgia, I am going to let you dress out for our game up at Georgia Tech.” It wasn’t customary for redshirts, much less redshirt walk-ons to travel with the team so this was an incredible treat. We were set to play the Jackets on November 2nd and my birthday being November 3rd it was about as good a birthday gift as I could have received; little did I know that my turning 19 would lead to near humiliation.
I had a lot of work to do. There are eight people in my family and thankfully I also had a lot of friends interested in following me too. Not to mention we were ranked number 3 in the country at the time and people just wanted to see a great football team in action. Needless to say I had to round up a bunch of tickets. The way it worked was that scholarship players received four tickets and non-scholarship guys received two. Depending on where the game was being played the guys would shift from having extra tickets to needing extra tickets. The guys in South Florida would trade their away tickets in North Carolina for tickets to the game down in Miami and vice versa. So, that Thursday I was begging and pleading with guys to get as many tickets as I could because I didn’t have any tickets to trade. Thankfully, since we had already played UM, and with the help of my defensive lineman friends I was able to get what I needed.
On Friday the team met at the stadium to catch our bus and ride to the Tallahassee airport. The support staff, the coaches’ families, and a handful of Seminole supporters would join us on our charter flights to the game locations, this week being Atlanta, GA. After only about one hour in the air the plane touched down at Hartsfield International Airport. Four or five charter busses were there waiting on the tarmac with a full police escort to take the team to the hotel.
The escort was sweet! Coach Bowden would be in a police cruiser leading the way while about six officers on motorcycles would flank the caravan as it headed into town. As the buses neared intersections, two of the motorcycle cops would speed ahead and block the intersection so that they didn’t even have to slow down. Sometimes they would block entire roads so that the convoy could travel the wrong way down one way streets. This was always one of my favorite parts of the road trips.
Late Friday afternoon the team pulled up to the Marriot Marquis in downtown Atlanta and everyone received their room keys and went to drop off their bags. But that isn’t how it went for me on this trip. About the time the team was checking into the hotel, I was a couple hundred miles south in Tifton, GA riding in the back seat of a little sports car on my way to Atlanta.
Coach Cottrell had arranged things for me to be able to dress out but, I wasn’t able to travel with the team. I had to provide my own transportation, meals, and lodging. It was very similar to my recruitment and coming to FSU on an “unofficial visit.” We can just call this an “unofficial road trip.” I called on one of my friends from high school to crash in their Georgia Tech dorm while I was in Atlanta. That Friday evening I spent time with my family, reconnected with old friends from Augusta, and got a tour of the Tech campus from my high school friend, Cliff. Friday felt like any other weekend trip to Atlanta to visit friends but Saturday was bizarre.
Were I on an official road trip I would have had a wake-up call in my hotel room and after rolling out of my plush bed I would have joined the team for a bountiful breakfast. Instead, I woke up with a sore back from a night on the couch and a classic, college dorm room breakfast of milk and cereal. We were scheduled for a night kick-off so I was on my own for meals all day. I met my parents and long time friend Kelly Points for a birthday lunch; her and I were both born in Charlotte, NC on November 3rd. We killed time around Atlanta until it was time for the team to gather for the pre-game meal. Our plan was to be at the hotel when the busses left so that we could join the caravan and make sure I was able to get into the stadium with the team. My mom had bigger plans though.
We arrived while the team was already in the room eating and I went ahead to check in with Coach Cottrell. While I was in with the team, in a very professional environment where I already felt like an imposter my mother was doing what only another mother could understand. Coach had answered all my questions so I headed towards the door to find my parents. As I left the land of “cool and focused” I entered into the land of “you have got to be kidding me!” My mom was partially hidden but I could see her face as she stood in the lobby of the hotel beaming as proudly as a toddler with a brand new puppy. She was hidden by the object of humiliation that she held in her joyful hands… a Texas sized birthday cake for me. Her intentions were to bring this labor of love into the pregame meal to share with the team and have them sing “Happy Birthday” to me. I shuddered in horror as I stared into her hopeful eyes and then considered the eternal shame inevitable associated with having my mom stage a surprise birthday party on a freshman year road trip. The lump in my throat was the only thing that kept the shock induced vomit from escaping as my face turned whiter than the icing on the cake. In the seconds that I had to think; I said what any mortified teenager would say… “Throw it away, now!”
Oh, my mom tried desperately to reason with me but every passing second brought another look over my shoulder to the dining room door. Were one of the player to walk out it would all be in vain. I would have crushed my mother’s feelings and had my future dreams of being cool crushed at the same time. Something had to happen and it had to happen fast. The decision was an easy one for me as I sacrificed my mother’s love and devotion on the altar of fitting in and insisted that she and the cake disappear. It must have felt like a love struck suitor being rejected while on a knee with a ring in his hand to her, complete rejection. She nobly acquiesced to my immature demands and the cake found its resting place in a hotel trash can, whew! The ride over to Bobby Dodd stadium was icy but we finally arrived and I was able to step back into the world of “cool and focused.”
