GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The Florida-Vanderbilt series doesn’t feature many memorable games, but one that sticks out is the double-overtime shootout in 2005.
Urban Meyer’s first UF team hosted the Commodores and star quarterback Jay Cutler, a future first-round pick in the upcoming NFL draft.
The Gators took a 35-21 lead with 4:11 left to play, but Cutler rallied his team back with two touchdown passes to tie the game. After trading scores in the first overtime, UF cornerback Reggie Lewis made his first-career interception to clinch a 49-42 win, the school’s 15th consecutive victory over Vandy.
But the Gators did lose something that night — the face of Florida football to a broken leg just before halftime.
“That was my last game in The Swamp,” said former UF cornerback Vernell Brown.
Brown was fielding a punt and two Vanderbilt players met him immediately after his catch. One gunner hit him high, the other got him low.
“I knew I had hurt something,” Brown said. “When I got up and started to walk, I sat back down to look at my leg because it felt real awkward.”
In the locker room, the team doctor diagnosed Brown with a broken fibula and a severe high ankle sprain. But he didn’t head to the hospital right away.
“I told them to put me in a boot,” Brown said. “I didn’t want to shower or anything. I just wanted to go back to the sideline with my team.
“I got teary-eyed watching the second half because that was my senior season and at the time, I didn’t know if I’d make it back. So I was emotional.”
It didn’t help that Cutler was carving up Florida’s secondary. Brown picked him off in the first quarter, but his injury allowed Cutler to throw for 361 yards and 4 touchdowns.
It also gave an opportunity to Lewis.
“He came in for me,” Brown said. “He wouldn’t have been in the game if I didn’t get hurt. For him to come in and make a play of that magnitude to end the game, it was huge.”
Brown missed the next two games, including the regular-season finale at home against rival Florida State.
“I was able to walk out on crutches for Senior Day,” he said.
The fifth-year senior did not want the final play of his college career to be a season-ending injury. He was determined to return for Florida’s bowl game against Iowa, but time was not on his side.
“Typical recovery for a broken leg is 10 weeks and I had to make it back in eight,” Brown said. “Honestly, the high-ankle sprain kept me out longer than the doggone broken leg.
“It was grind, just going to treatment several times a day and doing everything I possibly could. But I had to play in that Gator uniform one more time.”
That meant the world to Brown, a product of Gainesville, Fla. He had an up-and-down career at UF, playing for three different head coaches and switching from wide receiver to cornerback.
“I always had to work hard,” Brown said, “because I was told I couldn’t do a lot of stuff because of my stature (5-foot-8). And to be honest with you, how my career went the first three years, I had kind of turned the page on the NFL and was focused on graduating.
“But it’s amazing how if you keep pushing, everything comes full circle and things will work themselves out. I’m a testament to that.”
After recording no offensive or defensive stats as a junior, Brown became a full-time starter in 2005 and one of the team leaders. He made 41 tackles and 3 interceptions that season and signed a free-agent deal with the New England Patriots.
Meyer called him the face of Florida football, and his comeback from a broken leg only solidified that.
“It just showed how committed I was,” Brown said. “I think the coaches kind of took a liking to that. I did everything the right way and took pride in it. I was an overachiever.”
Brown got cleared on the day of the Outback Bowl and started for the Gators at cornerback. With just over two minutes to play in the first half, Brown intercepted Hawkeyes quarterback Drew Tate and returned it 60 yards for a touchdown.
His pick-six proved to be the difference in Florida’s 31-24 win.
“That moment felt so great,” Brown said. “I almost dropped the ball before I got in the end zone because I was so excited about celebrating. I crossed the goal line by maybe a hair, but once I did I just pointed to the man upstairs.”