Friday Final: Gators soccer star Heather Mitts returns to Gainesville with SEC Network

Former Florida Gators soccer star Heather Mitts, a three-time Olympic gold medalist with the U.S. Women’s National Team and 2013 inductee into the UF Athletic Hall of Fame, recently traded in her cleats for a microphone.

A major part of the Gators’ 1998 NCAA Championship-winning soccer team, Mitts went on to have a 12-year professional career before officially retiring in March 2013. She has since decided to embark on a career in sports broadcasting, which she actually began years ago as a part-time soccer analyst for FOX Sports and ESPN.

Now a sideline reporter (football) and analyst (soccer) for the SEC Network, Mitts will be returning to Gainesville, Florida, on Saturday as part of the broadcast team that will cover Florida’s football game against Eastern Michigan, the first-ever Gators contest that will be aired live on the network.

OnlyGators.com sat down with Mitts for 20 minutes on Thursday. She spoke at length about playing most of her professional career with a Florida teammate and close friend in Abby Wambach, moving into a broadcasting role, her love for the Gators and her admiration for UF head coach Becky Burleigh.

ADAM SILVERSTEIN: How tough of a decision was it for you to ultimately retire from the game you love and hang up your cleats for good?
HEATHER MITTS: “You know what? It wasn’t actually that hard because I just felt like I had a lot of injuries towards the end of my career and I was able to do something that I loved for, gosh, as any years as it was. Since college, I literally thought I was going to play one or two years post-college, and I was able to go to three Olympics and one World Cup. To be able to kind of retire on a high note as well, with the Gold medal, being 35 years old with all the injuries that I had, it was just kind of like the right time for me to walk away. I felt really content with my decision.”

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4 BITS: SEC Network, Horschel, Smith, Calathes

1 » With just six weeks to go until the launch of the SEC Network, there are still plenty of cable and satellite companies that have not come to an agreement on terms with ESPN to carry the channel. However, according to FOXSports.com, Comcast appears to be the next in line to make a deal with the World Wide Leader in Sports. Company spokesman John Demming claims that Comcast and ESPN are “working out final details” for the network with an agreement expected to be announced “in the near future.” Currently, the SEC Network is only scheduled to go live on AT&T Uverse, DISH Network and Google fiber. DirecTV and Time Warner Cable are the other major entities that have not agreed with ESPN, though Comcast’s agreement to purchase TWC for $45 billion will likely make that contract signing easier. (Same with AT&T attempting to acquire DirecTV in a similar deal.) Smaller cable companies are expected to come to terms to carry the channel once the larger deals are struck. Florida Gators fans concerned about whether Cox Communications will have the station should take solace in the fact that it would be bad business and public relations for the SEC Network to go live without fans of one of the top teams in the Southeastern Conference able to watch it.


The SEC Network on Monday also announced that 10-year veteran anchor Dari Nowkhah has reached a multi-year deal with ESPN an will host the station’s “weeknight news and information show,” called SEC Now. The new show will debut on Thursday, Aug. 14 at 6 p.m. [Pictures: Set renderings]

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Former Gators FB Larry Dupree, 71, passes away

Former Florida Gators fullback Larry Dupree, one of the best players in program history and a member of the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame, passed away from a heart attack on Sunday at the age of 71.

The sixth player in Florida football history to be named an All-American, Dupree earned the honor as the lone team captain in 1964, the same year he became the third rusher in Southeastern Conference history to receive three career first-team All-SEC nods.

He was also revered by his teammates that same season as the recipient of the Fergie Ferguson Award, given by the Gators annually to honor a senior “who displays outstanding leadership, character and courage.”

According to The Gainesville Sun, Dupree never missed a game in his collegiate career.

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FOUR BITS: Tebow, Wuerffel, Winslow, Culpepper

1 » Offers are coming in fast and furious for quarterback Tim Tebow – just not from NFL teams. Last week an AFL team, the L.A. KISS, offered Tebow a three-year contract that could be “worth millions” Yes, the KISS are owned by the band of the same name. No, Tebow will not be playing there. Also an unlikely destination for Tebow is Russia, though he did receive an offer of $1 million to play two games with the Moscow Black Storm. “We have offered him $1 million for two games,” team owner Mikhail Zaitsman told Russia Beyond the Headlines. “I talked with him personally and he wanted to go.” Well, yes and no. “[Tebow’s agents are] thinking of using him as a motivational speaker. They don’t want him to play football,” Zaitsman admitted.

What Tebow has actually been doing as of late is working out in Southern California. He first spotted outside a USC gym on Sept. 10 and was then captured on film throwing on a baseball field just days later. Videos at the bottom of this post. A friend of OnlyGators.com spotted Tebow at a Los Angeles, CA, restaurant Wednesday evening. Tebow has not spoken with the media since being released.

