TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — When Mike Norvell called a few weeks ago, he told me he wanted to do something fun at the Florida State spring game.
He asked whether I would be interested in calling a few plays.
Question 1: Would this be fun for Mike or fun for me?
Question 2: Mike, are you allowed to have a Florida graduate call plays for your team?
He laughed. Oh, by the way, Andy Staples from The Athletic would be coaching with you, he said. Two Gators? He laughed again. “We’ll just leave that out of your bios,” he said.
So the plan was set: Andy and I would pair up as the “Worldwide Writers” against “Local Legends” Gene Deckerhoff (the legendary radio voice of the Seminoles) and local radio host Jeff Cameron. Andy and I worked at the Independent Florida Alligator, the student newspaper at Florida, in the late 1990s, so we already had a built-in advantage.
Little did Gene and Jeff know that we had our own football credentials beyond eating popcorn in press boxes and second-guessing coaches on a weekly (daily?) basis. Andy was a walk-on at Florida; I punted at Florida (OK, maybe for only one practice to prove a point about bad punting, but it counts).
When we worked together at the Alligator, we would play football in the alley behind our newspaper building, often ducking cars to make plays. You could say we had a flair for the dramatic. What do you expect out of two people who went to school at Florida when Steve Spurrier was the coach?
Edge: Team AA.
The playcalling possibilities seemed endless, and yes, we got a string of suggestions and threats — like, you BETTER call the Annexation of Puerto Rico … OR ELSE. We better see a pass to an offensive tackle … OR ELSE. Quite honestly, I wondered whether Norvell would figure it out if we tried to line players up in the Emory and Henry, as an homage to Spurrier.
I secretly dreamed about running a curl-and-go — the game-winning play in Florida’s upset win over then-No. 1 Florida State in 1997, a game of which I have such vivid memories. I can still feel the stadium ground shaking beneath me and the nimbleness with which I ducked a flying garbage can someone threw in raucous celebration. But then I realized nobody would get its hidden meaning.
Still, I badly wanted to win, and considering I had watched football for 40 years and never actually made a playcall beyond a friendly neighborhood game, I talked to Stanford coach David Shaw earlier in the week and asked for advice.
“You know the great thing about spring games?” he said. “They don’t count. Be aggressive. Throw it deep. Go for the end zone.”
I wondered whether I was talking to Stanford coach David Shaw or someone impersonating him. Wait. Had Spurrier paid him to say that?
I had asked Norvell whether we could call trick plays. He said he wasn’t much into trick plays (ummm, what?) but if we drew one up in the dirt and got it in on time, then why not?
Any illusions we might have had of trickeration grandeur were shattered when we got into our Friday afternoon coaches’ meeting. Norvell had laid out specially made playsheets with our names at the top.
We had 10 plays on offense to choose from, and none were very tricky. Once he started explaining how it would work — calling plays in real time, worrying about down and distance, all with the play clock winding down — we realized it would be impossible to call any audibles.
The offensive playsheet didn’t give away any proprietary Florida State secrets — it had basic counters, passes and screens. There were a few tempo calls we could make if we wanted to, including one that I will refer to as “The Shaw” — four receivers going long.
We also had eight playcall options for defense, including blitzes and basic coverages, nothing too complicated. And yet, I looked down at the sheet and started having heart palpitations as Duel No. 1 from Hamilton started playing in my head, “OK, so we’re doing this …”
Norvell explained that each coaching team would get to call two series on offense, and two series on defense. Because the starters would be on a rep count, we would likely end up with backups and walk-ons playing. That meant we would have to tailor our playcalling to fit the personnel.
The team with the most points at the end would win, and the spring game would end. Andy and I tried to get some intel from offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham and defensive coordinator Adam Fuller later on. Dillingham said he thought the counter might be most effective; Fuller tried to prepare us for the rush that would overtake us after making our first call.
On Saturday, before we got to the stadium, Andy and I agreed to wear all black. I had a matching black visor, naturally. We wanted to start with the tailback screen play. But as the real game unfolded, we watched for specific tendencies that could help us call better plays than Gene and Jeff, so we could ultimately win.
Edge: Team AA.
“… as much as we second guess every single decision, having the head-set on and a plan for calling plays is complex, challenging and requires brain power I’m not sure I have at this point in my life.”
ESPN senior writer/Florida State guest-coach Andrea Adelson
Then, I called in the ultimate ace card. McKenzie Milton spotted me standing near the offense midway through the second quarter and walked over. He and I go back four years now to his time at UCF, and I have methodically charted his miraculous comeback.
When he threw a touchdown pass earlier in the game, I stood and simply took in the moment. When he got hurt in November 2018, he thought he might have his leg amputated. To go from that low moment, to getting all the way back, transferring to Florida State and throwing a touchdown in the spring game — while looking good doing it — it does not get more inspirational than that.
I knew we wouldn’t get him as our quarterback, but I figured we could still get some help from him. I showed him our playsheet. He pointed out play 9 (the screen we planned to open with) and play 7 (a double move that featured a wheel route for the tight end). Done and done. Those would be our first two plays on offense. Hey, coaches look for every advantage they can get. Why would I be any different?
Edge: Team AA.
