Gator, Cane take different routes to matchup

GAINESVILLE – One player always wanted to go to Miami, but wound up at Florida. Another always wanted to go to Florida, but wound up at Miami.

If it’s true, as many people believe, that recruiting brings out the worst in college football, then the strange cases of Jonathan Colon and Santonio Thomas could surely be submitted as exhibits 1 and 1-A.

Colon, an offensive lineman, plays for Florida, even though he grew up in the Miami area and dreamed of playing for the Hurricanes. On Saturday, he will line up opposite Thomas, who plays for Miami, but always thought he would wear the orange and blue of the Gators.

Theirs are tales of academic fraud and failure, promises kept and broken, dreams delayed and denied. Together, they help paint a picture of an in-state rivalry that has remained bitter on the recruiting trail, even though Florida and Miami haven’t met on the football field in the regular season in 15 years.

“I’ve put all that behind me,” said Thomas, a junior who makes up part of Miami’s dominating defensive line. “I look at it this way: It wasn’t meant to work out. I don’t blame anyone for what happened. I’m having a great time, playing on a great team. It’s worked out the best for me. It really has.”

A product of Belle Glade, Thomas always figured it was his destiny to attend Florida the way so many who came before him from Belle Glade had – Fred Taylor, Reidel Anthony and Johnny Rutledge, to name a few.

Thomas’ plans started changing, however, when the NCAA questioned whether he had earned his passing ACT score honestly. A short time later, Thomas took the SAT, and his passing score was verified as legitimate.

But by the time the SAT score came in, Florida’s deadline for enrollment had passed, and he was denied financial aid. Miami, however, would still accept him, and a short time later, Thomas signed with the Hurricanes.

In the aftermath, then-coach Steve Spurrier called Thomas and his family to apologize. He also fired off a nasty letter to Florida director of admissions Bill Kolb, saying “the admissions people obviously don’t give a damn about this one player.”

The letter has become something of a legend at UF.

“If Santonio Thomas helps Miami kick our butts when we play them in 2002 and 2003, I hope Mr. Kolb and his committee realize their contributions to our football team and our university,” Spurrier wrote.

Many close to Spurrier said it was fights like these – fights Spurrier felt he could never win within his own administration – that helped convince him it was time to leave for the NFL after last season.

Although the tumult is over and Thomas says he is happy, he hasn’t forgotten the sense of failure he felt for letting down those close to him.

“It was pretty tough knowing that everybody from my school usually goes to the University of Florida,” Thomas said. “I was pressured by fans and people around and neighbors, stuff like that.”

Colon felt pressure, too, although it came in different form.

Even though he had grown up dreaming of playing for the Hurricanes, Colon felt snubbed when Miami didn’t give him the full-court press in the early days of the recruiting period. Suddenly, the idea of playing at Florida piqued his interest.

Months passed, and Colon’s heart was torn as national signing day approached. So torn, in fact, that he signed letters of intent to play at both schools.

According to family members, Colon signed the first letter of intent, to play at Miami, on the evening of Feb. 1, 2000. His mother, Nelda, also signed. Because letters couldn’t be signed until the next day, an employee of Colon’s high school, who came to the family’s house to see them sign the letter, told her to postdate the signing as Feb. 2.

When Feb. 2 dawned, however, Colon was still considering Florida, and at 10 a.m. that day, he signed a letter-of-intent with the Gators.

Both schools insisted they had landed Colon, a 6-foot-7, 300-pounder who was one of the top prep linemen in the country. Florida accused Miami of cheating. Miami threatened to take the Colons to court to force Jon to abide by its signed letter.

The dispute wasn’t resolved until two weeks later, when the NCAA determined the Florida commitment was valid and Miami’s was not.

Now that the saga is behind him, Colon feels much the same as Thomas. He’s looking forward to finally getting the chance to play the “other” team.

“It’s a chance to get everything off my back,” Colon said. “I’m anxious to prove a lot of people wrong about a lot of things.”