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‘The Ultimate Success Story’ : That’s What Florida Coach Steve Spurrier Calls Chris Doering’s Journey From Walk-On to Star Receiver

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For Chris Doering, the one thing more difficult than becoming a walk-on at the University of Florida will be becoming a walk-off.

“I just want to savor this week,” he said, “this last game as a Gator.”

Doering ends one of the more implausible climbs in college football Tuesday when he lines up at receiver for No. 2 Florida in his team’s national championship game against No. 1 Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl.

This is how Doering played it out in his backyard all those sticky summer nights in Gainesville, catching post patterns in the most important Florida game ever.

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In four more quarters, though, it all comes crashing down.

And then what?

On the Nov. 25 bus ride toward his last home game at “the Swamp” against Florida State, Doering choked up as he peered out at the fans who lined the route.

“It was just realizing this would be the last time I’d play in front of those fans,” he said.

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Getting to Florida consumed Doering, taking “total time, thought and effort.”

He overcame more rejection than a 17-year-old should: the Gator door that snapped shut in his face, the recruiting calls that never came, the graduate assistant who laughed when Doering’s high school coach dropped off a highlight film.

How many times can a kid cry into his pillow?

There was a spite-filled tryout with hated rival Florida State--the chance to stick it back in Florida’s face--before Doering came to his senses at a Florida-Florida State baseball game in Gainesville.

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“Florida State was doing that little [tomahawk] chop thing,” Doering said, “and I realized that was something I had grown up hating and something I really didn’t want to be a part of.”

Doering was born a Gator on May 19, 1973. He was raised by Gator graduates, who spoon-fed him Gator lore.

As if by osmosis, at an early age, he even started to resemble a former Gator, receiver Cris Collinsworth.

“I used to brag about it when I was younger,” Doering said.

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Florida Coach Steve Spurrier calls Doering the “ultimate college football success story,” but it wasn’t as though Spurrier ever paid a recruiting visit.

Considered too slow, too skinny, and not of Florida ilk, Doering has persevered to become one of the Gators’ all-time great receivers.

This season, he has caught 70 passes for 1,045 and 17 touchdowns. His 149 career receptions are the fourth most in Florida history, 29 more than Collinsworth totaled in the late ‘70s.

Doering’s 31 touchdown receptions are a Southeastern Conference record.

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“If I was any good at all, I’d probably have 60,” Doering joked recently.

No one but Doering knows what he endured to get here, or how hard it’s going to be to leave.

“The best five years of my life,” he said of his stay at Florida.

Doering thought it was his birthright to play football at Florida. Since age 5, he attended Gator home games with his parents. His father, Paul, has been a Florida professor for 20 years.

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Doering attended Gator football camps, hung posters in his room, memorized the fight song.

While he was the self-proclaimed “skinny white dude” at Gainesville’s P.K. Yonge High School, Doering made all-state as a senior, good enough credentials, he thought, to warrant consideration from his beloved Florida.

“I didn’t consider myself a longshot,” Doering said. “I thought I had the ability to play at a major Division I school, but a lot of other coaches didn’t see it the same way.”

The recruiting season came and went, and Doering was left standing at the mailbox.

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“The low point in my recruitment was the entire recruitment,” he said. “It was something I should have known. I wasn’t getting many calls or letters. I kept thinking sooner or later the Gators would come through and sign me late, but that didn’t happen. It was something I should have seen coming, but I really didn’t allow myself to see it coming.”

Doering, 6 feet 4, was painfully thin and his 40-yard time of 4.9 had him rubber-stamped for Division III.

But he never gave up hope of playing at Florida.

“Sometimes people are just born with a little something that drives them,” he said. “I think it’s a disposition about all that stuff. You’ve got to be able to take criticism, people telling you you can’t do it. You have to battle through that stuff.”

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Doering credits Florida receiver coach Dwayne Dixon for giving him the courage to make a walk-on attempt.

Once Doering hit the field, he knew he was home.

He made one catch in 1992, his red-shirt freshman season, a 12-yarder in the rain at Tennessee. To Doering, it was bigger than Dwight Clark’s.

The weekend before the 1993 opener, Spurrier announced in a team meeting Doering had earned his scholarship. As teammates whooped and hollered, Doering hurried to sign the papers before Spurrier changed his mind.

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His breakout game came in the second game against Kentucky. Doering had six catches for 95 yards, including the game-winning, 28-yarder with three seconds left.

“That night, no one knew who he was,” Kentucky defensive coordinator Mike Archer says. “After that final touchdown, I knew who he was right then. I said this kid is going to be something.”

For Doering, there would be plenty of finishing work. After walking on to the roster, he proceeded directly to the weight room, where he has added 20 pounds to get to about 180 and lowered his 40 time to 4.5.

He and quarterback Danny Wuerffel have honed their patterns to near perfection.

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Their favorite route is the post-corner, a play that is as unstoppable as it is predictable.

Doering still isn’t the fastest receiver around but, in football, the catch does not always go to the swift.

“He’s a great route runner,” Nebraska defensive coordinator Charlie McBride said. “Those guys [Doering and Wuerffel] have spent a lot of time together. The timing of those guys is, I hate to say it, but it’s beautiful.”

Doering has become a poster child for overachieving. He frequently speaks to youth groups and schools about the power of positive thinking.

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“I really do have a good story to tell,” he said. “I believed in myself and I was able to accomplish a lot of things.”

A few weeks ago Collinsworth, the former NFL star turned television analyst, sent Doering a telegram of congratulation.

“It’s funny to hear him talk like I’m his hero now,” Doering said.

Doering doesn’t consider himself the comeback kid anymore.

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“A lot of times people think it’s a compliment when they say, ‘He was a walk-on,’ ” Doering said. “I just want to be considered like everyone else. I’m on scholarship. They pay for my school.”

As he wraps up his Florida fairy tale and awaits the chance to confound NFL skeptics, Doering wonders about the countless others out there like him who dared to dream but didn’t follow through.

“Maybe they don’t have the initiative to go out there and get it,” he said. “It is a tough road, and not everyone can do it. Certainly, though, I think if a lot of people tried, they could have a lot of the success that I’ve had.”


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