'This is a beautiful town.' Former Florida Gators on why they will never leave Gainesville

Like comets blazing through the night sky, student-athletes often come and go during their four years competing for the University of Florida.

Some stay in Gainesville, where they establish career success, raise families and give back to the community. It's a simpler life compared to moving on to a bigger city, but the benefits of living in a college town can have its allure, especially for athletes who develop brand names from their success at The Swamp or the O'Connell Center.

Here are examples of some former Gator athletes who call the Gainesville area home, and why they stuck around:

Former Florida football WR Chris Doering: Gainesville born, bred

Chris Doering is proud of his Gainesville roots. Not only was Doering born and raised in Gainesville, but it was where he shaped his boyhood dream of playing football at the University of Florida and in the NFL.

Long before wearing a Florida Gators uniform, Doering recalled his favorite memories growing up in Gainesville, which included playing frisbee in the Plaza of the Americas on UFֱs campus and attending just about every Gator sporting event he could.

ֱWhen I was a kid, Florida Field had the Astroturf so the stadium was open all the time,ֱ Doering said. ֱI grew up playing soccer so my dad would take me over there and not only throw the football, but weֱd kick field goals. I had a tee and did the whole thing there.ֱ

Doering became a star three-sport athlete at P.K. Yonge High and walked on as a wide receiver at Florida. Steve Spurrier awarded Doering a scholarship at UF before the start of the 1993 season, which turned out to be a smart move. Doering emerged as an All-SEC standout and caught 31 career TD passes at UF from 1992-95, a school record that still stands.

ֱInstead of pressure, everyone in Gainesville, I felt supported and celebrated for what I was able to do,ֱ Doering said. ֱI felt like I was almost doing what everybody else had wanted to do but never got the chance, I was like the guy who got a chance to cross that velvet rope and experience what a lot of the people growing up in Gainesville only dreamt about doing.ֱ

Gainesville is always a safe home base

A 10-year NFL career followed, but Doering always kept residence in Gainesville, where he married his high school sweetheart and raised a family. His two adult children, Tyson and Taylor, grew up in Gainesville and his daughter, Taylor, recently graduated from UF.

ֱOver that 10-year span I got cut 10 different times, I moved 22 different times, all over the country,ֱ Doering said. ֱBut Gainesville was always kind of a safe home base, a haven from everything else.ֱ

Now 51, Doering still calls Gainesville home. Itֱs where he established a successful business, Chris Doering Mortgage. It was an unlikely career choice, considering Doering didnֱt have a finance background, having earned his UF degree in telecommunications.

ֱA buddy of mine had a mortgage company up in the Daytona area, suggested that we open one here in Gainesville with my name on it and his understanding of the business,ֱ Doering said.

The company opened in April of 2007 and celebrated its 17th anniversary two months ago. There were some rocky times in the beginning, but Doering and his hard-working staff persevered from 2007-10 through the Subprime Mortgage Crisis.

Former Florida wide receiver Chris Doering stands in the lobby of his mortgage company Friday afternoon, May 31, 2024. Doering just celebrated the 17th year anniversary of Chris Doering Mortgage located at 3940 NW 16th Blvd A, in Gainesville, FL. The former Gator decided to stayed in the Gainesville community and has made an impact. [Doug Engle/Ocala Star Banner]2024

ֱIn hindsight, it was actually great timing because the contrarian point of view is always one you have more success with,ֱ Doering said. ֱSo, everybody else was getting out of the business, we were getting in, and we were cutting our teeth in a very vanilla time in the mortgage world, and we were able to learn and grow market share during a time where everyone else was kind of contracting.ֱ

Some around the office know Doering as the local Gator sports hero (former teammate and UF kicker Judd Davis works for him as a loan originator). Doeringֱs NFL jerseys adorn the walls of the business lobby. Doering also has put his telecommunications degree to use as a college football analyst for the SEC Network, and some in the office give him a hard time if heֱs critical of the hometown Gators.

Like football, it takes teamwork to close a mortgage deal, and Doering takes pride in how his business impacts the community.

ֱWe have the ability to help someone who has never bought a home before, buy their first home,ֱ Doering said. ֱWe have the ability to help refinance somebody to a more affordable payment to take stress off of them so seeing the deeper meaning in what we do to help effect other peopleֱs lives is something thatֱs given me a lot more satisfaction in what we do here, as opposed to just looking at it as a transaction.ֱ

ֱ Kevin Brockway, The Gainesville Sun

'It's Home.' Former Gator swimmer Jeff Montgomery never considered leaving

ֱJeff Montgomery had a fancy new University of Florida diploma and a big future in finance. At least thatֱs what his old friends from Gainesville High thought.