2 » The Florida Gators officially announced Thursday that former quarterback Danny Wuerffel will serve as the honorary Mr. Two Bits ahead of Saturday’s game against the Tennessee Volunteers. Wuerffel, who OnlyGators.com first reported will be honored at the game for his induction into the College Football Hall of Fame, is the second former player to serve in this role after running back Errict Rhett did fantastic job prior to the season opener against Toledo. Check out OnlyGators.com’s interview with Wuerffel from Aug. 29 and conversation with Rhett following his performance.

UF writer Scott Carter spoke with the real and original Mr. Two Bits, George Edmonson, who said he approves of the new tradition. “That’s great,” he said. “I was pleased to hear about it. They wanted to check with me before they did it and I told them I think that’s a great idea. I feel honored that some of these celebrities would portray me out there on the field before the game.”

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Three legendary Florida Gators – Rick Casares, Larry Travis, Hans Tanzler – have passed away

A trio of well-known and highly-successful former Florida Gators football players has passed away in the last two months with fullback Rick Casares, on Friday, becoming the latest to meet his maker. He was 82.

From 1951-53, Casares played football and basketball at Florida but had his career cut short when he was drafted into the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He was the first player in the history of the Gators football program to score a touchdown (and kick an extra point) in a bowl game – doing so in the 1953 Gator Bowl – and also served as a kicker for Florida. He went 13-for-13 on field goals in 1951.

A captain in both sports, Casares won multiple All-SEC honors and was even named an honorable mention All-American. On the hardwood, he led the Gators basketball team in scoring and rebounding in consecutive seasons, averaging 14.9 points and 11.3 rebounds in 1951-52 and 15.5 points and 11.5 rebounds in 1952-53.

“He was the best to ever play here in my opinion,” said program historian Norm Carlson in a conversation with UF’s website. “He was an incredible athlete. If they needed him to play quarterback, he would play quarterback. If they asked him to play linebacker, he would do that and knock somebody’s head off. He was a great fullback. He could do anything on the football field and look so good doing it.”

When he was eligible after his military service was complete, Casares was drafted with the 18th overall pick in the second round of the 1954 NFL Draft by the Chicago Bears. He played for three teams over 12 years (1955-66), racking up career numbers of 5,797 rushing yards, 1,588 receiving yards and 60 touchdowns in 130 games.

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15 Gator Bites for Wednesday, September 11

From time to time, OGGOA will come across a plethora of news and notes that we wish to share – too much to fit into one of our truncated BITS segments. When stories like these fall through the cracks, we catch and wrap them all up with Gator Bites.

» Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Jeff Demps missed the entire offseason while running track but officially joined the team on Monday in hopes of earning a roster spot and playing football in 2013. The Buccaneers have a roster exemption or Demps, who will have one full week to prove his worth and take one of the 53 available spots or else be released by Tampa Bay. Though the Bucs will certainly see what Demps can do for them, head coach Greg Schiano was perturbed a few weeks ago when asked where Demps was in the world and why he had not reported at the time.

» Former Florida Gators forward Cody Larson, who lost his scholarship and then quit the basketball team before the 2012-13 season but remained at Florida for academics, transferred to play for the South Dakota State Jackrabbits in May and had a waiver to play immediately accepted by the NCAA this month. “We want to thank the committee and the NCAA for taking the time to look at Cody’s waiver,” head coach Scott Nagy said in a school release. “We appreciate the fact that this ruling allows him the opportunity to be eligible to compete immediately.” Larson will have two years of NCAA eligibility remaining but has not played college basketball in two full seasons.

» One of the greatest tennis players in school history, Jill Craybas has decided to retire at age 39 after spending the last 18 years playing professional tennis. One of two Florida women to win the NCAA Singles Championship, Craybas captured the title in 1996 while leading the Gators women’s program to the team NCAA Championship that same season. Inducted into the UF Athletic Hall of Fame as a Gator Great in 2008, Craybas never won a Grand Slam title but advanced to the fourth round of Wimbledon in 2005 after shocking Serena Williams 6-3, 7-6 in the Round of 16 that year. She also represented the United States in the 2008 Beijing Olympics. “It’s a really tough decision to make because it’s been part of your life for so long. But I feel like lately my priorities have been starting to change, I’ve been starting to want other things in my life,” she told Tennis Panorama about her retirement decision. “I really struggled this past year with my tennis and how I was doing. I started pursuing some other things and started getting interested in other things, but it’s never an easy decision. You never know when you want to stop, but you kind of come to terms with it sooner or later.”

Check out 12 more Gator Bites…after the break!
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Gators RB Errict Rhett: “Hard work pays off.”

The only player in school history to lead the Florida Gators in rushing and all-purpose yards for four-straight seasons, running back Errict Rhett is one of the most accomplished players ever to wear the orange and blue.

Not only did he help lead Florida to two Southeastern Conference Championships in three seasons (1991, 1993), he was also a First Team All-SEC selection those years and a First Team All-American in the final season of his collegiate career.

A member of the UF Athletic Hall of Fame and Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame, Rhett concluded his Gators career with a school-record 4,163 yards and 34 touchdowns on the ground to go along with 1,230 receiving yards and two touchdown receptions.

