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The Story of Ben Troupe’s Catch

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Though the game-winning sequence took just a handful of seconds of real time, the moment was years in the making.

What you do in this game lasts forever. It's like a family portrait, people are going to put it up on their wall forever.
~Ben Troupe

For a play that was a simple one-on-one jump ball, there were many moving parts. It was a critical 3rd-and-2 late in the 2002 Florida-Georgia game. The Gators, trailing by one-point at that point, were heavy underdogs against the rival Bulldogs. Florida entered a modest 5-3, with 5th-ranked Georgia undefeated and pushing towards a title. Now a fixture in series lore, a short toss from Rex Grossman to Ben Troupe changed the contest and, in retrospect, may have changed the course of history.      

Though the game-winning sequence took just a handful of seconds of real time, the moment was years in the making.

Troupe, raised in Swainsboro before attending Butler High School in Augusta, grew up following his home-state team. An athletic prototype, Troupe emerged as a top prep recruit with offers from some of the biggest names in college football. He, along with the likes of Sean Jones, Max Starks and other standouts who would go on to star in Jacksonville, played in the annual Florida-Georgia High School All-Star Game. That afternoon, Troupe caught the Peach State's game-winning two-point conversion from David Greene.   

In a process filled with details and complexities, it was a storied name and a simple question that brought Troupe to Gainesville. Florida head coach Steve Spurrier, in the living room of Troupe's childhood home, asked "Benny" if he was with him; the answer is one that is still debated to this day. 

"I like that people think that I'm the one that got away," Troupe smiled.

Spurrier, to the 6'5'' Troupe, was larger than life. During his recruitment, two of his cousins gave Troupe a direct ultimatum: you do not tell Steve Spurrier no. Troupe didn't. Almost exclusively because of Spurrier, Troupe, from right in the heart of the state of Georgia, headed south of the border to Florida, a decision he now admits he made in spite of the fact that Spurrier didn't throw the football to the tight end.

As a freshman, Troupe won the SEC Championship with the Gators. As a sophomore, he won the Orange Bowl. Though Troupe didn't finish his career with the coach he signed with, the memories continue.  

"We had a good run Benny, when you were down here and before," Spurrier recalled when interviewed by Troupe on his syndicated afternoon show "Three & Out" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network.

When Spurrier left for the NFL, Troupe's profile was raised with that of new head coach Ron Zook. Troupe's senior season, he caught 39 passes for 638 yards and five touchdowns. He was recognized as a first-team All-American, was a finalist for the John Mackey Award and later joined the Tennessee Titans as a top 40 selection in the 2004 NFL Draft. There were countless highlights along the way.   

The signature play of Troupe's career is one that two fan bases will forever remember. With Florida down 13-12 to Georgia with 11:45 remaining, Troupe beat future All-Pro Thomas Davis for a go-ahead ten-yard touchdown that knocked the Bulldogs from near the top of the national polls and, in 2016, earned Troupe a spot in the Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame. Given the expectations going in, the Gators' 20-13 triumph stands as one of the rivalry's all-time notable upsets.    

After the catch, there was no moment of deep reflection for the Georgia-native. There wasn't even a brief celebration. Troupe didn't take any big picture ideas with him into the game or into the endzone; the six points were all he had to give. 

"I was exhausted," Troupe acknowledged. "I had nothing left."

A first quarter injury to Florida's leading receiver Taylor Jacobs forced Troupe, still developing as a player, into action. On the Gators' defining scoring drive, Troupe caught three throws in a row leading up to his now-iconic score. As the game changed, so did Troupe's role; from second-teamer to first-ballot.   

Even still, Troupe credits the Florida defense, which held Georgia scoreless in the final period and without a touchdown for the final three-and-a-half quarters, for truly winning the game. It was his score, however, which actually moved the margins. Few conversions, ever, have been more meaningful for the Gators; to few participants has this series meant so much.  

A one-score loss in Jacksonville was Georgia's only blemish from the 2002 season. Though it's impossible to project what would have happened moving forward, the defeat clearly cost the Bulldogs at least a chance at a national championship. Fittingly, it was a Georgia-native who delivered the final blow. Troupe, who joked afterwards about being able to go home for Thanksgiving and Christmas, earned validation through vindication. 

Grossman-to-Troupe doesn't have the quite the ring of Buck Belue-to-Lindsay Scott, but, in terms of one play shaping a season, the parallels aren't just limited to passing. One hook-up helped the Bulldogs win a title, the other may have kept them from doing the exact same thing.

Under the bright lights, it took a while for Troupe to see the big picture.

"I was so caught up in the game, I didn't realize it," he explained of the significance of his score. "This is when I knew: when a tight end was being interviewed after the Florida-Georgia game, I knew I did something. I was just 20 years old, I just wanted to win the game. Then a reporter asked me how it felt to catch the game-winning pass in the Florida-Georgia game."

Before Troupe ever made the grab, the preparations were made long in advance. Film-to-field, there was an immediate recognition that allowed Troupe to make an immediate read on the defense he was facing. In a split second, football gave way to familiarity; the bond between quarterback and receiver resulted in the perfect play, one with even better timing. There was never any hesitation.

"It was all go routes and they were in a cover zero. Thomas Davis was matched up right over the top of me. On the snap of the ball, I gave him a swim move off the ball and as soon as I did Rex threw it up like an alley-oop and he knew the time it would take Thomas to react the ball it would already be in my hands," Troupe shared. "It was trusting my technique on my part and Rex trusting his instincts."  

