"We're really excited about what's going on in Gainesville," said Ray McDonald Sr., a former Gator wide receiver in the 1980s who was on the cover of Sports Illustrated after Florida's win over Auburn in 1985. "And I can tell you this: Ray Jr. is VERY excited about what's going on. He's probably the happiest he's been in three years since he went to Florida. I think you'll see outstanding results on the field this year."
Ray McDonald, third white jersey from the left, displays his quickness as he is the first defensive lineman off the ball.
Ray Sr. has coached the track team at Glades Central High School, keeping a legacy going. Belle Glade has won 25 district track championships in a row and the Raiders have finished in the state's top six or seven teams for more than ten years consecutively. He has a fulfilling life coaching in the community where he grew up and giving something back to the community, but recently, he became one of so many Gators from the 1980s who felt a healing touch from the new football coach.
"When Coach Meyer came in he sent us all a lot of information in the mail and he started calling us, welcoming all us old guys back," said Ray Sr. Tuesday night at the Big Lake Gator Club Gathering which broke a nine-year-old record for attendance. After the national championship season, the Big Lake Club drew 178 for its spring gathering, but Tuesday, with Meyer and Coach Billy Donovan in attendance, the Big Lake Club smashed that record with a standing room only crowd of 306 that was treated to prime rib, fresh corn and other goodies.
The excitement of the Gators at the Big Lake Club is a daily feeling that Ray Sr. and his old Gator buddies are sharing. They feel honored and welcome back into the fold.
"You'd be surprised how all of us old Gators started playing a lot of phone tag with each other after we heard from Coach Meyer," said Ray Sr. "We'd get a message, 'hey did you hear from the coach?' And then we'd call someone else. You just can't imagine how excited everyone was and how excited we all are.
"In all the time we've been gone from Florida, there's never been a coach who really reached out to us to make us part of Florida football again. It hasn't been for Florida the way you see it at Miami or up at Florida State. A lot of people don't realize how important it has been for them to get their old players involved. Now Coach Meyer is going to do that at Florida and it's a really good thing that's going to pay off in a big way for the Gators. This is the right thing to do and Coach Meyer is doing things the right way."
Ray Sr. understands what it means to get former athletes involved in the program. He's been doing that for years at Belle Glade with the track team and it's a common sight at Glades Central football games to see a couple hundred former football players in the stands or on the sidelines.
"I've been the track coach here since 1994 and every day, we have five or six or our old guys who come back to help out and show the young guys how it's done. They become friends and mentors a lot of times to kids who don't have a dad and it's special because it makes the kids feel like family. That's what you see Coach Meyer doing up at the University of Florida. Get the old guys back involved and you'll see a lot of good, positive things happening at the University of Florida."
The fact that Coach Meyer has called Ray Jr. out openly to step up his level of on the field performance isn't viewed as a negative. Far from it, Ray Sr. says the more that Meyer calls Ray Jr. out, the more motivated Ray Jr. becomes.
Ray McDonald, Jr. gets the best of this one during the O&B game
"Ray and I talk on a constant basis and he and Coach Meyer have such a good relationship based on Coach Meyer is pushing him to be the best," said Ray Sr. "I think you'll see great things on the field this year because of that. Ray is definitely responding positively to the motivation."
Ray Jr. had a disappointing 2004 season, but part of the lack of game production can be traced to a back injury that was complicated in the LSU game when he tore an ankle ligament.
"If he can get over the injury bug that bothered him the last year or so, he'll be fine," said Ray Sr. "I don't think people realize that he was hurt all last year and he was really frustrated. The kicker was in the LSU game when he tore that ligament in his ankle. He tried to be the tough guy and keep it quiet. He tried to play through it but he couldn't do all that he wanted to. If he can stay healthy, I think you'll see some great things out of him."
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Meyer has been spending the day before each Gator Gathering on the recruiting trail. With three meetings this week in South Florida, it has given the coach a chance to see some of the nation's fastest and best talent up close. He's been led on his tour through South Florida by safeties Coach John "Doc" Holliday. Holliday has become almost a cult figure over the years in South Florida, recruiting first for West Virginia, then for NC State. Now he's part of the Florida staff and Meyer says the coach's energy on the recruiting trail is unparalleled.
"We're really moving fast," Meyer said. "When you recruit with Doc Holliday, you don't eat and you go. We're up at 5 a.m. and you're going. When you go to the schools, you go right to the principal's office --- and by the way, most of the principals in this state are Gators as you can imagine --- so then you're hustling to the principal, to the AD and then to the high school coach and as you're walking through someone recognizes us. You're in a hurry so the conversation goes something like 'go Gators' and 'go Gators' and then you're on your way to someplace new."
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Meyer took time to recognize Ray McDonald Sr. and Glades Central's new head football coach, Willie Snead, another former Gator wide receiver who spent time in the NFL. Snead moved this spring from Pompano Beach Ely to Glades Central. It's a homecoming for Snead, who grew up in Belle Glade.
"This is home and it's good to have a chance to come home to contribute something to the community that gave so much to me when I was growing up," said Snead.
Also in the crowd was former Gator quarterback Dale Dorminey. Dorminey tore an ACL on Monday before the Miami game in 1984. The injury elevated a former walkon from Mayo to become the starting quarterback at Florida. Kerwin Bell started that game and would become a legend as Florida's quarterback over the next four years.
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Meyer said that what he intends to bring back to Florida football is attitude such as the Gators had in the 1990s during the glory years under Steve Spurrier, but he also takes that a step further. He wants the attitude on the playing field, but he also wants the players to take an attitude about the world class education that is available at UF.
"When you get offered a scholarship to the University of Florida, it's different … it's different," said Meyer. "It's powerful. It's to the point that if you don't screw up, you'll be set for life."
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Meyer once again reiterated that players who don't want to do all they can to contribute to Florida football. He spoke once again about how he only wants players who go to class, want to get a degree, avoid troubles off the field, and make every effort to contribute to Florida football winning championships.
"Unless your job description fits with what I just said, you've gotta go," he said. "As a matter of fact, we'll help you go. It's time to move on."
He said that the players who buy into this philosophy will discover that they are "treated better than any football players in America."