This is part of the sponsored EA posts for this week. Cha.Ching. Today's theme: our favorite players.
Reggie Nelson, covered in sweat, grass, and the filth of the game, casually flexing the gluteus, quadricep, and calf muscle to spring over the orange block wall of Florida Field into the loving arms of delirious, drunken Gator fans: that is my enduring memory of the best safety to ever play at Florida. He started the run the instant Jarvis Moss's hand met ball, sending a dead-on game-winning Gamecock field goal skittering to the right, where it would land harmlessly on the turf like a dud artillery shell. He hit his teammates--gently!--in the pile, and then began running to the stands, a blue jersey popping into a mess of glistening arms, held in place by strangers who only wanted to crush the life out of him for sheer joy's sake, like a child overhugging a squeaking puppy.
Nelson played safety like an overgrown corner whose family ranch was burned down by a gang of desperado wide receivers, ranging both wide and nasty through the secondary. Whatever he lacked in thumping mass he made up for in velocity, allowing Charlie Strong to play Nelson up top like a lone defender and swinging the strong safety down in the box like a fourth linebacker.
Go back and watch tape: when Florida lines up everything looks like a Cover One, with two corners on the edge and one Lone Ranger patrolling the range up top. That's how confident Strong was in Nelson: Here's a shotgun, Reggie. Sure, it's Jurassic Park, and raptors are highly intelligent, but you can handle it by yourself. Domino's delivers until eleven, and there's money in the dresser. See you on Monday.
Nelson made Mohammed Massaquoi lay down rather than run a route. He ended the 2006 Alabama and Tennessee games singlehandedly with a pick. He destroyed Massaquoi in 2005, which might have something to do with 2006. He tattooed FSU's Joe Surratt in the Florida State game and erased several years worth of memories from Surratt's hard drive. He menaced every single offense that year into abandoning the long pass and crossing routes as serious options. More than anyone else, Nelson played the cornerstone for the 2006 team, a national champion more with the character of a counterpunching bastard than outright death machine (see: 2008.)
This doesn't even take into effect the personals on Nelson: the Predator hair, the exuberant joy he took in obliterating people or playing centerfield, the springing hop he made after each tackle. None of this is said at the expense of Tim Tebow, but Nelson didn't have a father pushing him to football, or special clauses allowing him to play in high school, or ESPN apperances before he ever played a down. Nelson took the long way around to Florida, going to community college in Kansas to qualify before winding up in Gainesville, a wait made more excruciating considering his mother's advanced cancer. Nelson raced the disease as he made his way to Florida, where his mother did eventually see him play before her death in December 2006.
He may be a shambles with the Jaguars, but his 2006 season at Florida is preserved in amber for us, and is a thing of joy forever. Exuberance, violent brilliance in braids wreaking havoc on the best laid plans of coaches, mice, and men: that is all we want Florida football to ever be, and its brand manager will forever be Reggie Nelson (with an assist from Earl Everett.)
For the Orange: BIG BAD JOHN Henderson, DT. Outland winner, consensus All-American, and all-around huggy killbear.
The first time my young ears were treated to the mantra, "BLOOD MAKES THE GRASS GROW," it was being bellowed by Big Bad John, standing on a cooler or some damn thing and hollering at the student section. It was 2001, and he was lining up with Al Haynesworth and Will Overstreet in a monstrous front seven. To close out that season, he would bat down a Rex Grossman pass in the Swamp in December, a swing that led to a Jabari Greer interception, a Travis Stephens touchdown, and a 14-0 Tennessee lead in the most grimly satisfying rivalry win of my lifetime.
Whenever he made a big play at home, "Big Bad John" would blare over Neyland's speakers, in cartoonish contrast to whatever was emitting from Henderson's snarling maw. As you can see, he has not particularly mellowed with age: