As one who has had to bounce back from his share of adversity in life, John Reaves knows a thing or two about resilience. His struggles with alcohol and drugs have been well documented and the toll that football took on his body has turned some of his days into a mind over matter affair when he has to summon the strength to block out the pain. Still, it’s a good life he says. It’s all about perspective.
“You can change your destiny, change your life and turn everything around,” Reaves says. “All it takes is a little bit of faith and exercise. You just have to understand that God is good and if you’re just a little bit willing, he’ll get you through the tough times.”
And, oh, there have been tough times for the former Florida All-American quarterback, a former first round draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles who spent 13 years in the NFL and USFL. Drugs and alcohol ended his NFL career but he went to rehab, got clean and sober, and got a second chance in the USFL with Steve Spurrier and the Tampa Bay Bucs, throwing for more than 4,000 yards in each of the 1985-86 seasons.
Reaves coached at Florida under Spurrier from 1990-92, then again in 1994, and coached at South Carolina under Brad Scott from 1995-97. From coaching he went into real estate but the breakup of his marriage sunk him to a new low in life and he fell back into the trap of alcohol and painkillers. His 2008 arrest on charges of drug possession and having an unregistered firearm made the front page of the local newspapers.
When you’ve spent your life making headlines on the football field and you live in a football crazy town like Tampa, this is the kind of mistake that doesn’t get buried on page 20 of section two.
“Like most of my mistakes – and Lord knows I’ve made enough of them – this one made the front page of the Tampa Tribune,” Reaves said.
Several months later, at the insistence of former University of Florida teammates, Reaves entered a rehabilitation facility in Atlanta. He’s been taking it one day at a time since then. He’s active in Alcoholics Anonymous and finds tremendous support from a men’s group at a Bible study that he attends – “We’re studying Mark right now ... he brings the Gospel alive to me” – and has been able to rebuild fractured relationships with his children.
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A 1968 graduate of Robinson, Reaves was a 4-sport high school legend in Tampa. He was a high school All-American quarterback who took the Knights to the state championship game in football, set the school record with 52 points in a basketball game, scored points on the track team in the high jump, shot and discuss and made All-State at first base in baseball.
Reaves was the #1 draft choice of the Philadelphia Eagles in 1972
“I was doing so many sports that I didn’t pitch because I didn’t have the time to work on my control and I was wild,” Reaves said. “They had an opening at first base and that’s where I played. I didn’t practice track. I just showed up when we had a meet because they knew I could get them some points. I could high jump more than six feet and that was a big deal in those days and I could get them some points in the shot and discuss.”
But football was his calling. He came to Florida along with a freshman class that was the best of the Ray Graves era. They caught the imagination of Florida fans and became known as “The Super Sophs” in 1969 when they became what was then they shattered all the offensive records that were in place at the time on their way to a 9-1-1 record that stood as the best in school history until 1991 when the Gators won their first Southeastern Conference championship under Spurrier.
His first pass attempt for the Florida varsity – freshmen were ineligible in those days – went for 70 yards and a touchdown to Carlos Alvarez as the Gators upset Houston, 59-38, in the season opener. Reaves threw for five touchdowns that day and would finish that sophomore season with 2,896 yards and 24 touchdowns. It was a brilliant season except for that game at Auburn.
Reaves has learned to smile whenever the 1969 Auburn game is mentioned. He threw nine interceptions in that game, a record that is still on the NCAA books.
“Their safeties were the only guys who were open that day,” Reaves quipped. “They came out in a cover two and you have to understand, that was something brand new in football. What we were running on offense was brand new to college football but so was the cover two they threw at us that day. We had never seen anything like it.”
The ending of the 1969 season proved bittersweet. Unknown to all the players, University of Florida president Dr. Stephen O’Connell had made a deal back in August with Tennessee head coach Doug Dickey to replace Graves, who was allowed to stay on as athletic director. Good reporting by Jack Hairston of the Jacksonville Journal and Buddy Martin of Cocoa Today (now Florida Today) uncovered the story just a couple of days before Reaves threw a touchdown pass to Alvarez to beat Tennessee, 14-13, in the Gator Bowl.
The coaching change was unpopular with both players and fans alike. Dickey replaced Florida’s pro-style offense with a split-back veer option, something Reaves was unsuited to play. Injuries turned Alvarez into a shell of the player he was as a sophomore when he caught 88 passes for 12 touchdowns, and the offensive line of 1969 graduated.
“I had an offensive line that averaged maybe 210,” Reaves said.
By the time he was a senior, the Gators had gone from that brilliant 9-1-1 campaign in 1969 to a 4-7 season that is best remembered by “The Florida Flop.” Against Miami in the final game of the season, Florida’s defense flopped to allow Miami a touchdown just to get the ball back so Reaves could break what was then the all-time NCAA passing yardage record (7,549).
That brought an end to a difficult time that left Reaves bitter for many years, but he’s learned to forgive.
“Coach Dickey preferred special teams, defense and running a ball control offense,” Reaves says. “He wasn’t the warm, friendly coach that Coach Graves was and his style rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. It was a tough time for the players but I imagine it was a tough time for him, too. The way he came to Florida wasn’t the best and I guess you could say we all got off on the wrong foot.”
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Real estate and keeping up with his three kids and grandchildren keeps Reaves occupied these days. Daughter Layla is married to Lane Kiffin, the former Tennessee head coach who is now the head coach at USC – “He’s actually turned into a really fine head coach ... he has a team that could win the national championship this year” – while son Steven is a Southern Cal assistant and David is working with Chris Weinke at IMG in Bradenton training the likes of Cam Newton.
Perhaps it’s not the life he envisioned for himself long ago, but he’s at peace with himself.
“I’ve made my mistakes in life – too many of them, in fact – but it’s not about the mistakes you make, it’s about what you do when you hit rock bottom,” Reaves said. “You can be on top of the world one day and wake up the next and everything you’ve got is gone, all your friends have deserted you and your whole life is turned upside down because of the mistakes you’ve made but I found out that God doesn’t give up you and as long as you don’t give up on yourself you’ve got a chance. With me, it’s like that song goes about the rubber ball – I keep bouncing back to you.”
Reaves feels a particular calling to reach out to those who are struggling, not just with alcohol and drugs but with other addictions as well. His message is that if you plug into the right source, you can get through any adversity and conquer any addiction.
“You can’t do this by yourself but with God’s help you can get through anything in life,” Reaves said. “I know. I’ve been there. I’ve done that. I have to do it every single day. Maybe you can't forgive yourself, but God will forgive you and he can get you through today no matter what you're struggling with."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Thanks to a partnership between Gator Bait and the Florida Player’s Network, this will be an ongoing series of stories about former Gators and where they are now.