<
>

Muschamp fights through adversity

play
Inside The Office: Will Muschamp's Leg Rod (1:55)

Not many people would hold on to a metal rod that was inserted into their leg. Florida head coach Will Muschamp did. And he explains why he keeps it in his office. (1:55)

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- Will Muschamp has a 17-inch steel rod on display in his office.

It was implanted in his leg following a high school baseball injury that nearly ended his college football career before it started.

If you ask him about it, the first words from his mouth are those of his father: Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you handle it.

It's something he says all the time now. As a tribute to his father's wisdom, Muschamp often turns to this thought in times of trial.

There is no doubt he has seen some of his toughest trials in the past year.

In his third season as coach of the Florida Gators, his team crumbled under a rash of injuries and posted a 4-8 record, the school's worst since 1979.

Off the field was worse. In May, Muschamp's father, Larry, died suddenly at 79 after complications following intestinal surgery.

"He was very close to Larry," Will's mother, Sally, said this week, "and I know that he, like all of us, is hurting. But I don't think the others have had the adversity that Will's had."

Muschamp has chosen to embrace adversity. That's the advice his father always gave. But in his youth, Will didn't always see positives in the struggle.

* * *

Muschamp was born in Rome, Georgia, the youngest of three boys. He spent nearly a decade growing up in Gainesville, following in the shadows of brothers Mike, who was seven years older, and Pat, who was five years older.

"We were very fortunate," Mike said. "We had two very loving parents and a great environment to grow up in, and [he had] two brothers who cared deeply about him and enjoyed beating the crap out of him."

Muschamp became a rabid Gators fan and worked at the stadium selling soda.

Backyard football was his introduction to adversity.

"When we first started doing it now, it was just keep away from Will basically," Mike said. "He just got so competitive it got to where he couldn't stand losing. But I firmly believe that's one of the places that he developed the competitive edge that he's got now."

In 1986, Muschamp moved back to Rome as a teenager. His life had its first major plot twist on a high school baseball field in 1989.

Playing left field, Muschamp went after a fly ball and collided with the shortstop. His tibia and fibula were broken. There was a horrifying scream. Blood was coming through his sock, but Muschamp raised his glove in the air and said over and over, "I caught the ball."

Doctors set the bones and put him in a hip-to-toe cast for a week and a half. Then came the surgery to insert the steel rod and three screws for stability.

"They thought they were going to have to take a skin graft in two different situations," he said. "Because of swelling in my leg they were unable to do it. So I went totally under for surgery on two separate instances and they couldn't complete the surgery. I had to go back in for a third time in order to close the wound."

Muschamp was on crutches for months, but rehab began almost immediately. While his parents watched TV, he rode a stationary bike until his foot would swell up.

"Larry and I were in tears because we knew it hurt with every pedal," Sally said.

One of the school's coaches met Will every morning at the high school pool to help him rehab.

"I was bound and determined to get back for my senior season," said Will, a star safety who also lettered in basketball, baseball and track before the injury. "I ended up playing most of it, not very well. I had a hard time. I had a limp."

In the spring of his junior year, Muschamp missed a critical time for college football recruiting. Coaches were stopping by high schools with offers to hand out. He was out of school for a month.

Some teams called to say they would no longer recruit him.

The first was from Georgia. Dicky Clark called with the bad news. Sally appreciated that he made the effort.

Others just stopped calling and writing letters altogether.

One by one, opportunities for a scholarship vanished. Florida, Georgia, Clemson, Georgia Tech, NC State and North Carolina had shown interest before the injury.

The decision was made to walk on at Georgia.

* * *

Muschamp wasn't at Georgia long before adversity found him again.

On the first day of practice in pads, he broke his collarbone. His parents drove more than two hours to Athens to find their son despondent.

"We went to the dorm," Sally said, "and he was like a little wounded bird lying down on the bed."

Larry Muschamp was an eternal optimist. No matter what life handed you, he would say there was going to be a positive.

Will took one look at his dad's face that day and said, "Don't try to make a positive out of this."

Larry and Sally took their son to the hospital and then brought him home.

"That is a terrible injury," Sally said. "I mean, it hurts. We brought him back on the road and every bump he was hollering. After a couple of days he was ready to go back [to UGA]."

Something positive did come from that injury -- a redshirt season, a year of working with trainers in the weight room and rehabbing his collarbone and his leg.

"It was exactly what needed to happen," Mike said. "He wasn't ready to play on that level with his leg yet."

But he got ready.

Muschamp became a four-year letterman who played in all 46 contests over that span, including a pair of bowl games.

Before playing his first game, Muschamp had earned a scholarship. After three seasons, he had earned the respect and admiration of his teammates and was named defensive team captain for his senior year.

The connections Muschamp made while at Georgia helped fuel his rise through the coaching ranks.

He proved himself as defensive coordinator for LSU, the NFL's Miami Dolphins, Auburn and Texas before being hired as head coach at Florida in December 2010.

It was the realization of a boyhood dream -- wearing the orange and blue, being able to visit the home he grew up in and making the same walk to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium that he made numerous times as a fan.

"It's an amazing story," Muschamp said. "For my two boys to be playing at the Northwest Boys Club where I played growing up, in my profession that's unheard of. That just doesn't happen."

* * *

Muschamp's return to Gainesville hasn't exactly gone according to script.

The Gators went 11-2 in his second season, but overall he has guided Florida to a record of 24-16 overall and 14-11 against SEC competition.

Last season's 4-8 mark landed Muschamp squarely on one of college football's hottest seats.

He took responsibility and promised to get the program back on track, but just after spring practice ended, tragedy hit with the passing of the family patriarch.

"Last year was horrible," Sally said. "[Will] said, 'Mom, I'm fine. Everything is going to be fine.' I think he has that much of Larry in him. You just deal with it and you go forward. ... These stumbling blocks along the way, I think have made him a very strong person."

Sally visited her son in Gainesville last weekend. She got to watch her grandson Jackson play football. She didn't spend much time with her son, who was preparing for the season's first SEC game. But she did make it to his office.

Sitting on a shelf behind his desk is a box she had made for Will back in 1989. It holds the 17-inch steel rod and screws. It never fails to catch her eye.

"I think that I wanted it [mounted] because I wanted him to remember that he did not have hold of his destiny," Sally said. "He was not in control, but this was something that he could overcome. I said, 'Remember what happened to you, and you can overcome anything if you can overcome this damn thing that was in your leg.' "

Muschamp did just that. He won a scholarship and played four years of SEC football. As a coach he instills the same values his parents gave him. He's used the shadowbox countless times when a player has needed a lift.

"Overcoming injuries, overcoming adversities that happen to you in life, how you handle them," he says is the message. "It's how you approach them. A lot of it has to do with your mindset, being determined that you're going to come out on the upside of things."

Like father, like son.