Spurrier still takes '66 Heisman in stride

December 15, 1991|By Mike Dame | Mike Dame,Orlando Sentinel

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- It was a typical day in the atypical life of young Stephen Orr Spurrier as he swaggered toward the practice field. Along the way he entertained Sports Illustrated writer John Underwood, who was doing a cover story on the University of Florida's phenom quarterback.

Their conversation somehow worked its way to the lost art of drop-kicking, and soon the pair had made a friendly bet: dinner to the man who could drop-kick the ball through the uprights the farthest.

Once they got to the field, Spurrier went first. He grabbed a football, turned and nonchalantly drop-kicked the ball through the goal posts from 40 yards.

"You win," Underwood said. "I'm not even going to try to match that."

Neither realized on that crisp October afternoon in 1966 that Spurrier was foreshadowing a much bigger kick.

A quarter-century has passed since Spurrier won the Heisman Trophy -- the silver anniversary of that day was celebrated yesterday when the 1991 winner was announced. Each game -- maybe even each SNAP -- during that magical season seemed to add to Spurrier's legacy, one that continues to balloon today now that "Coach Spurrier" is leading Florida to new heights.

Spurrier's legend reached an apex, however, during Florida's 1966 homecoming game against Auburn, the week of Underwood's visit. Heisman ballots had been mailed a week before the game and were due a week afterward.

The nation's top sports writers packed Florida Field's press box to see if Spurrier was as good as publicist Norm Carlson had told them each Sunday, when Carlson spent eight or nine hours phoning them with Spurrier updates. (The Gators weren't shown on television during the regular season that year and were shown only three times during Spurrier's career.)

Spurrier didn't disappoint, turning in the best performance of his college career -- completing 27 of 40 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown, and punting seven times for a 46.9-yard average. Yet with 2 minutes, 12 seconds remaining, the score was tied, 27-27, and Florida's desperation drive was stalled at Auburn's 25.

What was Florida coach Ray Graves to do? The Gators, facing a 40-yard field goal, could turn to kicker Wayne Barfield, but he had never kicked from such a long distance. Spurrier was the team's long-range kicker, but he had attempted only three all season and hadn't made a field goal since the opener.

Spurrier trotted over to Graves. "Coach, let me give it a shot," he said.

Graves mulled the situation for a moment. Suddenly, with inexplicable decisiveness, he spoke.

"Go kick it, Orr!" Graves said, calling Spurrier by his middle name. "Go out there and kick it!"

As Spurrier ran onto the field for the kick, Auburn assistants yelled, "It's a fake! It's a fake!"

Tigers coach Shug Jordan shook his head. "You better hope it's a fake," he said. "If he kicks it, he'll make it."

The snap to holder Larry Rentz was true, and he placed the ball perfectly save one detail: The seams were facing Spurrier.

"I hit the ball exactly on the seams and it went right in the middle," Spurrier says now. "End over end. It cleared maybe by 3 or 4 yards, I don't know. Some people say it scraped over the crossbar. But I knew it had the distance when I kicked it, and it was pretty much center cut."

Florida 30, Auburn 27. One swing of Spurrier's leg booted the Heisman from New York City down to sleepy Gainesville.

The football, a Spalding J54, sits on Spurrier's trophy case at his home, opposite the bronze statuette of a player side-stepping and stiff-arming his way past an invisible defender.

Spurrier's very existence seems to revolve around an innate penchant for the dramatic. To wit: Graves says he didn't find out until later that Spurrier already had laced up his kicking shoe before asking Graves to "give him a shot."

"I was going to put our regular kicker, Barfield, in," said Graves, who is retired in Tampa, Fla. "But Steve had a lot of confidence. He had that look in his eye. Whenever he thought he could do something, nine times out of 10 he could."

As far ahead as Michigan junior Desmond Howard seemed to be in this year's Heisman race, Spurrier was an equally overwhelming favorite after that kick. No one was close, not even Purdue quarterback Bob Griese, the preseason favorite.

"Steve Spurrier has caused more heart conditions than cholesterol," former Orlando Sentinel Star (now Sentinel) columnist Bob Bassine wrote 25 years ago. "Doctors and defensive coaches want to prohibit the endings Steve has authored. No sane fiction writer would submit Steve's script to a publisher."

Wrote John Logue of the Atlanta Journal: "Blindfolded, with his back to the wall, with his hands tied behind him, Steve Spurrier would still be a two-point favorite at his own execution."

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