Getting into the game for me resembled the experience a fan has going to a game much more so than that of the team. Had I brought my own car I would have been forced to find and pay for parking, but it was more like being in middle school and going to the movies because my mom and dad drove and dropped me off. So, as the team was smoothly stepping off the bus in the travel uniform I was awkwardly sneaking around in street clothes hoping for Coach Cottrell to notice me before security did. I had to look like a crazy stalker, desperate for an autograph or something as I lurked in the shadows like Gollum. Coach spotted me and waved me over as he began explaining to the security guards what was going on. I imagine the conversation went something like this:
“Coach, if he isn’t with the team party he cannot come in this gate; he will have to get a ticket like everyone else.”
Coach Cottrell sympathetically replies, “Listen, he doesn’t know that we know but, we all saw that his mom brought a birthday cake to the team meal and if he gets embarrassed again I don’t know what he’ll do.”
“She did what!?” exclaimed the guard.
“Shhhhh! Keep your voice down. Just play it cool and let the poor kid in, he won’t affect the game whatsoever, I can guarantee that much.” Coach Cottrell pitched in full recruiter mode.
“Man, she really tried to bring a cake into the team meal? Mothers… God bless ‘em. I’ll let the kid in, but just this once… tell him I said to keep his head up, I’m sure she meant well.” With that the guard stepped aside, Coach Cottrell waved me in with his trademark grin, and I, blissfully ignorant, strode through the gate and into the visitor’s locker room.
I had dressed out for the home games that season so I knew what to expect, but I still had a sick feeling when I pulled out my jersey and saw that there wasn’t a name on the back. There was a better chance of one of the Yellow Jacket cheerleaders getting into the game and taking a snap for us than there was for me to play; so it made perfect sense that my name wouldn’t be on the back of my jersey. But, for a teenager who was excited to be on the field in front of a bunch of his friends and family, “perfect sense” was perfectly depressing. Once I pulled my jersey over my shoulder pads and had them on I forgot about the name issue, but It didn’t take long for the Georgia Tech student body to remind me.
Traditionally we go out onto the field to warm up in waves. The skill guys go out, followed by the bigger skill guys (full backs, tight ends, etc), and finally the rest of the team goes out. Upon the arrival of the last group we will come together for our stretches. Being on the 14th string placed me in the very last row of the stretching lines which was in the back of the end zone, right in front of the students. The last row also left me a full 55 yards from Coach Van as he was calling out our stretching routine. I was mortified of humiliating myself during the stretches because it was very hard to hear his whistle from where I was, particularly when we would do our back stretch. The Seminole method in ’96 was to lie on our backs with our feet pointed towards midfield and on the whistle we would roll our legs up over our heads and work to get our toes to touch the ground behind us. It is a very unflattering position but tolerable because there are 100, twenty-four carat behinds sticking in the air and not just your own. We would release from that position when Coach Van would blow his whistle again, but when we were in that yoga inspired contortion it was very hard to hear him. My strategy was to release early because it was better to be the only guy sitting than the alternative, my plan backfired though.
My premature uncurling caught the attention of the student section who unfortunately noticed that I didn’t have a name on the back of my jersey. They offered a few generic comments but it wasn’t too bad until we broke out for our position warm-ups. As the forgotten members of the ‘Nole offense, the tight ends were relegated to about a ten yard stretch of end zone right between the running backs and the offensive line. Of course, this left us right in the heart of the student section for about 15 minutes… plenty of time for the “little engineers that could” to get creative.
I was accused of sneaking onto the field, of winning a contest, and being a coach’s son as the reason I was the only one on the field without a name on my jersey. They questioned my ability with unrelenting passion so it became game time for me. The tears I shed as a middle school football player being booed by my classmates prepared me well to withstand the jeers of a few uber-enthusiastic college kids. No matter how creative or crass they became nothing they said could rival that middle school nightmare. I decided that I was going to be the best warmer-upper on the field and prove myself to those shirtless number-crunchers. If a pass was in the air I was catching it and when I lined up to block I was going to drive my unsuspecting team mate off the field. The first time I tried to hit Kamari Charlton he stiffened and very quickly put the fear of upper classmen into my head to overwhelm my desire to impress. I toed the company line for the rest of the blocking warm-ups and let the Tech fans have their fun. Melvin Pearsall heard what was happening and with a heart of gold took me under his wing like an older brother would a younger brother. He turned and said to me, “So, did you have to sneak into the stadium?” and smacked me on the helmet… just like a big brother.
Once we were done with our warm-ups, I was freed from the ridicule of the students and it was quickly my turn to gloat. Granted, I had about as much to do with the outcome of the game as they did but I was the one on the field while they were stuck in the stands looking at a 49-3 win for the Seminoles. Name on my jersey or not, I had the last laugh as we jogged off the field victorious. They may not have respected the back of my jersey, but after that game they sure respected the name on the front. They were gracious enough to call me out and try to make amends and I was gracious enough to tell them where they could find some cake.
After the blow out win in Atlanta we had four games remaining on the 1996 schedule. A resounding win the following week against Wake Forest secured the ACC championship for us and the next two weeks followed a similar script to the previous two. Southern Mississippi and Maryland offered little resistance as Warrick Dunn, who finished 5th in the Heisman vote that year, led us as we dominated those two games by an average score of 51 – 12. There was one game left in 1996 and it would be historic.
If you would like to read more about my career at FSU playing for Bobby Bowden and winning the 1999 National Championship, get your own copy of Grateful. I’d consider it a great birthday present!