It sounded a lot like a script for a Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler movie. The football coach at one of the best programs in the nation wants to find the fastest students on campus and see whether they can compete against his well-trained, finely sculpted football players in the 40-yard dash. The race will take place at the team's annual spring football game, in front of a record 61,000 people, including ESPN's "College GameDay" crew. If one of the 15 student finalists has the best time, that student wins a full scholarship.
Of course, had things played out on Saturday like in Ferrell's and Sandler's sports movies, then (a) Florida coach Urban Meyer would have been very upset and (b) these next few paragraphs would detail an amazing triumph by Joe Student. Unfortunately for those students who raced against Gator players at Florida's spring game, it played out as expected in real life: The fastest student on campus was indeed a football player -- celebrated running back Chris Rainey, who dusted everyone with a 4.27. Florida fans were probably a little bit more impressed with Rainey's 75 yards on the ground and his 65-yard touchdown reception.
"Thank god we didn't lose a scholarship," Meyer said. "[Athletic director Jeremy Foley] would have me in his office, shelling out a $35,000 to $40,000 scholarship to a guy that wins that race."
Rainey nearly gave the student body unbelievable bragging rights. He was confused about the starting directions, and fans watched in horror as he stood still while his competition sped off. Rainey was allowed a do-over. No word on whether Tim Donaghy was the race official.
It might have been just fun for Rainey, but for many who participated in the process to find the fastest student, this race was serious business.
After Florida announced the contest, 225 students showed up for the first of three tryouts to determine the finalists. On Saturday, those finalists were placed in three groups, with a Florida football player in each group.
Of course, more than a few goofballs showed up during the qualifying tryouts. One guy came as soon as his class ended and ran the 40 in his jeans. Another ran in his khakis and a button-down shirt. One student tripped halfway through his race and landed on his face.
"I saw this big dude running as fast as he could and he couldn't even finish the whole 40 yards," said Rontavious Ford, a UF sophomore who ran a respectable 4.55 on Saturday. "He just jogged the rest of the way. I think he ran a 9.0."
But a huge chunk of the students were like Ford -- former high school athletes who longed for the chance to show everyone they were just as good as the guys on scholarship. Ford hoped he could catch Meyer's eye and, with a little determination, maybe he could become one of the privileged few to play college football.
"In life, you only get a couple shots," Ford said "When you get a chance, you can't miss it. You have to take advantage of it."
Rodney Richards, a junior who works two jobs, trained intensively for a couple of weeks to prepare for the tryouts. He ran at UF's track just about every day, often past midnight. He did lunges with 55-pound weights. He ran the steps in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. He even worked out with a high school track coach in Gainesville. But in the end, he wasn't among the 15 finalists.
"I didn't want to embarrass myself," he said.
Things might not have turned out the way the hopefuls desired, but you have to give Meyer credit for this bit of marketing genius. He's part of a select group of coaches who seem to get that connecting with students is a must. Bruce Pearl painted his chest orange and cheered frantically with students at a Lady Vols game. During the NCAA tournament, the trustees at Davidson paid for students to travel to Detroit for the Sweet 16.
Meyer is from the same school of thought. Not only did his spring game have this Pros vs. Joes element, but fans could take a picture with the Heisman Trophy and the national championship trophy, catch a kickoff from kicker Caleb Sturgis, engage in a field goal contest with kicker Jonathan Phillips, and catch a pass from Tim Tebow. It might seem hokey to some, but this is the stuff that works. And it's why Meyer remains a popular figure among the student body.
"He knows how to bring exposure to his school," said junior Jesus Gangi, who came out for tryouts but wasn't fast enough for the finals.
But most importantly, for one afternoon, a bunch of students got to experience what it's like every Saturday for their team -- screaming fans, big-time stakes and, sometimes, losing.
"A lot of people came out thinking they could play in Ben Griffin Stadium," said Gangi, who played high school football. "It's a different life. You're chasing a dream."
Jemele Hill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.