Two years ago, I remember sitting inside the press box of the Georgia Dome near the end of Alabama’s 2009 SEC championship rout over Florida.
While Tide players celebrated and Tim Tebow was being consoled on his sideline; a young John Brantley was throwing around high-fives of encouragement.
Brantley later told me that he was telling each of the offensive players who would be returning for the 2010 season this was now his team and that he was going to make sure the Gators didn’t feel what they felt that Saturday night.
However, the same confident Brantley who wanted to make things better, was long gone by the time he was knocked out of Saturday’s disaster of a senior day against Florida State. After receiving a loud ovation before his final game in the Swamp, Brantley quickly threw three interceptions before getting sandwiched between two Seminoles.
Woozy and confused, Brantley was helped off of Florida Field for the last time.
It was a sad end to a career that was supposed to be so promising. Instead of wondering what pose would be used for his stadium statue, Brantley has been the overwhelming scapegoat for Florida’s struggles the last two years.
The much ballyhooed high school prospect was supposed to live in Gator lore. He was supposed to be carried out of the Swamp like a hero after his final game in Gainesville. He was supposed to help Florida get over life without Tebow.
None of that has or will happen.
Brantley grew up in a true Gator family, where his father and uncle both played at Florida, but he was supposed to be the best of all three.
Brantley, who lived just a few miles down the road from UF in Ocala, Fla., and broke Tebow’s Florida high school passing records, decommitted from Texas before signing with Florida.
Brantley then patiently waited behind Tebow, flashing glimpses of greatness with his arm strength and accuracy in garbage time. Before his junior year, it was a foregone conclusion that Brantley would have a tough time deciding if he’d return for his senior year because he’d have a real shot at the NFL draft.
(Somewhere deep within Florida’s football complex, a Brantley statue was surely under construction.)
But as soon as Brantley was given his shot, the Brantley everyone imagined they’d see never emerged. Instead, we saw a frustrated, wide-eyed quarterback running an offense he wasn’t equipped for. Brantley met more patches of grass and boos from Gators fans than touchdown passes.
Brantley’s first season as Florida’s starter was an utter disaster, as he threw for just 2,061 yards, nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Not to mention Florida’s 8-5 season. There were times when you weren't sure if Brantley was even the quarterback after he was delegated to third-down work late in the year.
Then Urban Meyer left and in stepped Will Muschamp. With Muschamp came offensive coordinator Charlie Weis and a pro-style offense. But Brantley was so beat up mentally from his first year as the starter that he actually had to sit and think about staying another year at Florida or transferring.
Of course, Brantley stayed and with Weis, improvement was expected.
Things were much better, until they weren’t.
Brantley looked good in Florida’s first four games before an ankle injury during the Alabama game robbed him of the middle part of the season.
Brantley hasn’t been the same since, passing for 1,912 yards and 10 scores this year, and Florida is stumbling into bowl season with a 6-6 record.
Brantley never got comfortable when Florida was his team. He never lived up to his overwhelming hype. He had to be the one who followed Tebow. He had to be the one who helped usher in the Will Muschamp era.
Now, he has to try and stomach his Florida legacy.
What Brantley can hang his hat on is that he never quit. He stood up after weak pass protection. He stood strong after the plethora of drops. He kept his head up when boos engulfed him.
He never blamed anyone but himself throughout all of this, but at the end of the day, his career won’t be based on character. It will be based on wins and he struggled with that.