Then one of them pulled her car into the Shell station on Newberry Road. Beth Graves, daughter of the retired UF football coach, never expected the guy with the big future to beֱworking there.

ֱJob market pretty tough, huh?ֱ she said.

Montgomery laughed and got back to business.

It was the summer of 1971, back when gas cost 36 cents a gallon and men in mechanics uniforms hustled out to pump it for customers.

Looking back, Montgomery admits he considered moving to a big city after graduating. His Banking and Finance degree was a ticket to the executive fast track.

He could impress potential employers with tales of his diving exploits for UFֱs swim team. But the family business was rooted in Gainesville, and so was Montgomery.

ֱItֱs home,ֱ he said.

Former Florida Gator diver Jeff Montgomery, who graduated in 1971, owns several gas stations and convenience stores throughout the Gainesville area.

Montgomery isnֱt the most famous member of the fraternity of UF athletes who stuck around town. His athletic career was cut short by what must have been one of the bloodiest injuries in Gator history.

But nobody cherishes their ֱFֱ letter more than Montgomery. His blue letterman sweater with the orange ֱFֱ looks as good today as it did in 1968.

And no ex-Gator is more Gainesville than Montgomery. He grew up here, and his career evolved and flourished as the sleepy town turned into a small city.

ֱItֱs a good place to be in business,ֱ Montgomery said.

Growing his businesses

That gas station on Newberry Road was the first in his collection. Heֱs also owned a variety of clothing stores and dabbled in real estate.

Montgomeryֱs career choice can be traced to a freezing foxhole in Europe. His father was fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. It rarely got above 20 degrees in the winter of 1945.

George Montgomery swore that if he made it back to America, heֱd never live in a cold place again.

News flash ֱ The Allies won. George returned to his Ohio home, packed up his bride and moved to Gainesville.

He opened Montgomery Pontiac in the heart of downtown. His two boys had the storybook Gainesville childhood.

Jeff rode his bike from dusk to dawn, often around UFֱs campus. The football practice field was where the OֱConnell Center now stands.

Nowadays, a kid would have to be 12 feet tall to see over the fence guarding the football practice facility. In the early 1960s, kids would cruise onto the open field, stack tackling dummies and jump into a big pile.

ֱIt was idyllic,ֱ Montgomery said.

He walked the halls of Gainesville High with Tom Petty. His diving exploits made him a bigger man on campus than the dude with the garage band.

Florida was an SEC swimming powerhouse. Coach Bill Harlan offered Montgomery a partial scholarship, which amounted to $100 in aid every quarter.

That was plenty good for Montgomery. Then his career ended before it really got started.

The gruesome injury he'll never forget

ֱIt was December 8th, 1967,ֱ Montgomery recalled.

A day that will live in UF infirmary infamy.

Toward the end of practice, he attempted an inward 2½ tuck. The diving board had a gritty padded strip at the end to give diversֱ feet a better grip.

Montgomery jumped off, tucked and started spinning. He didnֱt jump quite far enough away from the board.

ֱThe pad kind of grabbed my scalp and just ripped it,ֱ he said. ֱIt was like I got scalped.ֱ

He fell unconscious into the pool. Teammate Robert Link dove in and found Montgomery sitting on the drain at the bottom of the pool. Blood was flowing from Montgomeryֱs head like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

He was rushed to the infirmary. The surgical thread supply took a big hit that night.

ֱI donֱt know how many stitches it took,ֱ Montgomery said.

ֱHe spent about a month recovering. When he got back on the board, he was too weak to pull off a decent spin. Worse, it felt as if a bomb went off whenever his head hit the water.

Montgomery had missed a lot of school and worried he might fail a class or two. That was a frightening thought in 1971. If college students didnֱt stay on track to graduate, theyֱd lose their military exemptions.

Hello, Vietnam!

Montgomery took his concerns to Harlan, who agreed it was best he give up diving. But the coach gave him a going-away gift.

The letter sweater.

ֱI guess I paid for it with my injury,ֱ Montgomery said. ֱBut I donֱt know if I earned it.ֱ

The University of Florida meant everything

A half-century later, he proudly breaks out the sweater for special occasions. The years have flown by.

ֱAfter selling his car dealership, George Montgomery and a partner bought a Stuckeyֱs at the Micanopy exit of I-75. The big new road was teeming with Ohioans and seemingly everybody else heading south.

The family business expanded with a textile outlet across from the gas station on Newberry Road. Jeff graduated and thought about chasing big-city dreams, but the family business beckoned.