Though the catch is now part of the fabric that ties two states together, few people saw the threads stitch together as they did. The gameplan, for then-Florida offensive coordinator Ed Zaunbrecher, was to dictate the tempo against a favored foe. Grossman finished an efficient 36-of-46 passing for 339 yards. Troupe wasn't prominently featured as a receiver until the contest's stretch run, but was a vital part of the Gators' productivity well before his highlight-reel catch.

The late touchdown wasn't Troupe's only big play against Georgia, it was merely his first.       

"We wanted to maintain control of the ball for as long as we could because they had a very explosive offense and they had a good defense," Zaunbrecher shared. "You know, Ben had the winning score, but to me, when I think about that game, I think about his blocking on the bubble screens that we threw. We threw a whole bunch of them. I think it was the most I’d ever called in a game."

Zaunbrecher recognized and exploited blocking mismatches in Troupe's favor, following the lead of his tight end as Grossman moved Florida up-and-down the field. Wide receivers Carlos Perez and Kelvin Kight combined for 21 catches. When the outcome was on the line, Zaunbrecher, instead of settling for a potentially-safer play-call, trusted his quarterback to make the right read in attacking the goaline. The rest, for lack of a better phrase, is history.  

"It was probably the last thing they expected on 3rd-down," Zaunbrecher acknowledged. "Rex laid it in there and Ben went up and got the ball. We thought that was a physical mismatch for us and Ben could get up and get the ball down and keep it."

For those on the field, the first-hand account of Troupe's effort is a narrative in need of a spotlight and a choir. Momentous occasions sometimes slow down, a frame-by-frame account, here, where everything, for two teams, one rivalry and one player, changed.

"All night, Georgia's defense was tough and got tougher as we got closer. On that specific play, I think that Rex lobbed the pass up and I thought to myself, at that very minute, that it was an interception. Davis was smothering Ben and no way did I think he was going to catch it," remembered former UF tackle Shannon Snell. "When he did, I knew the game was over for them. It was a back-breaking catch, one that a regular wide receiver would have trouble making let alone a tight end."

From the top-down, there was a feeling somebody was going to do something special in the 2002 Florida-Georgia pairing. Despite the disparities in the two team's records coming in, there was a deep tension throughout the evening. No team held more than a one-touchdown advantage throughout. On the Gator sidelines, there was a very real faith and resolve. 

While Spurrier may have gotten Troupe into the orange-and-blue, it was Zaunbrecher and Zook who led Troupe into the endzone when it mattered most. 

"Every play is so crucial. One play can completely change and a game and that's what we always talked about, play one play at a time. Obviously you had a big year," Zook nodded to Troupe on his afternoon radio program. "You were an instrumental part, not only in that game but in my first two years at Florida. The coaches have to have their guys stay in the moment and stay in the play."

Much like Spurrier, Zook had a profound impact on Troupe's life, helping a young man shake that qualifier and a talented football player break free. 

"That is what coaching is all about, it's about people. I was fortunate enough to be around a lot of great guys and you are one of them, Ben," Zook concluded to Troupe. "I'm just so glad to see you being successful and carrying on what you love to do."

More than an athlete, Troupe is pursuing new passions: media, speaking and teaching. Progression continues. That said, he is part of a living legacy, a cherished story that adds new chapters every October. Troupe has lived in California's Bay Area, in New York City and many sports in between. Everywhere he goes, what he did, in one game, follows like footprints.

In a house in east Georgia, there is a Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame bust of Troupe, a sculpture of a much-younger man; to many he will always be that guy.     

"What you do in this game lasts forever. It's like a family portrait, people are going to put it up on their wall forever," Troupe added.

From his upbringing in the woods of Emanuel County to his current residence nearby along the coast, life, for Troupe, has come full-circle. Georgia to Florida and, ultimately, back home again, he has more than just seen what this rivalry means to people, he has lived it; better yet, he has defined it. Through his time in the NFL and as middle-age approaches, Florida-Georgia has, and always will, be there.     

"We are bonded together in a way that no other players from a game are. As much as we hate them, we need them. As much as they hate us, they need us," Troupe continued. "Without each other, it's just another Saturday."

Troupe plays a leading role in that angst, a spotlight in the Sunshine State that turns to a shadow the farther north he goes. 

Devastation and inspiration have the same suffix; there is a fine line between feelings, a break sometimes as basic as a border.

"Ever since Spurrier, the Gators have dominated this great series, but never has a loss been more agonizing than 2002," detailed Bulldawg Illustrated's Murray Poole, who has attended 55 straight rivalry games. "Troupe's catch not only gave arguably Mark Richt's best team ever its only defeat in a splendid 13-1 season, but maybe prevented Georgia from capturing its first national championship since 1980. Troupe's clutch reception will always remain a proverbial dagger in the Bulldawg Nation's collective heart."

For someone from a small town in the heart of the Deep South, there is no platform bigger than that of Florida-Georgia. Troupe the Titan sometimes get recognized, but "Benny", over a decade-and-a-half later, will continue to be talked about for generations to come.   

"My friend's mom was asking me about my career. She asked me if I played in the NFL and I told her I did, but I never made the Pro Bowl or anything. My friend then told her I was in the Florida-Georgia Hall of Fame," Troupe reflected. "She looked at me, stopped and said 'that's everything'. In this rivalry, you never go away."

You can't measure a man, but you can map a moment; Swainsboro to Gainesville, Troupe, to most, will always be somewhere in between.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports