Jan 4, 2014

An Open Letter to Blake Bortles

Dear Blake -

Hi.  How are you doing?  Pretty big week this week, wasn't it?  It must be hard to wrap your mind around.  On Tuesday, you were the starting quarterback of UCF - the "undeserving" recipient of the last BCS-based American Conference invite to a "big BCS bowl."  On Thursday, you were the Bearkiller.  MVP of the Fiesta Bowl.  Mr Clutch.  Hot NFL draft commodity.  Subject of an ESPN poll about if we knew who you were or not.  Topic of national sports discussion on various outlets (Dan Patrick, ESPN, NFL).  Quite the life-altering week.

You don't know me.  I don't really know you.  I know your mom (unlike the ESPN cameramen).  She was the preschool teacher for both of my sons.  I have a distant memory of a young version of you at some event for the preschool.  But we don't know each other at all.  I have watched you play.  As a fan, I have definitely cheered loudly for you.  Truthfully, there were times I yelled at you for some mistake you make.  But for the most part, I have just been impressed by you.  Your talent, your poise, your leadership, your guts, your fearlessness, your heart.  You are that kind of athlete that it is easy for a fan to cheer for.  You aren't surly or self-absorbed.  You don't have a long rap sheet of off the field mistakes. You say all the right stuff.  And you win.

You are probably too young to really understand what you mean to a UCF fan.  We have lived in the shadows of the "big boys" of college football for decades.  Twenty years ago we started to build a "real" football team.  We wanted to be taken seriously as a university and knew that it would never happen without that feature.  We went through years and years of playing in the bowels of college football.  Then we went through years and years of close calls - big games where we played valiantly and failed.  Nebraska. Georgia. Mississippi State, Ohio State. We came close so many times, but still lost.  Then we watched as other upstart programs gained the respect we so desperately craved.  Boise State went from being a potato farm to a BCS buster.  East Carolina, Appalachian State, Miami (Ohio).  They all took down the big guys.  And then worst of all, that stinking, no good USF started up a football program after us, raced past us, gained national notoriety, beat the crap out of us, and then dismissed us as a pointless frivolity they needn't be bothered with.

For years, we had to listen to USF fans mouth off at us.  They could win all these big time games.  We never could.  (The fact they consistently lost to teams "beneath them" was conveniently left out of the argument.  But I digress...)  Fans of the big dog schools like UF and FSU and UM were cruel.  They were bullies.  They ridiculed us and ignored us.  We were their "cupcake" scheduling.  It got to be disheartening.  And every time we made a little progress, it seemed like we got beaten back again.

We knew we had potential.  But it started to sound like one of those people on American Idol who swear they "can sing."  We sounded delusional.  Every time we went into a big game and tried to convince people (and ourselves) that we could win, well, they called us crazy.  And it was crazy.  Even when we beat a dominant program (like Alabama), it was when they were in a bad year.  It felt like we were forever stuck in the land of irrelevance.  The final straw was when we finally scratched our way into a BCS conference, it was one that was completely in shambles.

But that was all before you, before this year.  This year, everything changed.  This year, all of those pieces that never quite came together suddenly fit.  All of those nagging weaknesses that had crippled us for years seemed to disappear.  We went into Penn State and won a tough game.  We hosted #6 South Carolina on national television and almost won.  No, we should have won.  Even South Carolina fans admit they got away with that game.  See, I live in Columbia, SC now.  Nobody was crowing after that game up here.  They knew they got lucky.  Then we beat Louisville, even though it seemed impossible.  No game was ever over until the gun went off.  People starting calling UCF the Cardiac Knights.  They pulled most games out of their . . . um . . . armor.  See, we normally lost those games.  There were other years when we had success within our grasp and managed to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory.  That Temple game this year?  The USF one?  The SMU Ice Bowl?  Those are games we would have lost in other years.  But not this team. They never gave up.

Well, you never gave up.  You had that same quality about you that Peyton Manning and Andrew Luck and John Elway had.  When things got tough, when your back was against the wall, you refused to buckle.  Even the South Carolina game was that way.  If the game had another minute in it, we would have been 12-0.  No game was truly lost.  It was terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

Then came the Fiesta Bowl.  For weeks, people asked me how I thought UCF would do.  I said the same thing.  "Of all of the BCS teams, I think we have the best shot against Baylor.  It will be tough.  But I think we have a chance."  Man, did we.  We beat the most explosive offense in the country by 10 points - even though we had back to back to back turnovers.  There is no explanation for that.  That was the kind of momentum shift that used to kill UCF.  It looked like the South Carolina game.  But that collapse never happened.  That Baylor explosion never came.  And when you came out in the second half and scored on four straight possessions, people all over the country finally realized that UCF truly did belong on the big stage.  And you belonged on the big stage, probably the biggest stage.  Blake Bortles - NFL quarterback.

Most of the discussion in the last few days has been about if you are coming back to UCF next year.  I admit, I am curious as well.  I certainly would love for you to return.  But...

I watched Daunte Culpepper from his first game at UCF to his last.  I remember mentally pleading with him to come back in his senior year to give us a chance to go 11-0.  He did come back, but we never did reach the zenith with him.  Then Kevin Smith came along.  We all psychically urged him to return as well, but he didn't.  He went to the NFL.  Staying may have helped his career, but not his knees.  Here we are again with a superstar.  And the UCF fan in me wants to beg again for you to come back, to possibly take us even farther into our destiny.  But that wouldn't be fair.

You have done more for UCF than we could have imagined.  You have put our entire school on your shoulders and carried us all the way to Glendale and back.  You pulled us those last steps that we never seemed to be able to make.  We are now nationally recognized.  We have gained respect.  UCF is not just a directional Florida school.  It is a team to be reckoned with.  What more could we ask of you?  In my wildest dreams, I think that we could run the table and maybe snag one of those four playoff spots next January.  In more realistic thoughts, I imagine that we will end up in another prestigious bowl with another big payday to invest in the future.  You'll be a Heisman candidate.  We'll have a great year.

Or.... You could get hurt.  God forbid, you could get hurt.  Or we could just as easily lose a few of those nailbiters we won this year.  You could see your draft stock drop like Matt Barkley did.  I don't want that to happen.  So, that is why I am not going to beg you to come back.  I want you to do what is best for you.  I want you to go to the NFL if you think that is the best thing for your future.  I want you to come back if you think the extra experience will help.  But don't come back for us.  You've already given us everything we could ask and more.  If you leave, I will root for you every Sunday.  I'll probably get a "Bortles" jersey.  If you can manage to get picked by the Jaguars, I'll be over the moon happy.  I will support you in the pros just like every UCF alum out there.  Actually, that's not true.  I'll support you more.  That's how fans show their gratitude.

So, thank you for your time at UCF.  Thank you for helping us to believe the crazy can happen.  Thank you for never giving up, even when you could have justified doing that.  And thank you for helping us to know what it feels like to "win the big game."  I wish you all the best - be it in Orlando, Jacksonville, Oakland, or Cleveland.  (Well, I wish you better than Cleveland.)  I'll follow you on Saturdays or Sundays, whatever you choose.  Blake and Gold, all the way.

Your Appreciative Fan,


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