Soph Touch Fun-loving and Steve Spurrier-resistant, Florida's Rex Grossman may become the first second-year player to win the Heisman Trophy

November 19, 2001

Steve Spurrier sighs when asked to talk about the flaws of his
sophomore starting quarterback. Where to begin? "He's not yet
competent checking off at the line of scrimmage," Spurrier says.
"He tends to run to the right rather than forward, and he's not
very good about getting on his own fumbles." Later Spurrier adds,
"He's got to get better in practice, and, no, he's not a great
student."

Yet Rex Grossman has started 17 consecutive games for Florida, a
streak that's longer than that of any other Gators signal-caller
since Danny Wuerffel, whose final season was 1996. Grossman has
set four school records, including the mark for consecutive games
with 300 yards passing (nine and counting after his 302-yard
performance in Florida's 54-17 rout of South Carolina last
Saturday); he leads the nation in total offense and passing
efficiency; and he has a chance to become the first sophomore to
win the Heisman Trophy. To stay on the heels of front-runners
Eric Crouch of Nebraska and Ken Dorsey of Miami, he'll probably
have to lead the fourth-ranked Gators (8-1) past Florida State on
Saturday and Tennessee on Dec. 1. He'll also have to do something
much tougher: stay on the good side of Spurrier, a fickle
puppeteer who keeps his quarterbacks on extremely short strings.

Grossman breaks into a sly, knowing grin when asked about the
tough love he receives from his coach. During a four-interception
outing against Auburn on Oct. 13 (the Gators' only loss of the
season), Grossman got more than an earful from an incensed
Spurrier. "It's not as bad as it looks on TV," Grossman says. "In
all the criticism there's always a positive message. I'm able to
filter out the good from the bad."

That may be the biggest reason that the 6'1", 218-pound Grossman
has thrived in Gainesville. The ability to deal with Spurrier is
a skill that only a few in the coach's long line of gifted
quarterbacks have developed--most notably Shane Matthews (1989 to
'92) and Wuerffel, both of whom play for the Chicago Bears.
Grossman has also flourished because he has range and touch
reminiscent of his idol, Brett Favre, and a receiving corps that
Georgia defensive line coach Rodney Garner calls "the best in the
SEC, if not the land."

"Coach Spurrier pushes Rex and Rex plays better," says Florida's
running-game coordinator Jimmy Ray Stephens, whose son Chris is
the third-string quarterback. "And Rex is pretty laid-back, which
rubs off in a positive way on Coach."

Rex Daniel Grossman III developed his thick skin playing peewee
football in Bloomington, Ind., for his father, Dan, who calls
Spurrier "a warmer, fuzzier version of me." According to Mo
Moriarity, Rex's coach at Bloomington South High, "intense
doesn't even begin to describe" Dan Grossman, a prominent eye
surgeon and a friend of former Indiana basketball coach Bob
Knight. The family home is a 100-acre farm that produced the
Arabian horses that Rex's mother, Maureen, and older sisters
Ashley and Amy rode to national equestrian titles. In that
king-sized backyard, Dan helped his only son--who quickly bored
of riding--develop his long-range weapon of an arm and his love
for the game.

Even before Rex's first game--in which, as an eight-year-old
running back for the Stone Ridge Arabian Cowboys, he ran 60 yards
for a touchdown on his first play--the elder Grossman saw
exceptional athletic talent and a keen competitive spirit in his
son. He was convinced that the boy would follow in the steps of
Dan's father, Rex, a linebacker and kicker with the Baltimore
Colts from 1947 to '50. "If you are a Grossman in Bloomington,
you're going to be a football player," says Dan, who, with
younger brother Dobby, quarterbacked Bloomington High to 30
straight wins, from 1968 to '70, before starting at quarterback
and linebacker for Indiana. "But Rex had something special."

Dan coached his son's teams from the second through the sixth
grades and developed a reputation as a demanding field general
in the Monroe-Owen County youth league. "Dr. Grossman was a
real, real tough coach," says Steve Sutherland, who played
behind Rex from fifth through 12th grade and is a backup
quarterback at Ball State. Dan was toughest perhaps on his son,
whom he sometimes sent on predawn five-mile runs when Rex failed
to meet expectations. As Rex puts it, "My dad has always gotten
the very best out of me."

Rex quarterbacked Bloomington South to three conference
championships and one state title, but he wasn't exactly a model
of discipline. "He's more of a Joe Namath-type guy who likes to
have fun," says Moriarity, recalling that Grossman had to miss
the first 20 minutes of practice the afternoon before the 1998
high school state semifinal game against Ben Davis while serving
a detention for being tardy to class. "He's a good kid, but he's
ornery. He's that kid who comes to school late and parks in the
principal's space."

When it came to football, though, that fun-loving kid morphed
into the most focused player that Moriarity has coached. "The
higher the pressure, the bigger the game, the better he plays,"
Moriarity says. Some of Grossman's best performances were against
Martinsville (Ind.) High, whose fans were so rabid that a few of
them turned the stadium lights out in the middle of a Bloomington
South drive. ("They were meaner than hell--it was great," says
Grossman.) He was even better against Ben Davis, the perennial
Indianapolis powerhouse, which Bloomington South beat three years
in a row during Grossman's high school career. After the 1998
matchup, in which Grossman threw for 186 yards and three
touchdowns, Ben Davis's Dick Dullaghan, one of the winningest
coaches in Indiana Class 5A football history, called Grossman
"the best quarterback to ever play in Indiana." Named the state's
Mr. Football that year, Grossman finished high school with a 42-4
record and 7,518 passing yards, the fifth-best career total in
state history.

