Originally posted on Fox Sports Florida  |  Last updated 10/29/11
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. His teammates and coaches were dressed and already on the team buses, burdened by a fourth consecutive loss. John Brantley limped slowly down a corridor deep inside EverBank Field in their direction. The protective boot that has been his right foot's constant companion for a month was back on. Brantley had shed it for four hours Saturday for a game that's in his blood. He grew up attending and watching the Florida-Georgia game as a diehard Gator fan. After all those years dreaming about playing in the game one day, there was no way Brantley was going to miss his final one as a member of the Gators. Fresh off finishing his post-game press conference Saturday night, Brantley hobbled past a golf cart. The security guard resting on the cart asked a Gators football official Dan Apple if Brantley wanted a ride. "He toughed it out for four hours," Apple said, "I think he'll be OK to make it to the bus." As Florida's season dipped to its deepest low on Saturday a 4-4 record and the program's first four-game losing streak since 1988 with Saturday's 24-20 loss to the Bulldogs the Gators don't have to look far for inspiration. If the Gators are going to turn their season around in the final month, the guy who returned to the huddle is their best chance. He wore his usual No. 12 Saturday and played for the first time since being helped off Florida Field on Oct. 1 with an injury that looked bad and was bad. The final prognosis was a severe right ankle sprain. When Brantley fell to the turf that night and TV replays showed Alabama's Courtney Upshaw sacking Brantley and twisting his leg in a way that legs don't normally bend, many questioned if they would see Brantley in a Gator uniform again. Four weeks later, Brantley was back in his element. The road back included more hours spent in the trainer's room than he ever imagined. Florida-Georgia served as his inspiration. "I wanted to be back out there with the guys," he said. "I missed that. As a Gator fan growing up, this is the one game you always want each year." And Brantley picked up where he left off after passing for 190 yards in the first half against Alabama a career-high for a half. He had the Gators in front 17-10 at halftime on Saturday by throwing for 226 yards in the opening half. He was sacked five times in the opening half and decked to the ground several times. Brantley kept getting back up. "I think that he's a warrior," Gators running back Jeff Demps said. "I'd say he was about 75 percent his whole week. For him to come out and battle through it like he did and play like he did and to take the shots and still stayed in and never complained one time to me, that's the definition of a warrior." The Gators showed the kind of life that had been missing the past month during Brantley's absence. If there was any question about Brantley's importance to the first team of the Will Muschamp coaching era, there should be none now. The Gators go the way Brantley goes. And now they must follow his lead more than ever. Brantley laid out the plan in its simplest form following Saturday's disappointing defeat. "We've got to stick together," he said. "We've got to forget about these past four games and just move forward and stick together. There is no pointing fingers, we're a family." The second half of Brantley's comeback start was not nearly as kind as the first. Brantley looked slower as his ankle grew bigger. He said he didn't take shots for the pain, instead opting to grind it out and see if he could will Florida to its first victory since Sept. 24 at Kentucky. Brantley's gallant effort was not enough. He finished 12 of 34 for 245 yards and one touchdown. He was sacked six times and beaten up by a Georgia defense that could smell blood as Brantley's mobility stiffened. His ankle was so sore he could only take snaps from the shotgun. While Brantley struggled to move his body and the Gators' offense, his teammates took notice. "He's a tough, man," defensive tackle Omar Hunter said. "I told him all the time since he got hurt that I missed him being out there. He brings a lot of the juice to me personally. He brought me a lot of juice tonight, seeing him to be able to make those plays when he was hurting." Brantley downplayed questions about the pain he was in. He just wanted to help the Gators and lead the seniors to their fourth consecutive win over Georgia. That's Brantley's style. The Bulldogs prevented that from happening, overcoming a 14-point deficit, and beating Florida for the first time since 2007. Muschamp, the former Bulldog trying to make his mark as a Gator, said there was no mystery as to why the Gators lost. "We had our opportunities in the game," Muschamp said. "When you have two turnovers inside your 25-yard line and you give up 14 points on two critical fourth-down plays, the lack of being able to run the football, too many penalties in critical situations The Gators might not have won a game in October, but their quarterback won perhaps the most difficult stretch of his career. He played against Georgia. "It was a gutsy performance on his part," Muschamp said. "I'm proud of him and his effort a guy who really laid it on the line." It's time for the Gators to do the same. They don't have to look far for their inspiration. He was the last guy standing Saturday, hobbling toward the team bus.
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