In Gainesville, football is king.
The Florida Gators reign supreme over a town built on tradition and success. The University of Florida has churned out countless influential and successful people, some as collegiate and professional athletic heroes.
What sometimes gets overlooked, however, is the importance of a beginning. Through all the hustle and bustle of championships in a town that demands a national spotlight, the starting point of an athlete’s journey to success often gets tossed to the wayside.
Without the Boys and Girls Club of Alachua County, there might never have been some of Gainesville’s “Gator Greats.”
Coaches and players in the NFL and NCAA might have never heard of a guy named Will Muschamp. The fiery head coach of the Florida Gators’ football team got his start playing youth football for the Boys and Girls Club.
“Some of my fondest memories growing up in Gainesville are from my days at the Northwest Boys Club,” Muschamp said. “It provided an opportunity to learn at an early age about competition, teamwork and work ethic—values that I still carry with me to this day.”
In addition to Muschamp, the Boys and Girls Club has been instrumental in the development of many young athletes in the Gainesville area, but the staff at the club strives for much more than athletic success in its young members.
Keith Blanchard, the chief professional officer of the club, said the organization has specific pillars of focus for the children enrolled.
“We’ve always focused on three things,” he said. “If you had to pick one, academic success is the most important. The other two include character building and life skills, as well as healthy eating habits and healthy lifestyles.”
Blanchard said the program uses athletics as a hook to lure children into the program, but then works to expose them to things they might never have had a chance to be exposed to. The club performs college tours for high school juniors and seniors at two or three different campuses, in addition to its program called “Passport to Manhood,” which teaches young men appropriate dating habits and offers career advice.
The club has undoubtedly proven to be a critical aspect of development in local youth. Blanchard said former Florida Gators and NFL quarterback Doug Johnson came to visit the club to explain how much the organization meant to him in his youth.
“He took me out to the football field where the bleachers were and said, ‘That’s where I caught my first pass,’” Blanchard recalled. “He used to come here every day after school and over summer and play football and baseball. He basically grew up here.”
After learning to become a man at the Boys and Girls Club, Johnson went on to Buchholz High School, where he became a standout football and baseball player. He was drafted in the second round of the MLB draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and played infield for the team’s farm system before a rotator cuff forced him to focus on football full time.
Johnson received an athletic scholarship to play quarterback under Steve Spurrier from 1996-1999. In 1997, Johnson set an SEC record for most touchdown passes in a single game with seven against the Central Michigan Chippewas, and he was named team captain as a senior in 1999. Johnson was not drafted into the NFL, but did play sparingly for a few teams, including the Atlanta Falcons, for which he started 11 games.
He spoke highly of the club and its ability to remain a strong foundation for so many children as other similar programs have sprung up over the years.
“When I was a kid, the Boys and Girls Club was one of the few places you could go,” he said. “Now, more than ever, it’s a charity club that provides places for kids who might not be able to afford supervision at other places with the same quality. Their graduation rates are unbelievable, they get homework help and it’s a place where they can play athletics. You learn more things playing athletics than you can learn anywhere else, so there are a lot of positive aspects about the club.”
One of Johnson’s teammates, Travis McGriff, also played football at the Boys and Girls Club. McGriff said that as a child, the club was important to him because it was the only place to play youth football for children living in west Gainesville.
“It’s very nostalgic,” McGriff said. “I’ve gone back a few times to camps and to watch friends’ kids play. It smells the same, it looks the same and it’s pretty amazing to think it was that long ago.”
McGriff said he formed a lifelong friendship at the club with another former “Gator Great” Terry Jackson.
“Terry and I played together on the same team all through the Boys and Girls club and as teammates in high school at P.K. Yonge,” he said. “We both played together with the Gators and were drafted in the same year in the NFL. The NFL was the first time since we were 8 that we didn’t play together.”
While the club strives to build character and healthy lifestyle habits, it also serves as a safe alternative for after-school activity. Because children are most likely to commit violent crimes in the hours immediately after school on weekdays, the academic and athletic programs assist in keeping students preoccupied with positive and beneficial activities.
“If it wasn’t for the Boys & Girls Clubs, [some of these children] could be out on the street making bad decisions. It gives them a structured environment and a chance in life,” Johnson said.
“Kids need things to occupy their time, and if they can do it with things like sports and other positive things, then that’s good,” McGriff added. “It keeps them away from temptation and things they shouldn’t be doing, and the club has been doing that for people for lots and lots of years.”
Without the Boys and Girls Club of Alachua County, there might not have been as many “Gator Greats.” But one thing is for certain—the club has proven to be a critical beginning to many of the University of Florida’s success stories.