By Andy Staples
August 12, 2008

Urban Meyer used the phrase to sell his vision. Florida's players, Meyer said while speaking to the Gators Club in 2005 and 2006, would be "the top one percent of one percent," meaning they would be intelligent, athletically gifted young men with excellent character. When Meyer spoke the words, the old Gators cheered. The phrase even headlined page 1 of the 2006 Florida media guide.

Meyer hasn't uttered those words publicly in a while. That's probably appropriate, considering he has once again issued a practice jersey to Ronnie Wilson.

In April 2007 Wilson was a redshirt sophomore offensive guard from Pompano Beach, Fla., who seemed sure to win a starting job. Coaches loved his nasty streak. Then the nasty streak manifested itself off the field. Early on the morning of April 5, according to a Gainesville police report and Wilson's plea in court, the 6-foot-4, 315-pound Wilson punched and spat on an average-sized man named Frank Fuller at a nightclub steps from Florida Field. Fuller jumped in his car and followed Wilson, staying on the line with a 911 dispatcher so police would know where to find Wilson. About 20 minutes later, according to the report, Wilson's plea and a 911 call, both cars stopped in an empty parking lot. Wilson pulled an AK-47 from his trunk. As Fuller ducked beneath his steering wheel, Wilson pointed to the sky and fired.

Listen to excerpts of two 911 calls Fuller made, one which captures the gun shot Wilson fired (2:15 mark).

Now, 16 months later, Wilson is back on the practice field as a walk-on defensive lineman. Top one percent of one percent indeed.

Meyer's slogan made it sound as if his coaches recruit better human beings than their rivals. That isn't true. And those players certainly aren't held to a higher standard than Florida's opponents. Florida fans love to paint Florida State coach Bobby Bowden as a hapless warden whose "Criminoles" run amok in Tallahassee. Are Bowden -- who once joked that he was "praying for a misdemeanor" for former star receiver Peter Warrick -- and Meyer really that different? Bowden suspended receiver Preston Parker for two meaningless warm-up games despite an April incident in which police found Parker with a loaded .45 caliber pistol and marijuana in his car. What's the difference between Parker and Wilson? Parker didn't fire his weapon.

Florida is no different than FSU, Georgia, Penn State, Alabama, Iowa or any of the programs that have had their share of off-field transgressions. Some coaches give players second and third chances because it will help their teams win. Of course, Bama coach Nick Saban, as badly as he wants to win, likely never will allow linebacker Jimmy Johns back in his program. Johns was arrested in June and charged with dealing cocaine at least once in the parking lot of the Alabama football complex.

Like Johns, Wilson didn't make a simple mistake. He didn't only get caught with a bag of pot -- well, he did, but more on that later -- or get drunk and relieve himself on the sidewalk. He got so angry at another human being that he grabbed a gun and squeezed the trigger. The bullet had to land somewhere. Someone could have died. There are mistakes, and there are whoppers.

The punishment for whoppers should hurt more. To Wilson's credit, he performed his court-mandated community service and made progress toward a degree while suspended from UF. This progress convinced university officials to readmit Wilson. But Meyer didn't have to bring back Wilson just because he was a student again. Representing a university on its highest profile team is a privilege, not a right. Wilson forfeited that privilege when he squeezed the trigger.

If Wilson didn't forfeit his chance to play for the Gators then, he almost certainly did in January, when a Gainesville police dog sniffed something in Wilson's car. An officer removed six grams of marijuana, but Wilson got lucky. The state attorney's office didn't notice Wilson was on probation, so he wasn't immediately thrown in jail. Then, an assistant state attorney dropped the possession charge. A spokesman told The Miami Herald that "constructive possession" is difficult to prove, and the state attorney was under the impression that UF would handle the discipline.

In and of itself, marijuana possession is a minor crime worthy of little more than a glorified parking ticket. But Wilson was on probation. Meyer knew all about that incident, too, and he allowed Wilson back on the team.

Wilson could have played football again, and Meyer could have helped him move on with his career. He could have called another school and vouched for Wilson. Meyer didn't have to undermine any progress he'd made at instilling discipline in his program, which had nine players arrested or cited with -- at least -- misdemeanor charges between winning the national title on Jan. 8, 2007, and last October. By bringing back Wilson, Meyer has sent a dangerous message to his players: break the law and you'll get a slap on the wrist.

So why did Meyer risk his reputation on Wilson? "He's not back [in good standing]. I'm still evaluating," Meyer said. "I have a long history of giving guys opportunities who are [close] to graduation. A lot of thought went into it."

