GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Tony and Jodie McCoy were in a suite at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium as part of the gathering to honor the 1990 and 1991 Florida teams last Saturday when Jodie got a phone call from her younger son.
Down on the field, the Gators had just lost their backup center and had pressed little-used, third-string redshirt freshman T.J. McCoy into his first meaningful action.
“We actually didn’t know what was going on because Tony was being honored so we were up in the box for the ’91 players, and I got a call from my younger son and he was like, ‘Mom, T.J.’s in the game.’ And I’m like, ‘Wait a minute, the game just started,'” Jodie recalled. “And I’m looking for a TV up there and I found one, and I’m like, ‘Hey, there’s TJ.’ I had to find his dad to get his attention (away) from all of his teammates.”
Tony McCoy was a defensive tackle for the Gators in 1987-88 and 1991 and would go on to play in the NFL for nine seasons. He is also the reason his son would eventually end up in Gainesville as well, but not through any urging of his own.
Florida hadn’t recruited the younger McCoy out of South Lake High School, about 90 miles south in Groveland, Fla., so he took a scholarship offer from N.C. State with his dad’s blessing to go where he could play.
He joined the Wolfpack in January 2015, had his parents come up for the team’s spring game and began to realize something was wrong.
His father started receiving treatment for leukemia in 2012, but his parents chose not to let T.J. know while he was so far away from home just how much Tony was struggling at the time. After the spring game trip, they let T.J. know that Tony wouldn’t be able to make it to any games once the season started.
“He really didn’t understand the magnitude of what his dad was going through because we pretty much kept that from him until he came home,” Jodie McCoy said. “Immediately he said, ‘I’m coming back home,’ and I said I want you to think about it for a couple of days.’
“After those three days he said, ‘You know what, I’m going to come home. I’m willing to lose my scholarship and just enroll in the fall if I’m not able to get (another football opportunity) in Florida. I just want to be closer to him and make sure dad’s OK.
“I believe God honors stuff like that.'”
Detour to Raleigh
T.J. McCoy didn’t get a lot of significant recruiting interest early in the process. He said, in part, it was because he wasn’t really selling himself enough by going to all of the various camps.
In the end, N.C. State wanted him and it seemed like a good fit.
“I always wanted to come to Florida, and I just didn’t get offered here, you know, when Coach Muschamp was here. So I just decided to go to NC State,” he said. “My father was still battling leukemia, but he told me to go somewhere that I could play and have an opportunity to play and, you know, make my dream come true playing college football and hopefully going to the NFL one day. And then I went to N.C. State, I’m sorry, it’s kind of emotional …”
Again, while Tony McCoy had been battling leukemia for a couple years, T.J. didn’t know how significant the illness had become in the time he had been away at college. His parents didn’t want him worrying about that.
“Dad came up there for a spring game and he was just, you know, he was throwing up a lot and it was just tough. I didn’t know none of this stuff was going on, I didn’t know he was still sick,” McCoy shared this week. “So my mom told me, like, he couldn’t come to any of my games throughout the season, so I was like, I don’t care if I have an offer or not, I just want to come home. I was contemplating just going to college, you know what I’m saying? Not even playing football.
“But Coach Mac gave me a call and he said he still wanted me to come, he wanted me to come be a Gator, and I was glad I got the opportunity. So it was a great opportunity to be close to home, play where my dad played and, you know, just start a new legacy here. My dad won the first SEC title in 1991 and I want to win a championship too.”
As Jodie McCoy tells it, NC State coach Dave Doeren was very cooperative when T.J. McCoy explained his dilemma. Ultimately, he released him from his scholarship, giving him the freedom to transfer.
“Coach Doeren totally understood. He did ask several times if he would consider, if he would give T.J. time off (before returning), and T.J. just wanted to be closer to home and closer to his dad,” she said. “T.J. playing football was a big thing and he always wanted his dad to be a part of it.”
Meanwhile back at Florida, Jim McElwain took over for Will Muschamp and identified offensive linemen as a top priority in recruiting.
Due to the timing of his hiring, he had missed the first window on McCoy, but he wouldn’t miss the second.
“Well, when we got in, our stretch and look to try to get some offensive linemen, he had already been committed. He was a mid-year guy, so we really didn’t get a chance to even, you know, kind of foster a relationship in that short period of time, decision-wise,” McElwain said. “With his father obviously playing here, the Gators meant something to him. I think it was always in the back of his mind and we’re really excited that we were able to get him back.”
Breakout game in Gainesville
Florida lost starting center Cam Dillard to a knee injury two weekends ago at Arkansas and slid right guard Tyler Jordan over to fill in last Saturday.
But after his first snap, Jordan went down with an ankle injury and hobbled off the field.
Suddenly, fans were looking on their phones to figure out who the Gators’ third-string center would be.
Enter T.J. McCoy.
“It was just like, ‘Wow, I’m about to play in my first SEC game against a good opponent.’ It was kind of surreal and it was very exciting,” McCoy said. “(Quarterback Austin Appleby) helped me a lot with the (linebacker) IDs and just keeping me calm and stuff like that. I’m a young player, he’s an older guy, so he was just ‘OK, it’s going to be OK.'”
By all accounts McCoy exceeded expectations in his first extensive action of the season. As he recalled, he had only played briefly in the Kentucky and North Texas games.
The offensive line would finish that game Saturday down three starters, but they allowed only one sack and the Gators averaged 4.6 yards per carry on the ground.
With McCoy right in the middle of it all.
“It was unreal. My dad told me what it was like playing in the Swamp when he played here back in the day. He didn’t do it justice,” he said, reflecting back on the experience. “So it was awesome scoring touchdowns and just being with my teammates and just getting a good win. It was very good, and I want to continue to keep playing.
“And right now I just have a servant’s attitude. Whatever they need me to do, that’s what I’m going to do.”
Jordan was able to return to practice this week and McElwain said he should be available as a back-up. It’s unclear whether the Gators feel they need him more at guard or center at this point.
Either way, McCoy made an impression Saturday.
“He stepped up and did way better than I thought he would,” right guard Fred Johnson said. “Playing next to him at guard, he was dominant and attacking every play like it was his last and stuff like that. So I was really happy that we found that foundation at center.
“He really (saw) it as an opportunity for him to just come out and show that he’s not (a) back burner-type guy and that he’s dominant and that he knows all his calls and things like that. It shows that he’s really dedicated himself to this program and his playbook.”
No matter how much McCoy plays the rest of this season, though, it will be hard to top the moment last Saturday, especially as his dad was honored on the field between the first and second quarters with those 1990-91 Florida teams that launched the program on its national rise.
Jodie McCoy said her husband is doing well and down to once-every-three-months chemo treatments at Shands hospital to keep his leukemia in remission.
And a much as he was pleased with the way McCoy stepped up on the field, McElwain especially appreciated the personal significance involved in that performance.
“You know guys, sometimes there’s a lot of things more important that go on, believe it or not, than Gator football itself. Part of that is relationships, part of that is what happens in real life,” McElwain said. “There’s a father and a son, the son living out a dream, father going through some things and I can’t tell you, man, that warms your heart.”