Jan. 8, 2007
GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) - Banged up and bloodied, Tim Higgins would sit alone inside Florida's empty football stadium, staring at the field. Same seat, every day.
He called it his "quiet time." Hours upon hours, months upon months.
"Tim told me, 'Dad, I just want one opportunity to get on that field and play at The Swamp as a Gator,"' his father said.
After four years of getting pounded in practice as a walk-on, scout teamer and tackling dummy, the 5-foot-7, 167-pound Higgins got his chance. With the crowd cheering his name, he carried the ball for one play on Senior Day against Western Carolina.
"We had 90,000 people screaming at me to put him in the game and I did," Florida coach Urban Meyer said Sunday. "He is our Rudy."
"He spoke last night at our little deal we do with the seniors," he said. "Had trouble speaking, that's how emotional he was."
There might be 100 players more talented than Higgins on the field Monday night when the No. 2 Gators take on No. 1 Ohio State for the national championship.
A more inspirational player than the wide receiver wearing No. 37? Hardly a one.
"I'm going be nervous," Higgins said. "Just being there on the sideline, it will be something I'll remember the rest of my life."
It's the kind of story that would make a good movie, only it's already been made. "Rudy" was based on the true-life tale of Rudy Ruettiger - also 5-foot-7 - who went through a similar experience to play one game for Notre Dame in 1975.
"I've seen it more than 25 times," Higgins said. "I can relate."
Higgins' college career isn't quite over, however.
Recent NCAA legislation governing players who have graduated let them transfer and immediately be eligible for a fifth year. So Higgins is going next season to catch passes at The Citadel - where his father happens to be the head coach.
"It's going to be great," said Kevin Higgins, once the quarterbacks coach of the Detroit Lions. "I really haven't had a lot of time with him since he went away."
Plus, there might be some side benefits.
"I'm hoping he brings some of those plays from Florida," he said.
There was a time when the coach worried. Players in Higgins' position get pummeled, and Pop felt his boy's pain.
After Tim's freshman year, it was time for a father-and-son talk.
"I didn't know if he'd hold up after getting beat up," Kevin said. "I told him, 'I don't want you doing this just because of me."'
Tim wrote him a long letter - which dad saved - about going to Ben Hill Griffin Stadium each day. President of Florida's chapter of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, he prayed things would turn out right. Later, he tore a knee ligament.
"The first couple of years, they were tough," he said.
As a junior, Higgins wore the Florida uniform on the sidelines for the first time. He went on scholarship this season and his big chance came Nov. 18.
The Citadel had beaten Western Carolina, so Kevin Higgins knew a Florida rout was possible. Tim watched "Rudy" three times that week, just in case.
Because The Citadel played that night, Kevin couldn't go. But his wife and one of their daughters went, and were overwhelmed by what they saw: Tim's friends passed out leaflets at the stadium, telling his story and urging fans to call his name in the fourth quarter.
With fans chanting "We want Higgins!" as the Gators rolled 62-0, Meyer did more than merely put him in. The coach told quarterback Tim Tebow to show Higgins how to take a handoff.
Higgins carried one time for no gain. He wound up playing about a dozen snaps.
"It made it all worthwhile," Higgins said. "Everything I'd gone through, it was worth it."
A prep star in Michigan, and competitor in the National Spelling Bee, Higgins turned down chances to start at smaller colleges.
"I remember seeing when Chris Leak committed to Florida. He said that anyone who wanted to win a national championship should come down and join him," Higgins said. "Obviously, he wasn't talking about me. But I wanted to go."
Leak threw a touchdown pass to Higgins in the spring game as a freshman. That was his highlight, until this year.
His father planned to be in the stands Monday night. Kevin recently wrote Meyer, and hoped to thank him in person.
"He had a lot of big games to think about and didn't have to do what he did for Tim," the dad said. "But what he did for my son, that's what coaching is all about."