EATING IT UP NOBODY HAS GOTTEN HIS TEETH INTO BEING A FLORIDA GATOR MORE THAN STAR RECEIVER CHRIS DOERING

December 25, 1995

It was the last day. Chris Doering didn't realize this yet; why
should he? The team bus chugged through Gainesville, Fla., on
the same old route; the usual Van Halen pumped from earphones
into his head. As they do every year at this time, Doering's
teammates sat wide-eyed and quiet, rocking with the rhythm of
the drive and this growing, pulse-quickening fever, because
Florida would play Florida State in the Swamp, and the whole
state was on hold, and the game meant everything. But as the bus
turned onto North-South Drive, something strange happened.
Doering, next to the window, saw hundreds of people milling on
the sidewalks, waiting for the team. The bus had to slow. All
those faces pressed in, happy and loud, and Doering knew for the
first time: It's over. I'll never do this again.

"I was looking, and tears were coming to my eyes," Doering says.
"I was embarrassed. I didn't want my teammates to see. So I just
turned and looked out the window."

Maybe he was right. Maybe Doering shouldn't have let his fellow
Gators see, because who wouldn't have laughed at such a sight?
The best wide receiver on the best passing offense in the
nation--the tough, wiry bird who had gained 848 yards for the
season and would that day break the SEC career record for
touchdown catches with his 30th--crying at the thought of his
final home game?

College football has no room for sentiment; it's a
multimillion-dollar business, a farm system for the NFL, a setup
for a sneaker deal, a scam. By a top player's last home game,
messages from sports agents have jammed his answering machine
and mailbox. Yet all his teammates know that Doering is
different; all know he should weep long and hard and openly
because after No. 2 Florida plays No. 1 Nebraska for the
national championship in the Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 2, something
precious will come to an end.

"A lot of these players could be at Florida State, Miami,
Massachusetts--anywhere, just doing their thing," says the guy
who sat next to Doering on the bus, quarterback Danny Wuerffel.
"But Chris was here so long, with ties to the school and to the
city. Not only does he want to win, he wants to be part of this
institution--Florida. That's who he is. That's what he is."

That's how it has always been. Doering didn't just settle on the
local team; he grew up in the religion. Florida is a state
notorious for its rootless populace, but Chris's father, Paul,
studied pharmacy in Gainesville, stayed on to do his graduate
work in that field and has been a professor at Florida for 20
years. This is a company town, and Paul is a company man.

When Chris was four, Paul would take him out to the gravel road
in front of their house to toss the football; the ball might
smash his face and knock him down, but the game never ended.
Saturdays, Chris went to Florida games. Sundays, the gates to
Florida Field would be unlocked, and Chris and Paul would play
catch, and the boy would run under long, perfect spirals. Every
summer Chris went to Florida football camp. He went to the same
church as former Florida receiver Cris Collinsworth and felt
sure he would take Collinsworth's path--scholarship, stardom.
"All I ever thought about," Chris says, "was playing football
for the Gators."

So the story ends here, yes? Doering, a senior, is not
particularly fast, yet his knack for getting open has made him
the prime passing target in coach Steve Spurrier's "Fun 'n' Gun"
offense--the hometown boy who has helped bring his beloved Gators
to the brink of their first national title. "He doesn't take a
break," Spurrier says. "He just plays full speed. And he's so
sure-handed that it's very easy for me to call plays where he's
the main guy." That Doering has this eerie resemblance to
Collinsworth only makes his success seem preordained. "Yeah,"
Doering says casually, because he must've said it a thousand
times this year. "Dream come true."

Except for one thing. When Doering was coming out of
Gainesville's P.K. Yonge High School, nobody--least of all the
Gator coaching staff--wanted him. Despite being one of Florida's
few all-state selections in football, basketball and baseball,
despite his great leaping ability and the fact that he led the
nation's top football state in touchdown catches his senior
year, Doering got no invitations for official visits, few phone
calls from anxious coaches, no scholarship offers from anyone.
That hurt plenty. But what killed him was this: Doering's high
school is run by the University of Florida, yet by January of
his senior year it was clear that the Gators had no intention of
offering him a free ride. In an essay for his high school
English class that spring, Doering wrote, I tried to lie to
myself and keep believing it would still happen. I should have
known after none of the Gator coaches ever came to one of my
games. I simply dismissed this fact by saying that they probably
had seen enough of me at football camp last summer. I should
have known after the letters and phone calls from them stopped
coming....

