April 12, 2004 TALLAHASSEE For years Florida State has lived and, at times, thrived in the shadow of Florida, one day hoping that the half-century headstart the Gainesville institution enjoyed some day would be neutralized. That time may now be at hand. On the same weekend the Seminoles' football team held its annual spring game, a host of former FSU standouts showed up to share their personal stories with the current players. At a private Friday night gathering that lasted nearly three hours, Deion Sanders, Sammie Smith, Peter Boulware, Andre Wadsworth, Corey Simon, Pat Carter and others answered questions from the current players about life experiences. It was an enlightening, and at times emotional, exchange. "We're just trying to get that family feeling back here at Florida State," All-Pro linebacker and FSU Board of Trustees member Derrick Brooks said. "I think, for the past few years, that's been one of the cracks in our foundation. We may have taken a step back compared to other universities. With us coming together the old and the new it will help us take that next step to get us back on top." Smith, who spent five years incarcerated on federal drug charges, didn't have any trouble captivating his audience. The former All-American tailback had instant credibility. "As an athlete, sometimes you tend to think that you're above the law and problems can't find you," Smith said. "Unfortunately, it seems it's easier for them to find us. I just encouraged these guys to take advantage of the opportunity that they have here." For many of the former players, it marked their first real exposure to the university since their playing days; some dating back nearly 20 years. Their past absence did not go unnoticed. Smith, in fact, said one of the current players asked why FSU's former players had not been around, specifically noting that former stars at rival Miami are regular sideline visitors at games and always available for advice and support. "Some of what we heard was, why don't we come back?" Sanders said. "A lot of us were offended; a lot of us were hurt. We're going to do a better job of bridging the gap. It's been a tremendous gap. We want to do more to bridge that gap and come back more and help these guys on and off the field." Apparently, those words struck a chord, because more than two dozen former players were on the sidelines for the spring game the following day, sharing stories with each other, as well as present and future Seminoles. Approximately a dozen FSU football signees also were in attendance. The loquacious Sanders, who served as the moderator for the Friday session and helped organize the informal event, said his message to the current players was simple. "We really were just trying to emphasize the same things you tell a child," Sanders said. "The oven is hot, but unfortunately the child still touches the oven just to see the severity of the heat. We're just trying to stop these guys from making the same simple mistakes we made." "We needed to hear it," FSU linebacker A.J. Nicholson said. "People were in the same position we were in. You think sometimes that you are all alone and Well, I made a bad decision. I did this. I did that. Why am I doing this? Why am I going through so much? And they were here to tell us that it's alright. It was a blessing to have them." While a good deal of the weekend was spent reminiscing, a more serious aspect of the reunion also was taking place. Seminole Boosters invited some of its most successful, young (under 45) donors to a focus group. Boulware and Wadsworth each of whom already has endowed scholarships for the program attended both sessions, along with more than two dozen other graduates and contributors. It was just another step to ensure that the future of FSU's athletic program has a solid foundation to build upon. With Bobby Bowden in the twilight of his coaching career, a solid infrastructure will help the odds that the athletic program and especially football will be secure for the changing times ahead. Linebackers Display Bright Future At first blush, one might assume that replacing three starting linebackers Michael Boulware, Kendyll Pope and Allen Augustine would have been an area of grave concern entering spring practice. After all, Boulware and Pope completed their careers ranked among the top 10 tacklers in school history. But not only was it abundantly clear that FSU's stable still has plenty of quality candidates for the job, it was equally obvious that the future could even be brighter than the recent past. Nicholson, a junior and the most experienced of the returnees, collected FSU's Hinesman Award as the most dominant player on either side of the ball at the end of spring drills. Sophomore Ernie Sims earned defensive MVP honors. Along with sophomore Sam McGrew, who is projected as the starter in the middle, they could form one of the most talented segments the program has ever fielded. "They're special players," linebackers coach Kevin Steele said. "They've got a lot of talent. They're very focused. They come to work every day hard work. When you couple ability with attitude and a commitment to excellence, you're going to get better." Nicholson is the lone player assured of a starting spot at this point, which speaks to the Seminoles' impressive depth at the position. He will be backed up by junior Marcello Church, who has been all but forgotten since racking up 14 tackles in the 2002 Gator Bowl win over Virginia Tech. Buster Davis, a sophomore who has played sparingly between stints in coordinator Mickey Andrews' doghouse, emerged from the spring as one of the most pleasant surprises. Davis will push McGrew for the starting job in the middle. Meanwhile, Sims one of the most naturally gifted linebackers to arrive at FSU since Marvin Jones can't rest on his MVP honors. That's because Ray Piquion, who had a spring game-high five tackles, is still contending for the starting job. "We all compete," Sims said. "That's when it's fun, when we are all competing for one position. That makes it exciting." Based on their spring performances, there's a real excitement that the future may be even more exciting than the past in Tallahassee.