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Meyer's decision a chain-breaker

GAINESVILLE, Fla. - When she worried, Shelley Meyer would call Florida football office manager Nancy Scarborough with a three-word question: "Is he eating?"

"He" is Meyer's husband, Urban. Until Saturday night, everyone thought Urban Meyer would be the head football coach at Florida for a long, long time. Then came the news release so shocking that you had to read it five times to truly grasp its meaning. Meyer was stepping down as Florida's coach after Friday's Sugar Bowl. He cited health concerns.

The concerns date back longer than Dec. 6, when Meyer went to a Gainesville hospital hours after a loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game complaining, he would later tell The Gainesville Sun, of chest pain. The concerns probably date back longer than 1998, when, during a game against Michigan, Notre Dame assistant Meyer got sucker-punched by a surge of pain inside his head. Doctors would later diagnose him with an arachnoid cyst, a congenital condition in which a sac of cerebrospinal fluid forms on the arachnoid membrane covering the brain. The cysts aren't usually life-threatening, but they can swell and cause crippling pain when a person is under intense stress.

Meyer, 45, labored under intense stress every day of his working life. That's why his health concerns probably began the moment he chose to become a coach in 1986. Win or lose, Meyer was the kind of guy who would drive himself so hard that he would forget to eat.

That's why Shelley would call Scarborough, the angelic pixie who has served Florida coaches well since the days of Steve Spurrier. Scarborough would poke her head in and offer a gentle reminder, and one of the most successful coaches in college football history would pull open a drawer to find it full of snacks -- packed by Shelley while he was tending to the business of football.

This decision wasn't made Saturday. Nobody walks away from $24 million (the amount remaining on Meyer's contract) on a whim. Nobody walks away from a program that has won two of the past three national titles and remains stocked with high-caliber recruits without giving it serious thought.

"I have given my heart and soul to coaching college football and mentoring young men for the last 24-plus years and I have dedicated most of my waking moments the last five years to the Gator football program," Meyer said in the release. "I have ignored my health for years, but recent developments have forced me to re-evaluate my priorities of faith and family."

In other words, football was life and death. Until it really became life and death.

When most of us have a bad day at the office, we may sulk. We may gripe to our significant others. Heck, we may lock ourselves in a room and try to figure out what went wrong and how to make it better. But most of us let it go. Meyer couldn't. After losses, he couldn't be consoled. The losses gnawed at his guts. They turned over and over in his brain, but no amount of video watched or plays concocted could make him forget. Wins could, but this is football. The next win is always at least seven days away.

Meyer always worried about the health of his staff. When the clock struck 10 or 11 on weeknights, he would pop into their offices and order them home. He didn't always follow his own advice, though. "I always start the season saying I'm going to get at least three [workouts] in a week, and I never do," Meyer said in 2006. "But I'm going to keep trying. I married well, and she takes care of me."

Indeed, Shelley is a fine caretaker. In fact, Meyer could not have picked a more perfect spouse. On those nights after he chased his assistants from the office, he might stay a few more hours. When he got home, Shelley would be waiting. They would discuss their three children or various homefront issues. Sometimes, she would just listen as he vented.

"He's lucky he married a psychiatric nurse," Shelley said in 2006.

But even a Superwoman like Shelley can't be there to help during every midnight film session or every three-rental-car recruiting day. So Meyer is stepping down. Will he coach again? Who knows? Meyer plans to stay in Gainesville. According to Florida associate athletic director Steve McClain, Meyer will help athletic director JeremyFoley find Florida's next coach. But he won't prowl the sidelines next season, won't try to win a third national title. Hopefully, he'll find employment that allows him the mental peace to stay healthy so he can give away his daughters on their wedding days, so he can watch his grandchildren open their first Christmas presents, so he can attend his own childrens' retirement parties.

Florida State's BobbyBowden, who will coach his last college football game Friday at age 80, always explained his longevity with a simple rule. Never make football your God. To say Meyer did that would be presumptuous, but those who knew Meyer would concede that football often made him a slave. Saturday, he broke the chains.

At 8:15 p.m. Saturday, Meyer emerged from a door outside Florida Field's west stands. He smiled and waved, but Saturday wouldn't be the night for elaborating. "I'll talk to you," he said. Then he drove away, hopefully toward a more serene existence.