10 Years Later, 9/11 Inspires Florida Walk-On

By Brett Kaplan

Ten years ago today was one of the worst days of my life. As a native New Yorker, I couldn’t believe my eyes when my mecca was destroyed by two planes in what’s most likely the worst event ever to happen on American soil. I remember being in Spanish class and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw what had happened. To make things worse, my father was set to fly to New York that day. Luckily, he missed his first flight and wasn’t able to go up there. Still, thoughts of friends and family left in New York raced through my head. At the end of the day, I ended up being pretty lucky. All of my friends and family were OK, but my psyche has forever changed.

September 11, 2001 may not seem like it’s all that important for the sports world, but it certainly has made an impact. From the New York Yankees going to the World Series in 2001, to football helping heal America’s wounds, sports were an integral part of our recovery and resiliency. From a Gators standpoint, Florida probably had it’s best accumulation of talent ever, except for maybe the 2008 team. The 2001 team was stacked with Rex Grossman just beginning to show his talent, a stacked wide receiving corps and a stout defense. Florida was coming off thrashings of Marshall and Louisiana-Monroe. Then those two planes struck those towers and affected the entire season. Their game against bitter rival Tennessee was moved to December 1st in the wake of the terrorist attacks. Florida ended up losing to Tennessee at home, a game which many contend they would have one if it had been regularly scheduled. The Volunteers used the extra time to come together as a team and beat the Gators in The Swamp, ruining Florida’s SEC title chances and national championship plans. I still say if it weren’t for 9/11, Florida would have won their second national championship that season, but we’ll never know the truth.

Ten years later, Florida football is still being effected by the events on that faithful day. But this time, it’s inspiration for one Florida player. Walk-on fullback Jesse Schmitt knows he’s not the most talented football player on a team that’s consistently brought in top five recruiting classes. But he just may be the strongest. At 5’7″ and 177 lbs, Schmitt is undersized to say the least. But when Florida put on it’s Charity Challenge, Schmitt shined in the spotlight. Schmitt participated in a push up competition and went neck and neck against cornerback Jeremy Brown. But after Brown collapsed after about 180 push ups, Schmitt’s teammates swarmed around him, cheering for him. Schmitt’s explanation for his push up prowess?

“I’m actually going into the Marine corps after college, so I did my training last summer and we did a lot of pushups there, that certainly helped. I’ve got a lower body weight than most of those guys by at least 100 pounds, so that comes in handy.”

Just like I remember 10 years ago, Schmitt was in his fifth grade math class when his teacher put on the news. Being in fifth grade, he didn’t really realize the scale and importance of the events that had happened that day. But in the months and years that followed, reality began to set in for Schmitt. Schmitt’s family has been heavily involved in the military, with his father was a marine, his paternal grandfather served in the Army, and his maternal grandfather telling stories about his flying missions in World War II. As patriotism grew all around the country, the Schmitt household also embraced their military traditions and the way they served their country. September 11 is a day that lives in infamy, but also a day that has pushed Schmitt to do what he’s doing today. His father says that the events that day certainly have affected him:

“I know that that day had an impact on him as it had on all of us. That’s got to be part of it. It certainly affected him.’’

Jump to back to 2011. Schmitt played his high school football at Cardinal Newman in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. When he tried out for the team in 2009, he was told good luck, but there wasn’t any space for him. He used that as motivation to train all of 2010 to make the team in 2011. To train, he went to Quantico, VA, where the Marine Corps Base and Officer Candidate School is located, in the summer of 2010. Six weeks of brutal mental and physical training helped Schmitt pass his first test as a Marine and in the meantime added muscle and speed to restart his football career. His reasoning:

“I realized how much I missed football. I missed playing, being part of a team, having something to work toward. So I said, ‘OK, this is an opportunity. I’ll take the entire year to get bigger, faster, stronger, and I’ll try out again.’ I did that and they took me.’’

Schmitt represents the blue collar identity of this Florida Gators team. He’s certainly a favorite of head coach Will Muschamp, just like punter David Lerner, who’s dealing with Crohn’s Disease, yet quite possibly could be the Gators starting punter. Muschamp glows when he talks about Schmitt and what he brings to the team:

“We are proud to have someone like Jesse be part of our program. I tell our players if you think you are facing adversity, here is a guy that is going to protect and serve our country. His level of commitment and unselfishness is at the core of what you are looking for when you are building a solid team or unit. It is an honor to have the opportunity to coach him.’’

Playing mostly on the scout team, Schmitt loves playing football again and is using the experiences he’s faced in football to translate to his future career in the military. At just 20 years old, Schmitt has a long way to go before he can think about suiting up for America’s real team, the Marine Corps. He must still complete his final six week training session in Virginia while hitting the books hard. His recruiter, Captain Robert A. Brooks sees Schmitt as the perfect candidate for the Marine Corps:

“He has that fight in him. He may not be the biggest or strongest, but he’s the one that not’s going to quit. He’s a Rudy. Jesse has the motivation required. He’s got that self drive that is illustrated through his academic as well as him playing football. He’s a walk-on, so there is no guarantee of playing time, but he still goes out there and busts his [butt] every day.’’

Jesse Schmitt’s parents, Bruce and Jerri, have their concerns about their son joining the military in unstable times. But they support their son 100% when he made his decision in high school to serve his country. His decision was based largely on the people he respected, with his father and grandparents being near the top:

“I wanted to be like these people. My dad was on there, my grandfather, historical figures – some of them were movie heroes; they weren’t even real people. Regardless, I kept looking at it and a lot of them were veterans or had been in the military. I decided on the Marine Corps partially because of my father and partially because I like to challenge myself and go for the best.’’

His father, Bruce, knows his son will be successful because he says Jesse can do anything once he puts his mind to it:

“He’s an American kid. He is very proud of his country. I never really encouraged him to do so, but I’m proud of the fact that he is and I’m proud of the fact that he wants to serve his country. You are always scared about your son being in harm’s way, but on the other side of the coin, you are very proud that he chooses to defend his country.’’

Schmitt will be a second lieutenant in the United State Marine Corps the day after he receives his degree from the University of Florida. He’s double majoring in political science and economics with minors in public leadership and international relations. After serving in the Marines, Schmitt would like to become an elected official, serving his country in another way. And if Jesse Schmitt puts his mind to it, he’ll most likely do it. Schmitt knows that 9/11 helped him get to where he is today and where he wants to be. As he and the country rallied together in patriotism since that day 10 years ago, the Gator Nation, college football, and the rest of the United States can rest easy, rallying behind Schmitt.

From Florida Gator walk-on to military officer, here’s to wishing good luck to Jesse Schmitt in all of his endeavors. The Gator Nation couldn’t be prouder of him as we reflect on the events that happened 10 years ago.

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