Big Moment: Alligators wowed as Heavener Football Training Center opens

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — They began gathering in their locker room on game day at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium late Sunday afternoon, anticipating the arrival of the head coach Billy Napier to lead them on a short walk down Stadium Road.

The Gators were aware of their destination and the mood reflected that. They were like children waking up on Christmas morning.

“See you later,” said the tight end Nick Elksnis as he tapped the Gator Head on his way out.

Once the group gathered outside, Napier led the players and coaches on a five-minute hike to the steps of the gleaming $85 million Heavener Football Training Center, the program’s new headquarters. UF football.

Napier and Director of Football Operations Joshua Thompson held the front doors open as players eagerly entered the 142,000 square building for the first time, a facility that has been on the radar since 2016 and under construction since demolition of McKethan Stadium began at the summer 2020.

A celebratory tone quickly engulfed the building as players explored every corner, recording the moment on their smartphones and sharing their excitement with triumphant shouts and high-fives.

Chief Borders, center, and his teammates react as they enter the Heavener Football Training Center for the first time on Sunday. (Photo: UAA Communications)

“I know a lot of Gator alumni and people who have gone through this program who have been waiting at this facility for a very long time, and for me to be part of the first group to step in here is a phenomenal experience,” linebacker Chief Borders said. “You want to be the best you can be, and I know this facility won’t bleed anything but Orange & Blue and do it for us.”

Nowhere was the reaction from the players more celebratory than in the team’s dazzling new dressing room. They ran around the venue, screaming with excitement, admiring the reclining zero-gravity chairs, Jordan brand signage and lighted graphics above each booth with their uniform number and image.

linebacker David Reese, who signed with the Gators in 2018, was overwhelmed with emotion as he gazed at the shiny sign with his image above his locker. He took pictures and repeatedly pointed at it to show those nearby.

Soon, a boosted Reese was in the team’s new weight room with his shirt off, pumping iron.

“This building has been the talk of my freshman year, and seeing it physically, and just being here, is overwhelming,” Reese said. “All the boys I arrived with, some left, some are still here. We talked about that first year. To see him now is an incredible feeling.

“I’ve done curls. I’ve done push-ups, bench presses. I had to be the first to do it. We’re trying to take it up a notch.”

Gators locker room (opening 2022)
A look inside the Gators locker room at Heavener Football Training Center. (Photo: UAA Communications)

As players and staff checked out the various areas of the new facility, Napier and the UF athletic director Scott Stricklin toured the modern, high-tech offices where Napier and his assistants will spend their working days. Napier’s office is on the second floor, equipped with a balcony that overlooks the driving range. The facility still has some points list items developed once Napier took over the program in December, with the building already under construction.

Work crews will complete those tasks soon, but Napier will park in a different location when he arrives at work on Monday.

“I changed my itinerary to work for a few months to prepare for this,” he said on Sunday.

Napier was instrumental in selecting much of the Gator-themed signage in the building and used the knowledge gained from his previous stops to ensure the facility ran smoothly.

He said the facility was another step in the right direction for what he envisioned for the Gators during his tenure.

“The first thing is, really grateful to all the people who have invested in creating this and the leadership to execute it,” Napier said. “I think that’s one of the unique things about the University of Florida. We have the resources, the caring, passionate people. The University of Florida impacted the direction of their lives; they care about the place and are willing to give back.

“It’s been a long road here. So many people have contributed. I’m really blessed and humbled. It’s definitely a day that I think we’re going to look back on and say, ‘man, that really made a difference. ‘ We’re very grateful. The game is about the players. It’s great to see that initial reaction.”

Napier, Billy (Heavener Overture 2022)
Gators head coach Billy Napier is all smiles as the team moves into the Heavener Football Training Center. (Photo: UAA Communications)

After checking the locker room, Quarterback Anthony Richardson toured the workout room and outdoor space that includes a resort-style pool and basketball court, which Napier’s office overlooks.

Richardson was in the middle of his exploration when asked what his first reaction was.

“Coming in, all I could do was smile,” he said. “I thought about it for a while and finally got to see it. It’s amazing, honestly.”

As Richardson checked out the outdoor basketball court, other players toured the recovery and rehabilitation area. The space includes a 50-foot plunge pool, steam room, two HydroWorx pools with underwater treadmills, and float tank.

Without a doubt, this is not your big brother’s football facility. This dynamic, state-of-the-art facility has space open to all UF student-athletes once classes begin later this month, including a hair salon, dining room, and virtual reality room.

“Everyone likes to talk about recruitment, but I think, more importantly, the experience at league level of players and staff day in and day out in relation to their development, not just as a football player but also as someone with the ‘GatorMade’ program being internal,” Napier said. “We have everything we need to help a person grow and realize their potential.

“We will continue to evolve. This place will continue to improve. The level of square footage that we have, we will learn to maximize every opportunity every day.”

 

Heavener Football Training Center (Opening 2022)
A glimpse of the exterior of the $85 million, 142,000 square foot Heavener Football Training Facility. (Photo: UAA Communications)



Stricklin stood by the door as the players entered to watch their reactions. He then attended a team meeting where Napier discussed the logistics of the facility to help everyone acclimatize.

Like Richardson, Stricklin couldn’t help but smile on a day when the Gators ushered in a new era. Several players stopped to shake his hand and say thank you as they left the game.

“It’s always fun when it comes together,” Stricklin said. “To do special, unique things that you can’t find anywhere else, and the Gators are the only ones that have that, it’s really special. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a reaction.”

Offensive lineman Joshua Braun shared a familiar feeling on a Sunday afternoon that these Gators won’t forget.

“Exceeded all my expectations,” he said.

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