According to P.K. Yonge offensive coordinator Dave Mitchell, he
had taken some film of Doering to one of Florida's graduate
assistants. While they were watching footage of the pencil-thin
Doering--6'4", 170 pounds--another Gator assistant, Kyle
Lingerfelt, burst into the room, began cursing and rasped out
these infamous last words: "Chris Doering is no good. He'll
never play Division I football. Stop wasting our time."

Spurrier says he knew nothing of Doering's recruitment until he
heard about Lingerfelt's rudeness. "That was embarrassing,"
Spurrier says. Lingerfelt, he is quick to add, "wasn't with us
the next year."

P.K. Yonge head coach John Clifford considers that revisionist
history. "They saw him," Clifford says. "Chris was at every
Gator camp from the time he was 12 years old; he was the [top]
camper of the session from 12 until he was 18. But their
priorities were to recruit speed, and their evaluation was, 'He
doesn't have it, and he's not going to get it.'"

Signing day came and went. Paul Doering heard one sportscaster
mention that Chris hadn't yet announced which school he would
attend, and Paul's heart dropped like a stone. Announced? Chris
had nothing to announce; Division I-AA schools were telling him
to walk on. Paul didn't doubt Chris could play at the top
college level. So he began working the fax machine, sending
letters to any school that had ever dropped Chris a postcard,
following up with a 15-minute videotape of Chris's high school
triumphs. Only Florida State replied, with an offer to walk on;
one weekend Paul and Chris visited Tallahassee with Clifford. "I
was bitter," Paul says. "I wanted him to go to Florida State and
come back and whip Florida, show what they missed out on. Crazy
thoughts went through my mind: What are we going to do with all
this Gator paraphernalia? All these sweatshirts and T-shirts? We
have to throw all that stuff out. I'm going to have to wear
garnet and gold."

Chris mulled the Seminole proposal. But Florida made its own
walk-on offer, and after attending the Florida-Florida State
baseball game in Gainesville, Chris had seen enough. "I saw the
Florida State fans doing their chop thing, and I thought, That's
obnoxious," he says. "That's something I grew up hating. I don't
want to be part of that."

Still ringing in his ears, though, was his last conversation
with Jim Goodman, then Florida's recruiting coordinator. When he
first heard Goodman's voice on the phone, Doering was sure his
Gator ship had finally come in. Goodman told him he was a great
player--and then said that Florida had no scholarship for him.
"I took it personally," Doering says. "They didn't want me. I'd
given all this time and support over the years, and they just
pushed me away." As he would put it in his school essay: My
heart froze. I could not believe what I was hearing: This has to
be a joke. But it wasn't. For the rest of the conversation, I
tried to play that what he told me had no effect.When I got off
the phone, I went back to my room and cried. I felt I had been
cheated. Looking back on it now, it wouldn't have hurt quite as
much if I would have prepared for the worst, or even opened my
eyes. But if we all knew what was going to happen next in our
lives, living wouldn't be half as exciting.

All his life, whenever a ball had come Doering's way, he had
heard this voice in his head: Make the catch, Chris. Now it was
1992, his redshirt freshman year at Florida, and he was doing
scrub duty in a nasty 31-14 loss to Tennessee in Knoxville.
Gator quarterback Antwan Chiles lofted a ball Doering's way, and
Doering heard the voice and made the catch, his first for Florida.

The year before, the Gator coaches had challenged Doering to
prove their initial assessment of him wrong, and he had taken
the bait. But he hated being considered just another tackling
dummy, buried below nine other receivers on the depth chart. So
he caught the tough balls in drills. Quarterbacks began looking
for him. Small victories followed. The first was his mere
presence that day in Knoxville; he'd made the traveling squad.
The second was that catch, the only one he would make all year.
His mom, Cheryl, and dad celebrated at home. His sister Tracy
called a radio talk show and giggled, "Hey, who was that number
28!"