His 873 career rushing attempts are also a school record, as are the 41 carries he registered in a single game against Georgia in 1993. He is third in the Florida history books in touchdowns scored (36) – behind a pair of fellow Gator Greats in Tim Tebow (57) and Emmitt Smith (37) – and is second all-time to Smith in both average rushing yards per game (90.5) and career 100-yard games (20).

Rhett is also fourth on Florida’s career receptions list with 153 – the only running back in the top 10 – and holds another Gators mark for most receiving yards by a running back. The 5,393 total yards he gained over the course of his career is tops among Florida student-athletes and nearly 600 more than the next player (Brandon James).

He then went on to the NFL as a second-round pick by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers where he compiled 2,218 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns during his first two seasons. Rhett stuck around the NFL for seven years, rushing for a total of 4,143 yards and 29 touchdowns while also spending time with Baltimore and Cleveland.

To put it succinctly, Rhett is the personification of success.

Though he has never stopped influencing the Gators football program, he returned to Gainesville, FL, last week to participate in a new tradition, becoming the first “Florida celebrity” to embody the role of Mr. Two Bits ahead of a home game.

OnlyGators.com caught up with Rhett for 45 minutes on Wednesday to discuss his motivation to succeed, storied Gators career and his epic performance last Saturday.

ADAM SILVERSTEIN: Let’s start off by talking about what happened most recently – you performing as Mr. Two Bits ahead of the Toledo game. What was that like for you?
ERRICT RHETT: “It felt real good to actually follow in a guy’s footsteps – Mr. Two Bits – he’s been a legendary part of the program. His motivational chant got guys so fired up and fired up the fans. I studied that guy. All I could tell is he did it different every time. But the one thing I did notice was that he just put so much passion and enthusiasm into it. I knew those are two attributes that I would have no problem bringing to the table, and I think I showed that off.”

AS: When you were a player, do you remember hearing the chant before the game even though you guys weren’t out on the field just yet?
ER: “You do hear it but you really don’t get into the wording because you’re so focused on the game. But you definitely hear loud yelling sounds. At first, I never knew what they were really saying. I just knew it was something that got the crowd so pumped up. It just vibrated the stadium.”

AS: Did you request to dress up like George Edmonson or was that something that went along with the whole ceremony?
ER: “I actually requested that right there because I definitely wanted to honor him with the loud yellow shirt with the exact same tie with the towel hanging out. I really, really studied him because that’s not a pretty easy thing to do. I really, really studied him for hours and hours. I knew I had the enthusiasm, but his hand movement to his feet movement to the way he moves his legs and his energy… I really studied him and I really wanted to do it the way he’s always done it. I wanted to follow tradition; I didn’t want to try it a different way. That’s what the University of Florida really believes in – tradition – and I wanted to keep it going the same way he did it.”

AS: You also got the chance to run out of the tunnel leading the team, probably the first time you’ve done that since the late 1990s. What was it like to do that again?
ER: “Oh, man, it is just a feeling that I wish that everybody in the entire world could actually run through a tunnel like that in front of 90,000 people. The adrenaline is unreal. It took me hours to calm down off that high. That’s just a high. I wish everyone could do that at least once a year. It’s unbelievable adrenaline that you have when you run through that tunnel. You can literally run through a wall. That’s the power that you feel when you run out there into a crowd 90,000 strong with your teammates. It’s a wonderful feeling. Very exciting.”

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Peterson impressed by Muschamp, ready to coach

A Gainesville, FL, native, former Florida Gators linebacker Mike Peterson has spent the last 14 years travelling across the country with three different NFL franchises but never strayed too far away from home.

With his family still in Alachua County and his charity – the Mike Peterson Foundation – based in Alachua, FL, he has been in and out of the area plenty over the years.

It was not until 2011, however, that Peterson rekindled his relationship with the Gators football program. That year, he learned of his induction into the University of Florida Athletic Hall of Fame as a “Gator Great” and had the opportunity to meet new head coach Will Muschamp for the first time.

“Man, I’m all for him,” Peterson told OnlyGators.com in April 2011. “I had a chance to meet with him. I love everything about him. I love the passion he brings to the game. [I’m] loving that he’s a defensive-minded guy. I’m all for him, man.”

As luck would have it, Peterson is now working on the same coaching staff as Muschamp after a suggestion from his academic advisor at Florida – he is two classes away from graduating with an undergraduate degree in sociology – led him to reach out and inquire about a coaching position with the Gators.

“I had been talking with him and going to class and slowly trying to get towards my degree. He mentioned to me, ‘Why don’t you go out and work with the team?’ It’s something I had thought about but never taken the initiative,” Peterson explained Tuesday. “I went and spoke with Coach Muschamp about it and he was very accepting of it. A little different than I would have expected, but he was very accepting of it. Just knowing him over a couple years, coming back and speaking with the team, I knew it would be a place I would definitely fit in. And the rest is history.”

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