ֱI took my freshly minted University of Florida Banking and Finance diploma, hung it on that service station wall and started pumping gas,ֱ he said. ֱAnd I found out it was kind of cool.ֱ

He worked 96 hours a week because he didnֱt want to pay another employee. That work ethic allowed Montgomery to open gas stations in Crystal River and Longwood, textile outlets and clothing stores.

He eventually split the business with his brother and another partner, and he concentrated on the gas/convenience stores. The gem came in 1994.

Gainesville was rapidly expanding north, and Montgomery grabbed a plot of land at the corner of NW 43rd Street and NW 53rd Avenue, a.k.a. Hunterֱs Crossing.

He built a Chevron station, and business has never stopped booming. Montgomery sold the other stations over the years. His son-in-law runs the station, which has a dozen employees.

His two children left town for college. Duke, to be exact.

His daughter, Meredith, became a veterinarian. She returned home to work.

His son, Christopher, became a mechanical engineer. He also came back.

ֱFunny thing about Gainesville,ֱ Montgomery said. ֱAnd my kids are proof. They go away, but they come back to Gainesville. It draws you back.ֱ

Or in his case, the allure never let him leave. Heֱs 75 now and no longer pumps gas. But he still shows up every day at the Chevron station. Working is still as cool as it was when he first hung that UF diploma on the gas station wall.

ֱTheyֱll probably have to haul me out feet first,ֱ Montgomery said.

Then heֱll be buried in Gainesville. Probably in his letterman sweater.

ֱ David Whitley, The Gainesville Sun

Former Gators leaving legacies as high school football coaches

Gainesville Hurricanes head coach Ian Scott talks with a player during the first half against the Buchholz Bobcats at Citizens Field in Gainesville, FL on Thursday, October 5, 2023. [Matt Pendleton/Gainesville Sun]

Ian Scott retired from football in 2009 after a decorated college and high school career.

He spent over 10 years in the coaching circuit, learning the craft from high schools in Greenville, South Carolina, to the NFLֱs Carolina Panthers.

Scott didnֱt have any head coaching experience yet, but that didnֱt stop his alma mater ֱ Gainesville High School ֱ from making the call.

The answer was a no-brainer.

ֱI wouldn't be doing this any other place. This is my home,ֱ Scott said. ֱThis is where I walked the halls. I remember what it was like to sit in those classrooms and be one of those kids.ֱ

At the seven Alachua County public or charter high schools, six are coached by alumnus (Scott ֱ GHS; Gator Hoskins ֱ Eastside; Mark Whittemore ֱ Buchholz; Ed Johnson ֱ Newberry; Willie Jackson ֱ PK Yonge; and Cornelius Ingram ֱ Hawthorne).

Furthermore, Scott is one of multiple University of Florida alums who have remained in Gainesville to coach high school football. Others include Earnest Graham at GHS, Travis McGriff and Doug Johnson at Buchholz, Ingram at Hawthorne and Jackson at PKY.

Scott believes he wouldnֱt be a coach if not for the wisdom passed onto him at UF.

ֱGoing to the University of Florida changed all our lives," he said. "It gave us an opportunity to provide for our families and be able to give back to the community, so to be able to share that with young people is priceless."

Florida coach Steve Spurrier inspired many players who remained in Gainesville

Ian Scott attempts to tackle Eli Manning while as a Florida Gator

For all players listed above besides Ingram, that wisdom and compassion came from one man who each played for ֱ Steve Spurrier.

ֱWe learned about how to give to our players and our team and help them to try to be successful and that doesn't ever really go away,ֱ Scott said.

The coach also gets to share these moments with his three children, all of whom are at GHS. He shed tears thinking about it.

ֱYou don't get that experience in college. My daughter's graduating high school, she's in my weightlifting class,ֱ Scott said. "It's a special time. It's why I'm here.ֱ

The Hurricanes went 0-10 the year before Scott arrived and 1-9 in his first season. But the team is heading in a good direction, as evident in their 29-28 spring game win over Eastside.

A big reason for the 'Canes improvement is the arrival of Scottֱs old UF teammate ֱ Earnest Graham.

Graham coached for years across Florida and Georgia after his playing career ended, and Scott said heֱs taught him basics ֱ like when heֱs doing too much.

ֱIt helps because we did 6:30 a.m. runs together. We did the whole run around campus, the 12-minute run, when everybody's tired and hot in Gainesville,ֱ Scott said. ֱWe have shared experience that when we talk to each other, it's like family.ֱ

Earnest Graham vs Miami in the 2001 Sugar Bowl in the Superdome.