"I was just watching the tape of that play the other day--a
13-yard pass from Chiles in the pouring rain," Paul Doering
says, laughing. "We were so excited that you'd think he won the
game." Then again, Paul says, "we used to get thrilled when we'd
see Chris next to coach Spurrier on TV--'There he is! There he
is!'"

Chris and Paul sit at the kitchen table now, awash in football's
good clutter: news clippings pouring to the floor, manila
envelopes from agents, stacks of videotapes. The phone rings;
CBS wants to do an interview. "What's tough for me is coming to
the realization that my career with the Gators is almost over,"
Chris says. "It's hard. You've got to create a new dream, or
something."

In Gainesville the old dream still resonates beyond Florida
Field. This is partly because Doering's scrub-to-star ascent
makes him the most lovable character on an offense that scores
with bloodless efficiency. "There's not a teacher in the
community who doesn't use him as the model for what a hero
should be," says Gainesville mayor Jim Painter. "To be a walk-on
and set all these records?"

Then there is Doering's style: Cantering about the field, a
self-described "skinny white guy," he is nobody's idea of a
modern wide receiver. But his passion is unmistakable. "The
enthusiasm he has--at times he'll start throwing pillows against
the wall, throwing empty Gatorade cans around because he gets so
psyched," Wuerffel says. "It means so much to him--the
competition and just being at Florida. It elevates his game."

In the fall of '93 everything changed for Doering. The Friday
before the first game of the season, Spurrier walked into the
team's meeting room and announced that Doering would be getting
his scholarship. His teammates clapped and whooped for him;
Doering ran upstairs and signed before the coaches could change
their minds. Two weeks later in his first start, against
Kentucky in Lexington, Doering proved himself worthy by pulling
down six passes for 95 yards and scoring the winning touchdown
with three seconds left.

The next week, in the bus before the Tennessee game in
Gainesville, Doering felt it all come together for the first
time: the scholarship, the touchdown, the fulfillment of his
childhood mission. He stared out the window at all the people
cheering, and his heart clenched. He didn't dare let his
teammates see his face then, either.

On Nov. 27, two days after the win over Florida State, Doering
was walking alone in the tunnel under the stadium when he turned
and caught a glimpse of the field. He walked out into the sun
and the empty, echoing stadium.

"I couldn't believe it," he says now. "Your whole life you look
forward to playing here, and you play here so many times, and
all of sudden it's gone."

December is the best month in Gainesville. Exams are coming to a
close. College recruiters stop by P.K. Yonge to check out
talent, and better yet, the showdown with Nebraska looms. Coach
Clifford was chatting with a recruiter from Furman recently,
talking about Florida and Chris Doering. "The funny thing is,"
Clifford told the recruiter, "when Chris finally got his
scholarship, I gave him the file of rejection letters I'd saved
for him." The Furman man shook his head in what-a-world
sympathy, and Clifford laughed at him. "I had one in there from
Furman," he said.

Doering is on a roll now; he has been named second team
All-America, and his huge senior season (70 receptions and 17
touchdowns) has, he hears, raised his stock in the NFL. He knows
that this never would have happened had he not worked so hard,
had Florida not rejected him in the first place. But it's
strange: He doesn't quite know what to do with himself, and
there aren't many people who have known his quandary. What do
you do once you've gotten everything you ever wanted?

"My whole life was structured around playing football at
Florida, and I accomplished that, and I'm happy," Doering says.
"But now that it's over, it leaves me feeling kind of empty.
Obviously, I want to play pro football, but not like I wanted to
play for the Gators. A lot of kids say they want to grow up to
play in the NFL and make a lot of money. But if I could, I would
stay around here and play Florida football forever."

COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN SMITH Doering clawed his way to the top at Florida, finishing his career as the SEC leader in touchdown receptions. [Chris Doering] TWO B/W PHOTOS: FRANK W. MEAD In high school Doering starred in basketball and American Legion baseball as well as on the gridiron. [Chris Doering playing basketball; Chris Doering playing baseball] COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT ROGERSWhile making seven catches against Florida State, Doering had defenders hanging on for dear life. [Chris Doering]

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