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Martin Fennelly Columns

Joey Is Gift That Keeps On Giving

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Published:   |   Updated: May 28, 2013 at 09:29 AM

That's Joey.

That's what everyone with Florida football, from head coach Urban Meyer on down, said after the smallest Gator's super-sized heart told him what to do.

We keep hearing how bowl games don't mean as much in the age of the BCS title game, how athletes are pampered, how college athletics needs more good stories.

Florida is at the Capital One Bowl in Orlando to play Michigan. A few days ago, as part of bowl week, and with the NCAA's blessing, each player was given a $400 Best Buy gift certificate and let loose on a shopping spree.

Joey Sorrentino, a walk-on special teams player for the Gators, shopped like mad. He bought a Wii game system, a DVD player and "High School Musical 2." With Jon Clark, director of football administration, he purchased some video games.

"In a few weeks, we'll bring it to the kids," Joey said.

The kids in the cancer unit at Shands Children's Hospital in Gainesville.

"That's Joey Sorrentino," Urban Meyer said.

Heart And Soul

There are Joey Sorrentinos on every team. They walk on and gladly work the shadows. This Joey was embarrassed that someone wanted to write about him donating all these gifts.

"It's how my parents raised me."

Florida's Joey is one for the books, if not the tape measure or scales. He's a 5-foot-7, 173-pound redshirt sophomore who, like everyone, admires teammate and Heisman winner Tim Tebow.

Tebow, like everyone, admires Joey.

"He's only about 3-foot-5," Meyer joked. Seriously: "If you stuck a 6-foot body on him and a 220-pound frame, you've got a guy like Tebow. That's the kind of soul this guy has."

Tebow needed security in Orlando. Joey went to Universal and didn't get recognized once.

He's thankful every time he takes the field as a Gator on punt and kick coverage and return. He never quits.

He's thankful for every day in the life of his little brother Anthony. That's where Shands comes in. Joey's parents, Joe and Lynn, met there. Joe is a pharmacist. Lynn is a nurse. When Joey was 10, 20-month-old Anthony was a patient at Shands. There was cancer in his liver. Anthony was given a 25 percent chance of survival.

"But he was a fighter," Joey said.

It runs in the family. It runs in Joey.

"He's not easily discouraged," Lynn said.

Joey played high school football for former Gator Kerwin Bell at Trinity Catholic in Ocala. He made third team all-state. He dreamed of being an Olympics weightlifter.

Joe, a weightlifter himself, started the lifting team at Trinity. Joey made the state meet twice and might have won it his senior year if he hadn't ruptured a disk in his back. He benches 340 pounds and can squat more than 500 pounds.

He came out for football at Florida before the 2006 season. "My mind-set was just to bust my butt," he said. People fell in love with his determination. But when his grades sagged, he thought about giving up football.

"You're not quitting," Meyer told him.

That was that.

Every Moment Is Big

Joey Sorrentino played in one game last season, against Western Carolina.

"Just dressing is a thrill for me," he said.

He dressed for the championship game in Arizona.

"I tried not to trip when I ran on the field."

He has played in every game this season, with five tackles. Against Tennessee, one of the blocks helped spring Brandon James on a punt return for a touchdown.

Joey watched the Heisman show on ESPN when Tebow won it.

"From the outside, you'd figure no way can he be that good a guy," Joey said. "But that's the way he is."

The biggest award Joey ever got was at the Trinity Catholic football banquet in the school cafeteria, when he received the first annual Joey Sorrentino Award for outstanding effort on and off the field. ESPN didn't carry it.

Tim Tebow took part in 51 touchdowns this season. Joey Sorrentino took part in one, his big moment. Against Florida Atlantic, he blocked a punt, which was returned for a score by teammate Markus Manson.

Joe was in the stands. Lynn heard on the car radio as she was driving home from daughter Rachel's soccer tournament.

"I screamed and started making phone calls," Lynn said.

Their son Dante attends Florida, sharing a house with Joey and Gators offensive lineman Jim Tartt.

Anthony is 13 and cancer free. He plays sports, but also guitar and piano.

His big brother will dress today and play for Florida before thousands. He's already thinking of another big moment - those children's faces at the hospital when they see that Best Buy stuff. Joey can't wait. Those kids are fighters.

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