GAINESVILLE, Fla. (AP) — Sharrif Floyd walked toward midfield for the coin toss, one of Florida's four team captains against Tennessee.
It spoke volumes about what the 15th-ranked Gators think of the sophomore defensive lineman who was ineligible the first two games. It also said something about how they feel about the NCAA's decision.
Floyd had three tackles, two quarterback hurries and a pass breakup in Florida's 33-23 victory against the Volunteers on Saturday. His numbers hardly tell the story.
Floyd got one of the loudest ovations during pre-game introductions, a rousing cheer that rivaled the announcement of star running back Chris Rainey.
"He's a leader. He's an outstanding young man, as good as we've got in that locker room," coach Will Muschamp said. "When he walks on that field and he says something, he commands a lot of respect because of his honesty and his integrity and the type of man that he is."
Those traits may have gotten Floyd in trouble.
When the 6-foot-3, 295-pound Philadelphia native saw one of his friends, another highly recruited player in high school, being investigated for allegedly accepting money from the Student Athlete Mentoring Foundation (SAM), Floyd went to school officials and told them his story.
Florida turned the information over to the NCAA in February. The resolution came a few hours before Florida's opener on Sept. 3, when Floyd was told he couldn't play against Florida Atlantic.
"It was the hardest thing I had to do in my life, to sit there and watch my team," said Floyd, who played in all 13 games last season and started two. "I hope I don't never have to do that again."
The NCAA later ruled that Floyd had to sit out two games and arrange to repay $2,700 to charity. According to SAM founder and president Steve Gordon, the nonprofit organization based in Delaware helped Floyd with necessary living expenses, paid for more than a dozen unofficial visits to colleges and rented him a tuxedo for his high school prom.
To Gordon, it was charity. To the NCAA, it was a violation of the governing body's preferential treatment rules.
Either way, it caused some to question Floyd's character.
"A lot of friends were talking about it, but it never got to me like that because I don't feel as though as I'm grouped in with all those other players that did bad things," Floyd said. "I'm not a bad guy. I stay positive. I'm always doing the right thing. I go to class. I have a 3.0 GPA. There's nothing wrong in my profile, so I don't think I should be grouped in with those type of athletes because that's not the type of athlete I am."
"This kid didn't get a free tattoo, he didn't sell his jersey for money or hang out with a Ponzi scheme guy," Gordon said. "You've got a phenomenal kid here who is mature beyond his years. Now, he has no parents and no credit history and he's being told he has to finance $2,700. How's that going to work? Now, that little stipend that he does get is gone."
Floyd grew up poor and has recounted the time when he wore the same clothes to elementary school every day for months at a time. His biological father died when he was 3 years old, and the man he thought was his father over the next 12 years abused him.
Floyd left home at 15, moved in with grandmother and then bounced around from coaches to friends to other relatives and eventually lived with a school guidance counselor.
Based on his background, the NCAA reduced Floyd's penalty from a four-game suspension to two.
Nonetheless, Muschamp blasted the decision by saying he was "angered, disgusted and extremely disappointed." Teammates also came to his defense, and Floyd welcomed the support.
"It just showed me how much I mean to the team and how much the team cares about me," he said. "I love all them guys. I would do anything for any of them. I mean, really anything for any of them — walk-ons, too. I was happy to see that. Pretty touching."
Muschamp appointed Floyd a captain for his 2011 debut, surely taking another poke at the NCAA.
Floyd responded by helping the defense put steady pressure on Tennessee's Tyler Bray. The Gators sacked Bray three times, knocked him to the ground countless other times and pressured him into throwing two interceptions.
"That's what the defensive (lines) wants," Floyd said. "Sacks. We want to hit the quarterbacks, pretty boys, you-can't-touch-me guys. That's what defensive linemen want. We want quarterbacks."
The Volunteers finished with 279 yards and a seventh consecutive loss in the series. Floyd has been a part of the last two, and the latest one was special for obvious reasons.
"Amazing," he said. "Words can't even describe it. I'm just happy, and it's great to be back with my team."