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FSU’s Jordan Travis, UF’s Graham Mertz epitomize football courage | Commentary

At the time, three weeks ago, it seemed a bit out of place when Florida Gators coach Billy Napier began his postgame press conference after a devastating loss to Arkansas with a discourse on the innate quality that is a mandatory prerequisite to playing college football.

“It takes courage to play this game,” Napier said. “Courage is giving your best with no guarantee of the outcome you want.”

Napier should have added: “Courage is also giving your best with an absolute guarantee of an outcome you don’t want.”

Like a devastating injury.

Napier’s “courage” speech after the Arkansas game rings even truer now as we get ready for the annual Florida State-Florida football game, where both teams will be missing their starting quarterbacks because of season-ending injuries last week.

To understand the courage required to play the bloody, brutal, bone-crushing sport of football, go back and watch how Florida State’s Jordan Travis and Florida’s Graham Mertz sacrificed their bodies, their seasons, maybe even their futures for their teams and their schools.

Go watch Travis, who was in the running for a Heisman Trophy, as he scrambles for a first down against North Alabama when he is met by two defenders. As he’s fighting for extra yards, his left leg gets caught underneath a defender and his ankle twists grotesquely.

When the replay was shown on the scoreboard at FSU’s Doak Campbell Stadium, FSU radio voice Jeff Culhane described it like this: “It was a gut punch. … It was like the air collectively got sucked out of the place. You could hear the groans and screams of the fans when they saw the injury.”

After he hit the ground, Travis spiked the ball, called to the trainers for help and writhed in pain on the field. An air cast was placed on his leg and he was carted into an ambulance and taken to the hospital.

Just like that, his amazing senior season and college career was over.

“We knew it was Jordan’s last game at Doak Campbell Stadium,” emotional FSU coach Mike Norvell said afterward. “I wanted to see him have a special game, a special experience. … It just shows how fragile it can be. … It’s devastating for him, for who he is, for what he’s meant to the program.”

Travis transferred from Louisville and has been an integral part of what Norvell calls “the climb” — Florida State’s upward journey from the abyss of national irrelevance to the peak of national prominence.

Like Travis at Louisville, Mertz, too, needed a new start and transferred from Wisconsin to cast his lot with Napier’s rebuilding program at Florida. Even though the Gators are in the midst of a four-game losing streak, Mertz has been one of the few beacons of brightness. Coming into last Saturday’s game at No. 9 Missouri, Mertz led the SEC in passing efficiency and vowed that the Gators would do everything possible to try to end their losing streak.

If you don’t believe he meant it, I urge you to go watch the play that ended his season. It was third-and-5 on Missouri’s end of the field, and Mertz ran up the middle, put his head down, took on two tacklers short of the first-down marker, ran over them and gained 11 yards.

He ended up breaking his collarbone.

Out for the season.

“What a play, what a competitor,” Napier said. “If Gator Nation doesn’t respect Graham Mertz after watching him compete this year, then we’ve got a problem. This kid has been everything you would want from a teammate — example, leader, work ethic, motivator, game day, just put it on the line.”


We see it every Saturday and Sunday when we sit in our recliners, drink our beer and watch these modern-day gladiators literally put their necks (and shoulders and knees and ankles and brains) on the line for our entertainment. For us, it’s great fun watching this violent, primal ballet known as football. For them, it’s a months-long marathon of battered bodies, aching joints, sore muscles, strained ligaments and, oftentimes, worse.

Much worse.

We saw it with former UCF quarterback McKenzie Milton five years ago when his knee was destroyed during the 2018 regular-season finale against USF. He was rushed to the hospital at Tampa General, where he underwent emergency surgery to repair damaged nerves and a severed artery to restore blood flow in his lower right leg. If it had been even an hour longer before doctors started the surgery, Milton was told his leg would have likely been amputated.

If you ask me, quarterbacks are the bravest of all. They stand tall in the pocket, eyes scanning the field, knowing that an oncoming barrage of angry defenders is closing in, determined to knock the snot out of them. Or, when these quarterbacks take off running, they become fair game for these same snorting, fire-breathing defenders who become even more emboldened without the threat of committing a roughing-the-passer penalty.

It’s no coincidence that so many quarterbacks get injured. In this state alone, every starting quarterback among the Big Four programs — Florida State, Florida, Miami and UCF — has been injured at some point this season.

“The reality is that we play a violent game,” says UCF quarterback John Rhys Plumlee, who injured his knee, missed four games and is still not 100 percent since returning. “It’s like we’re getting into car wrecks every Saturday. That’s the reality of this game, but it’s part of the reason why I love the game. Maybe I have a screw loose, maybe not.

“Sometimes, it’s tough to stay healthy. Sometimes, there are scenarios where you got to put it on the line to get a first down. You got to put it on the line to get into the end zone.”

Would you put it on the line to excel in your field?

Would you risk broken bones and a scrambled brain to do your job?

I know I would never, ever consider running into a 250-pound linebacker at full speed even if it meant I would write an award-winning column about it.

But football players are of a different breed, and Billy Napier is absolutely right.

“It takes courage to play this game.”

Email me moc.lenitnesodnalro@ihcnaibm ta. Hit me up on X (formerly Twitter) @BianchiWrites and listen to my Open Mike radio show every weekday from 6 to 9:30 a.m. on FM 96.9, AM 740 and 969TheGame.com/listen




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