Continuing the Florida Gator legacy

Grahamֱs career ended with the Bucs in 2011. He remained on the Gulf Coast and in Atlanta until 2023 when his son Myles ֱ a five-star Gator early enrollee ֱ wanted in to UF early.

His school in Georgia ֱ Woodward Academy ֱ wouldnֱt allow that, so Myles looked to head down to North-Central Florida. He settled on Buchholz, allowing Earnest to return to ֱThe Swamp.ֱ

ֱThis is a beautiful town. Both of my kids are enrolled at UF. A lot of my former teammates live here in town,ֱ Graham said. ֱI'm blessed to be alive right now.ֱ

Graham chose not to coach for the Bobcats last season. He instead watched Myles' senior season from the stands of Citizens Field, but with Myles at UF and Earnest sticking around in Gainesville, Scott gave him a call.

The former Gators running back remembered when Johnson and Jackson helped him at UF, and he knew Scott needed that assistance.

ֱHeֱs my brother. We look out for each other,ֱ Graham said. ֱI know what it's like to inherit a program and to try to get it off the ground and build a culture and get these kids believing.ֱ

Grahamֱs legacy now lives on in Myles. The current Gators linebacker was the first commit in the vaunted Class of 2024 and appears to have made it his mission to restore the Gator standard.

His father said thatֱs exactly what Myles wanted.

Earnest Graham, Alicia Graham, Aiyana Graham, Thaddeus Bullard, Titus Bullard join Myles Graham after signing his letter of intent for the University of Florida at Buchholz High School in Gainesville, FL on Tuesday, December 19, 2023. [Chris Watkins/Gainesville Sun]

ֱHe wants to bring Gator football back to where it was,ֱ Graham said. ֱI think the core foundation is there because Billy is an excellent leader that has things going in the right direction.ֱ

Alachua County legends return home

Out in eastern Alachua County, the gospel of Cornelius Ingram has been well documented. The Gators legendary tight end suffered two debilitating knee injuries.

The first forced him to miss his senior season, Floridaֱs 2008 championship season. The second, during training camp of his rookie season with the Philadelphia Eagles, ended a promising NFL career before it even began.

Ingram spent years in the wilderness before taking over the head coaching job at his alma mater ֱ Hawthorne ֱ in 2016.

Eight years later, heֱs built the Hornets into a rural powerhouse with three state titles in girls basketball and back-to-back championships in football.

Ingram agreed with Scott that it means more to coach at your alma mater and walk the same halls and play on the same field.

ֱWhen you're the hometown guy and you are back home coaching, you can probably get more out of the kids then maybe a guy who moved from Tennessee,ֱ Ingram said. ֱThe kids really believe in you, and you can do it your way.ֱ

Hawthorne Hornets head coach Cornelius Ingram talks to his team after the win. The Hawthorne Hornets hosted the Blountstown Tigers at Hawthorne High School in Hawthorne, FL on Thursday, November 30, 2023 in the Class 1R State Semis Football. The Hornets defeated the Tigers 49-0 and advance to the State Championship game next Thursday in Tallahassee. [Doug Engle/Gainesville Sun]

Support comes from fans and coaches, regardless of affiliation

Rivalries run deep in Alachua County football, whether it is Buchholz-GHS or Hawthorne-Newberry, but Ingram believes each coach supports each other given shared experiences.

ֱTo see them have success or rebuild programs, thatֱs what it is all about,ֱ Ingram said. ֱWe want this entire area to be recruited by all these great coaches and college football. At the end of the day, we're all in this together. We're trying to help change young man's lives.ֱ

Ingram has seen that support in his own coaching life before coaching in state championship games.

ֱI receive text messages or phone calls from active high school coaches in our area. ֱHey, the 352 is behind you. Good luck, coach,'" Ingram said.

Hawthorne is a small school, with an enrollment of about 250 students, so most Gator fans have no connection to the program.

But fans still come up to Ingram in Gainesville, where he lives, and commend him on his success.

ֱThey might have kids or grandkids at Newberry or GHS, but the Gator Nation is truly everywhere. I really know that,ֱ Ingram said. ֱThe amount of support that I've had outside of Hawthorne means so much to me because our community needs it.ֱ

Like Graham, Ingram gets a look under the hood due to Kahleil Jackson ֱ Ingramֱs former QB at Hawthorne who is now a receiver at UF.

University of Florida's Cornelius Ingram catches a pass during UF's practice Saturday morning.

ֱWith a little time, our Florida program is changing. I think Coach Napier is doing a really good job, especially for the time he's been there,ֱ Ingram said. ֱBeing right here and seeing all this transpire right in front of you is a blessing.ֱ

ֱ Noah Ram, High School and UF ֱ Reporter, The Gainesville Sun