The second quarter ended, and now it started to get real, and my stomach tightened. I could barely swallow I was so nervous. We got called over for headsets, and were shown how to use them. Then we had a ceremonial coin toss, with the officials showing us heads and tails on the coin. Andy and I agreed on tails because, as Andy said, ‘Tails never fails.’
Well, it failed.
Gene and Jeff went on offense first, leaving Andy and I to call the defense. We agreed to go aggressive with blitzes early, believing they would overwhelm the backup offensive linemen. Andy may or may not have turned the dial on our headsets to “offense” to listen in to what Gene and Jeff were calling.
Edge: Team AA.
We got a sack on the first play. I jumped and fist-pumped and screamed as if those were my own players out there. Andy took the lead on the defensive playcalls and we were able to get a stop. Now it was my turn to call the offense.
We were still standing by the defense when Norvell screamed for us to get into the offensive huddle. Double gulp. In the headset, Dillingham told me what to shout to the players for their playcall. We were going to start with the screen pass. Then I think I told them to do their best, and I got mad at myself for sounding like a mom. Do your best? Really? I guess I need to go back and watch Ed Reed’s halftime speech against Florida State in 2001, though screaming, “I’m hurt, dawg” probably wouldn’t have played in that moment.
The tailback screen to Deonté Sheffield worked on the first play for 7 yards. On the second play, walk-on quarterback Gino English checked down on the pass call for another screen, this time to a receiver, but he dropped it. I called a counter run on third down and picked up the first down. At this point, I felt pretty good about myself. And then we got a penalty, proving the best plan for playcalls is to either have no plan or have 20 backup plans.
That left us third-and-long. Dillingham reminded me we could call a run play to pick up yardage to get into field goal range. I scoffed, because, duh, I know more about coaching. Called another pass. It failed worse. Now we were staring at fourth-and-long, out of field goal range, with a punt the equivalent of a turnover.
We were going for it.
Norvell tried to talk me out of it, but I figured if we were going to turn the ball over to Gene and Jeff anyway, we might as well throw it to go for the first down.
Yeah, it didn’t work.
At this point, my head is a jumbled mess. I have the sheet in front of me, but I also have coaches yelling in my ear and players looking depressed because I let them down (OK maybe they didn’t look depressed, but that’s how it seemed to me). Now I have to call the defense because Andy already had his turn.
Edge: Gene and Jeff.
I stared at the sheet and called a blitz again because it worked so well on the first drive. It worked on first down, but the offense made a few plays to get into field goal range. Fuller was screaming for the next call, and I was looking at the sheet trying to go as fast as possible, but my brain had switched to sloth speed. Everything turned into a blur, and I forgot what I called the previous play.
I blurted into the headset, “This is so nerve-wracking!” Fuller told me I wasn’t supposed to say that out loud. But it was the truth, and as hard as it looks on TV or from the press box, as much as we second-guess every single decision, having the headset on and a plan for calling plays is complex, challenging and requires brainpower I’m not sure I have at this point in my life.
Luckily for Andy and I, they missed the field goal.
Edge: Team AA.
Norvell told us this was going to be the final series of the game. We had to score to win. Andy now got his chance to call the plays, and with the game on the line, he dialed up … play No. 7 … and it worked. (Thanks, KZ!)
English found tight end Austin White on the wheel route for the winning touchdown. Andy told me in advance he wanted to celebrate ala Lane Kiffin — sprinting down the sideline, throwing the playsheet in the air — and well, he did, and he ended up finding White to tell him congratulations.
I pride myself on my running, but I was so slow by the time I got on the field the celebrating was over and the players moved on. I acted cool. I forgot to do the Ted Lasso dance, as I had planned.
Edge: Team AA?
Norvell called the team and the guest coaches for a final huddle. I have blanked out what he said, because all I can remember is getting hit with ice-cold water dumped straight down my back. Andy, too. As the winning coaches, we got the Powerade bath, a detail Norvell conveniently forgot to tell us when he laid out how the game would go.
I started to tiptoe in a circle in a poor attempt to make it feel less cold. (It didn’t). Someone handed me a towel and I guess Norvell was done talking because the players got up to leave. I gave Milton the thumbs up. My shoes sloshed with every step, and my pants stuck to my calves, but I have to say, I never felt better walking around in drenched work clothes.
Norvell apologized, but he didn’t have to. I should have known he would take the opportunity to dunk on two Gators.
Afterward, I asked him for a critique of our performance.
“It was fun watching the dynamic of you and Andy going back and forth. You saved the best for last,” Norvell said. “To be able to end with the big touchdown was pretty special, but I thought you guys did a great job, not a whole lot of clamoring back and forth. You got the plays in quick. I thought you guys did a remarkable job.”
Except for the fourth-and-23 call.
“The fourth-and-23 call … that might leave some questions for the press conference afterward,” Norvell said, trying to sound diplomatic. “But you believe in your players, you put them in the best position to have success and it just didn’t work out on that one, right?”
See, he gets me, Coach Adelson. And I guess that was the whole point — standing in the coaches’ shoes gave me a newfound perspective and appreciation for what coaches have to do to get ready for games, and the immense pressure they feel in games to get every call just right.
I have already replayed in my mind all the calls we made, and questioned all of them. I have to go back and watch the film so I can improve. Because I had so much fun, I want another chance.
Although now that I think about it, nobody asked me to come back for fall practice.