LIVE OAK — Looking back at their Suwannee teams, Willie Gardner and Jarvis Herring believe they are the best of the best.
“It was an awesome team. We had a stable of athletes. I’d put us up against anybody,” said Gardner, quarterback of the 1995 Bulldogs.
“We had a tough schedule, played some heavy hitters. I think the difference between us and other teams is our secondary. We could play lock-up, man-to-man — that would be my factor,” said Herring, a defensive back/receiver on the 1999 Bulldogs.
The fans will have the final say as the two powerhouses square off this week in the “Best of Suwannee Valley” pick ‘em tournament. It’s the 1995 team with Gardner, receiver David Lee and defensive standouts Thaddeus Bullard and Andra Davis against the shutdown secondary of Herring, Kyler Hall, Matt Jackson and Kelly Jennings.
Before the start of the 1995 season, Gardner knew his team was special. And so did a lot of people as Suwannee was nationally ranked in the preseason.
“Practicing in the preseason, the vibe was different. It was like a whole other level,” Gardner said. “Thaddeus Bullard and Andra Davis had the talent. They weren’t going to be stopped.”
The Bulldogs dominated that year as expected. They won 10 games — all by double digits — and outscored opponents by 18 points per game behind Gardner and running back Tony Owens. The only two games they lost were against Bolles, once in the regular season and then in the playoffs.
Seeing Gardner take on the 1999 secondary would have been worth the price of admission. Herring, though, thinks his squad would get the best of that matchup.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for those guys. Willie Gardner is my cousin,” Herring said. “I’ve got family on just about every Suwannee squad. But we were something special. No one was going to catch a pass on us. We were going to make them one dimensional.”
Those 1999 Bulldogs had more than just defense. The skill players that dominated the secondary also made standout receivers, especially Jackson in his senior season. And just like the 1995 team, the ’99 Bulldogs scored 28 points per game.
In advancing to the state title game in 1999, Suwannee finished 10-5. Three of those losses were by a combined five points.
So who wins? That’s a tough call on all accounts.
On star power, it’s pretty even. From the 1995 team, Davis played 10 seasons in the NFL. Bullard played at the University of Florida and has gone on to professional wrestling fame as Titus O’Neil. From the 1999 team, Jennings played six seasons in the NFL. Jackson played at the University of Florida and then professionally in the Arena Football League. Herring played at the University of Florida and Hall played at Florida State University.
The 1995 Bulldogs had a better record, but the 1999 team made it further in the playoffs.
“I wish we could simulate something like this,” said Herring.