Knowing Meyer, the thought was not "I need this guy to win," though if Wilson didn't physically resemble a defensive tackle, he might not have gotten another chance. No, Meyer pondered carefully a decision he knew would get him blasted in the media. More than likely, as he deliberated, he thought about Marty Johnson and Avery Atkins.

Shortly after Meyer arrived at Utah in 2003, Johnson, a Utes tailback was removed from his car by police at gunpoint after he crashed over a curb with a blood alcohol level more than twice the legal limit. Eleven months earlier, before Meyer came to Utah, Johnson was charged with DUI after a hit-and-run. Johnson, speaking by phone on Sunday, said Meyer's first words to him after the second crash were "You're gone."

But Meyer went home and discussed Johnson's situation with his wife, Shelley. She asked a question: "What if, the next time Johnson drink and drove -- and he would certainly do it again if he didn't change his life -- he crashed into someone and killed them?" Meyer pondered the question, and he decided that instead of casting Johnson out, he would pull the troubled back into a bear hug. During Johnson's 35-day jail sentence, Meyer visited. Meyer's children wrote letters to Johnson.

Today, Johnson is a Utah graduate working for an engineering firm in Sacramento, Calif. Johnson wouldn't have the job if he didn't have the degree, and he might not have the degree had Meyer not made it a condition of his return to the team. Johnson still talks to the Meyers -- Shelley called him last Tuesday -- and he thanks them often for rescuing him. "I really don't think I would have changed anything I was doing," Johnson said. "I probably would have gone down the same path. ... It's kind of scary to think about what would have happened."

Though he never has admitted it publicly, Meyer probably thinks all the time about what might have happened, because it happened to Atkins. In March 2006, Atkins looked ready to win a starting cornerback job as a sophomore. Despite his on-field success, Atkins had problems with the mother of his young son. Atkins asked Meyer for a release from his scholarship so he could return home to Daytona Beach to deal with the issues. Meyer declined. When Atkins was arrested after his girlfriend accused him of hitting her, Meyer granted the release, in effect dismissing Atkins.

Atkins' life spiraled out of control. He washed out at Bethune-Cookman, and a series of subsequent arrests suggested he might have turned to selling drugs. On the morning of July 5, 2007, Atkins was found dead in his car. According to an autopsy, Atkins died of an overdose of MDMA, the active ingredient in Ecstasy.

Marty Johnson committed a heinous act. Meyer yanked him closer and may have saved his life, but not everyone wants to be saved. Avery Atkins committed a heinous act. Meyer booted him, and Atkins wound up dead. That wasn't Meyer's fault.

Ronnie Wilson committed a heinous act. Though it may seem intolerable to those of us who consider firing an AK-47 to scare the person you've just punched and spit on to be a whopper of a mistake, Meyer made his choice. And Wilson, who now goes by Ron in the same way that Pacman Jones now goes by Adam, is grateful for the chance. By all accounts, Wilson intends to embrace the opportunity, even if he never earns his way back to the field.

"I'm sorry that I caused so much embarrassment for my family, the school and the football program," Wilson said in a statement released by the athletic department. "I'm thankful for the opportunity to be out here. It was very difficult being away from the school and the football team that I care so much about."

Unlike some of his colleagues, Meyer won't get second-guessed. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley has said he trusts Meyer's judgment in such matters. That means we won't see a situation like the one at Penn State, where two players recently got the boot not after they pleaded guilty to misdemeanors for their roles in earlier fights, but because they committed the most recent infractions before ESPN aired a scathing report on the Nittany Lions' off-field troubles.

Meanwhile, folks at Oklahoma seemed fine with letting freshman receiver JoshJarboe come to school even after he was arrested at his Georgia high school in March and accused of bringing a stolen gun onto school grounds. But they couldn't stand idly by while Jarboe busted an obscene freestyle rap in a clip posted on YouTube. That's OK, though, the Sooners signed offensive lineman Jarvis Jones. Why was Jones available? Because LSU booted him for violating team rules.

The Gators probably aren't any worse than some of the nation's other elite programs, but they aren't any better, either. Hopefully, Meyer has retired the phrase that won him so many rounds of applause from the alumni. His Gators are just like any group of people tossed together by fate and circumstance. Most are solid citizens. A few choose to flout society's rules.

But they aren't the top one percent of one percent -- and they can't be as long as they hope to reach No. 1.

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