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Former Gators eyeing opportunity with football's newest league

February 10, 2019
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Chris Thompson’s locker sits directly across from that of Will Hill’s. A few seats down sits Austin Appleby and cutting up across the way is Earl Okine. To Thompson’s other side stands Josh Evans, gathering his things as Leon Orr passes by on his way to the door.

This is the Orlando Apollo’s locker room, exuberant after an opening night win during the inaugural weekend of the new, experimental Alliance of American Football league; and it’s full of former Florida Gators.

All in all there are eight former Gators on the roster. * Then there’s the coaching staff, led by Steve Spurrier and which includes Willie Jackson and Lito Sheppard…and David Reaves, the son of former quarterback John Reaves. And if still searching for connections, there’s the GM Tim Ruskell, whose son Jack [Ruskell] is a walk-on quarterback for Dan Mullen.

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Related: Former Gators Dominate Apollo’s Roster 

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The league, which is serving as an alliance with the National Football League and will broadcast on NFL Network at times while offering an out clause in each players contract if signed to a NFL team, aims to be a supplement to the NFL juggernaut, not a replacement.

These former Gators—especially guys like Thompson, an undrafted free agent who’s league time was spent on practice teams and then Hill, a journeyman who’s dipped his toe in big moments from the NFL, the Canadian League and Arena Football—encapsulate everything the AAF is hoping to be; a first opportunity for some, a second chance for others, an avenue to continue the game that isn’t done with them yet.

“Everybody’s journey has brought them to this point,” Appleby tells Inside the Gators.

“Whether it’s a guy who’s played a whole lot of football and wants to just keep playing, isn’t quite ready to retire or its guys that still think they have a lot left in them and trying to get that next shot back in the league or a guy who wasn’t gotten that opportunity yet in the NFL that this is the league that hopefully can launch them into it. Wherever you’re at, it really doesn’t matter.”

The places they’ve been at range; after being cut from the Washington Redskins in 2017, Josh Evans (3 tackles) went back to Jacksonville where he began his NFL career with the Jaguars and opened a gym. Earl Okine (5 tackles, 2 quarterback hurries, 1 sack) left Arizona after the Cardinals cut him in 2017 and came to Tampa where he’s been training in the interim, waiting for another shot. Thompson wasn’t too far away, working out with his brother after being let go from the Houston Texans last August.

Hill (7 tackles, 1 pass breakup), the veteran of the group, was in a holding pattern. Then he heard about the AAF.

“I was sitting at home, working out, training; I did the Canada thing, it wasn’t what it was cracked up to be. So sitting at home, waiting for an opportunity from the NFL to call and this league calls who’s partners with the NFL, like no brainer. I was automatically into it; actually I knew about it before they even reached out to me and I was trying to reach out to them.”

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Around the Web: Spurrier and Apollo’s Lift Off in Orlando 

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When Thompson (4 catches, 30 yards) heard of the opportunity, there was only one thought—“Take it and run with it.”

“It’s been everything I thought it would be and more,” adds Appleby, who went in for the final minutes of Saturday night’s opener. 

“First word that comes to mind is opportunity with the Alliance and that’s exactly what it is, it’s an opportunity for so many guys like myself that have a lot of good football left in the them, just need that shot.”

Within that opportunity, there are things each of them knows needs to be addressed. Earl Okine says he needs to show teams he can slim down and play edge rusher. Chris Thompson feels he needed to bulk up, play stronger and show teams he can understand the little details.

“Something’s missing for all of us, that’s why we’re not in the league, something we need to work on,” admits Appleby.

“This league is an opportunity to go out and update your resume, put out good film and show that you have what it takes to warrant yourself another opportunity to play for what our ultimate dream is which is the NFL.”

That ultimate dream is the unapologetic goal and mission for each former Gator that’s strapping on the AAF helmet.

“To get back to the NFL for sure, 100%,” laughs Okine.

“It’s simple,” adds Evans, as Hill sticks his head in cackling “get that money” before high stepping off. He later seconded his goal, albeit with a more serious tone.

“The ultimate goal right now is to win the championship, win the East, win the AAF Championship and get back to the NFL; to get back there and be able to put some more years under my belt and hopefully get a Super Bowl ring.”

There was a sense as Saturday’s game wore on that this could actually work, that quite possibly we could look back and say “I remember the first game.” After only one month together, there are the expected bumps, the understandable wrinkles that will need to be ironed out; but there was also an unfettered access that showed the AAF is aware a sport is great because of its fans and a palpable excitement exuding from the players who truly believe this is a golden opportunity.

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Related: Real Time Updates From Apollo’s Opener 

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A lot of the probable success is based on an aspect that seems very much on purpose by a league that is pushing their regional teams. Because of those seven former Gators, all of them have played with half of the others at some point.

“It’s been pretty good being able to get back with some of my former teammates, Earl and Will and them guys,” explains Evans.

“We know exactly how the other person plays. They got better but we knew generally how the other person plays…it’s great to be around guys that you’ve played with, that you feel comfortable with, that you kinda have chemistry with going back 6, 7 years ago, to come back out here and compete again.” 

“It felt like we haven’t missed a beat since we played together in college so it was really a seamless transition,” echo’s Okine.

Thompson says rekindling his connection with Appleby made it seem like they never left and as Appleby explains, it’s made this fast track training process much easier.

“There’s something that we put in that’s a little bit new maybe, something that we put in, something that’s maybe a little bit new, something coach is drawing up in the dirt in the middle of practice, we can say ‘oh that’s just like this concept that we ran at Florida’ or we can speak the same language or just maybe little bit of a look or he knows my mannerisms or he knows that I’m gonna put the ball in a certain spot.

“That chemistry that just has built over the course of time, we’ve been able to rekindle that and he’s done nothing but have a good training camp and looking forward to him having a great year for us.”

As the opening weekend of the Alliance of American Football comes to a close and these former Gators head back to hotel where they’ll live together with their for the next two months, it’s Thompson who looks back at the Apollo’s first win and sums up best the mission of this league, this team, this group of guys and really, this game. 

“My ultimate goal is to keep playing football, to keep staying in shape, to keep playing until the game is done with me.”

 

* Former Florida Gators with Orlando Apollo’s

  • Austin Appleby, QB (2016)
  • Chris Thompson, WR (2013-2016)
  • Cody Riggs, CB (2011-2013)
  • Josh Evans, SS (2009-2012)
  • Will Hill III, FS (2008-2010)
  • Drew Ferris, LS (2010-2014)
  • Earl Okine, OLB (2008-2012)
  • Leon Orr, DT  (2011-2014)

Former Gators eyeing opportunity with football's newest league

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