Flashback: December 4, 2004. Urban Meyer spurned Notre Dame to come to Gainesville as the Gators' replacement for the Great Mistake that was Ron Zook. One of his goals, announced almost immediately on arrival: Making special teams great.
Boy, did he ever.
No matter how many of his players were arrested in his six years in Gainesville (31), no matter how many times he was criticized for being a snake on the recruiting trail (please, like he's the only one) and no matter how bitter of a taste he left in Florida fans' mouths for the way he left Gainesville, I will defend to my death one shining fact: His special teams were the best in the nation, and maybe the best of all time.
One of the reasons why was this little guy from St. Augustine named Brandon James. How many barbers did he put out of work thanks to coaches pulling their hair out over some of his incredible punt/kick returns? That's like asking somebody to count all the grains of sand at the beach. Okay, that may be a slight exaggeration, but the point is, James was a freak of nature. His video game moves, along with the uncanny ability to never fumble while making said moves, combined to drive coaches absolutely bonkers for four straight years.
But when I first talked to James about doing an interview, I chose to divert away from the Xs and Os of each and every return (though we do get into that a little; neither one of us could resist going through some of his best returns), because anybody can go onto YouTube and see for themselves, and anybody who is already extremely excited about hearing my entire conversation with Brandon about his career is probably a big enough Florida fan to remember them anyway. Brandon could go through them, and say, "Well, I caught the kick, put my foot in the ground, made two guys miss, and the rest was a footrace," but ... the hell with that. That's boring.
Brandon James ain't boring.
Instead, I decided to make our conversation a long, audio biography, taking readers back to the glory days of Florida football from 2006 to 2009, and going through game by game. But instead of just reading about them through an Associated Press game recap, for the first time, James himself takes us through them himself, throwing in his personal reactions and feelings and then takes us inside the locker room to hear some post game thoughts from teammates and coaches (it's been awhile though, so forgive him for not being able to remember everything).
In addition, we get some inside information on some other interesting topics, including the plethora of suspensions for the 2008 Hawaii game, what he thought of Georgia's celebration in 2007 and Florida's response the following year, how Brandon grew up a Florida State fan, and who he was pointing to after returning the punt for a touchdown against Tennessee in 2008.
Clear about two hours for this, because that's how long Mr. James graciously agreed to talk for. I split it into 10 parts, in case you don't have just under two hours of free time to devote to this right now.
Part one: Brandon's childhood, recruitment, and freshman year (2006) up through the Auburn game.
Part two: 2006 season from the aftermath of the Auburn game through the SEC Championship Game. Also, Brandon talks about the impact young players have on the game of football.
Part three: We go from the 2007 BCS Championship Game, including an extremely bold prediction by a then Florida senior that paid off, through the first three games of the 2007 season in which Brandon talks about his punt return TD against Tennessee.
Part four: The rest of the 2007 season. Brandon talks about the team's maturity level and mindset after the great escape against Ole Miss, takes us through Georgia's end zone stomp in 2007 and then describes what it was like watching Tim Tebow build up his Heisman resume.
Part five: The especially grueling offseason and the first two games of the 2008 season. Brandon discusses the suspensions for the Hawaii game, the overall tone of the Miami rivalry and Randy Shannon's refusal to shake Meyer's hand.
Part six: The 2008 season, from the Tennessee game through the Georgia game. Included are James' big kick return TD against the Vols, the Ole Miss loss and the aftermath, how loud the Swamp got during the Gators' blowout of LSU and what it was like watching Meyer call timeouts late to rub it in against Georgia.
Part seven: 2008 season, from the Vanderbilt game to the SEC Championship Game against Alabama. Included: Brandon discusses the role of Florida's toughness against the Crimson Tide.
Part eight: The 2009 BCS Championship Game and the preparation thereof, plus the first four games of the 2009 season, including Lane Kiffin's never ending trash talk and Tim Tebow's concussion.
Part nine: Brandon discusses his personal success amid the Gators' early season struggles. Then we go through the rest of the 2009 regular season, culminating with an extremely emotional senior day win over FSU. Also included: Brandon Spikes's Washaun Ealey eye-poking incident in the Georgia game, and ensuing suspension.
Part ten: Brandon's heartbreaking farewell to college football, along with his teammates' redemption in the Sugar Bowl. Also: Meyer's dominance over rivals and how he does it.
And, of course, the highlights:
...and then there's this reminder: Brandon has graciously agreed to talk to us after every game this Florida football season, and provide his insights on what went right and wrong for a conversation we're going to be posting Tuesday mornings. So look out for The Return Game.