350 ex-players show for Bowden

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- There was no way Warrick Dunn would miss this.

Neither would Deion Sanders, Derrick Brooks, Leroy Butler or Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke.

This was their tribute to the man many of them saw as a father figure.

Hundreds of former Seminole stars, some now gray and others with midriff paunches that belied their glory days, gathered Friday to watch Bobby Bowden close out one of college football's greatest coaching careers with a 33-21 win over West Virginia in the Gator Bowl.

"You can't replace being here by watching it on TV or something," Dunn said. "That's something I'll cherish the rest of my life."

More than 350 of Bowden's bunch turned up, many of them chiseled into Florida State lore. Some harkened from his time at West Virginia, where Bowden coached a decade before coming to Tallahassee.

Almost to the man they believe Bowden influenced their success on and off the field.

Dunn, one of Bowden's favorites, showed up in the fall of 1993 after his mom, a single mother, had been shot and killed in Baton Rouge, La.

"He was the next consistent figure in my life," said Dunn, who hugged Bowden on the sideline as the final seconds ticked off the huge scoreboard. "He just told me his door is always open if I ever need him, and I did. To this day I call him and can talk to him about anything."

One of the toughest players to play for the Seminoles in the Bowden era, former San Francisco 49ers fullback William Floyd, was among many who had difficulty talking about the 80-year-old coach without choking up.

"He's been like a dad to me, really the first father figure I had coming up," said Floyd, whose bone-crushing blocking protected Heisman Trophy quarterback Charlie Ward during Florida State's first national championship season in 1993. "He had an open door policy and I used it."

Sanders just wanted to be sure Bowden was OK about retiring a year earlier than originally planned.

"I hugged him and I looked him in his eyes and I said, 'Tell me you're OK." Sanders said Friday. "I want to hear right now that you are OK. And he said 'I'm OK.' And we started reminiscing about the old times."

Many former players attended Florida State practices in Jacksonville leading up to the game.

"It's very emotional," said Keith Jones, a member of Bowden's first recruiting class at Florida State.

"Certainly he wanted to come back another year," he said, his eyes moistening. "But once the decision is made, Bobby moves on. He never looks back, he always moves forward."