Yet while his career was followed closely by Midwestern schools
like Indiana, Michigan and Purdue, he wasn't a blip on the radar
screen at Florida. When Dan called the Gators' athletic
department in January 1998 to arrange a visit, Jim Collins,
Florida's recruiting chief, told him, "We don't recruit
Indiana." Dan persisted, and Collins agreed to meet with father
and son in late February. When the Grossmans arrived at the
athletic offices, they ran into Spurrier, who had just returned
from a golfing trip to Mexico. Spurrier sat down with them and,
says Rex, "What I thought was going to be 20 minutes turned into
four hours." Rex, who had become enamored of Florida's Fun 'n'
Gun offense during the Wuerffel era, showed Spurrier his
highlight tape, and Spurrier showed him a highlight tape from
the Gators' 1996 national championship season. "That sold me,"
says Rex. "The man, sure, but more the system."

Spurrier was equally charmed by Grossman's confidence and his
whip-quick release--quicker, Spurrier says, than that of any
quarterback he had coached in Gainesville. When Grossman returned
home from spring break in Colorado in March, a scholarship offer
from Spurrier was in the mailbox. "I never thought I couldn't
play at Florida," says Grossman. "It was just a matter of
convincing other people."

After redshirting in 1999, Grossman got his first real chance,
in the second game of the 2000 season, with 84,000 fans in the
Swamp watching the Gators toss around Middle Tennessee. After a
second-quarter play in which senior quarterback Jesse Palmer
didn't spot an open receiver, a furious Spurrier wheeled around
to Grossman and asked, "Did you see [that receiver]?"

"Yes," Grossman answered.

Spurrier then diagrammed a post route in the air. "Can you do
that?" he asked.

"Yes," Grossman said.

"Then get in there," said Spurrier.

Grossman obliged and promptly threw a 16-yard touchdown pass to
wideout Alex Willis. On his third play of that game, he tossed a
19-yard scoring pass. He finished the game, which Florida won
55-0, with 95 yards on 9-for-14 passing. Three weeks later
Grossman--who had entered the season third on the depth chart,
behind Palmer and freshman Brock Berlin, the 1999 USA Today
offensive player of the year--was named the starter.

Over the season's final eight games, he showed a potential for
brilliance. In a 41-9 win over LSU, Grossman pulled off what
Spurrier calls "one of the alltime great plays at the Swamp"
when he scrambled to recover an errant snap, evaded two blitzing
defenders and fired a nine-yard touchdown strike to wideout
Jabar Gaffney (who remains his favorite target). At times,
however, Grossman was too eager to display the ability that
Spurrier had heralded. In a 37-20 Sugar Bowl loss to Miami,
Grossman forced two throws that were intecepted, and minutes
after the game Spurrier announced that the starting quarterback
job was again open.

Grossman had passed for 1,866 yards and an SEC-best 21
touchdowns, but over the next eight months he had to fight
Berlin for the job. Grossman, who's majoring in leisure services
management, took a step backward when he was suspended from the
first two days of spring practice for what Spurrier called
"lousy academic effort." By the summer, sports websites were
reporting rumors that Grossman was skipping summer conditioning
workouts to goof off in Indiana. ("He was home for maybe a
weekend," says his father.)

Despite his bad-boy reputation, Grossman earned back the job by
outplaying Berlin in a scrimmage one week before the season
opener. "He's not as diligent as some other quarterbacks I've
had," says Spurrier of his starter, "but you have to put your
best players on the field."

Grossman admits he has always done just enough schoolwork to stay
eligible for football. "I believe you need balance in your life,"
he says. "I work hard at football, but I also like to have a good
time."

A good time might be skiing in Vail, weekending at the family's
vacation home in Clearwater, Fla., or bypassing a training-table
meal for a well-prepared steak at a restaurant. Whereas most
college athletes might bust their budget eating at a Chili's on a
Thursday night, Grossman typically heads to Stonewood Tavern &
Grill, one of Gainesville's most upscale restaurants. He says
that someday he might even open a restaurant of his own,
somewhere on the water, maybe after a career in the NFL. "Rex
likes the good life," says his father. "He has some very high
standards."

The loss to Auburn is the only blemish on Grossman's remarkable
sophomore report card. His four interceptions in that game are a
reminder why sophomores, even precocious ones, aren't usually
invited to the Downtown Athletic Club come trophy season.
Following the defeat, Dan, who attends each of his son's games
with Maureen but now leaves the postgame advice to the
highest-paid football coach in America, hugged his son in
silence. No one had to tell Rex that he had failed to meet
expectations. "I thought we could do no wrong that morning, and
it ended up being the worst day of my life," he said a week after
the game. "Any thoughts I had about [the Heisman] disappeared,
and my whole perspective changed. The only thing that I cared
about was helping my team win the next game."

Rex Grossman may still have some growing up to do. For that
moment, though, after the worst game of his life, he was nearly
flawless.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BILL FRAKES BIG EIGHT Grossman is averaging three touchdown throws and 360 yards passing per game. COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES TOUGH LOVE Dan (with Maureen, flanking Rex), a pal of Bob Knight's, was a taskmaster as his son's peewee football coach in Indiana.

"I never thought that I couldn't play at Florida. It was a
matter of convincing other people," says Grossman.

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