John Reaves, former Robinson High quarterback who became an All-American at the University of Florida and pro quarterback for the Bucs and Bandits, was found dead in his South Tampa home on Tuesday. He was 67.
The cause of death is under investigation.
“A good man,” said Steve Spurrier, who coached Mr. Reaves with the Bandits and later gave him a job on his Gators staffs.
“He had some demons that crept in, but he was a good, fun player to coach and one of the best quarterbacks I ever had. He’s a big reason I had the success I had.”
According to a death investigator for the Hillsborough County Medical Examiner, Reaves’ son, David, last heard from Mr. Reaves by text on Saturday but couldn’t reach him afterward.
David Reaves found Mr. Reaves dead in his home Tuesday around 2:30 p.m. and contacted 911, according to the medical examiner’s office.
Mr. Reaves was born in Alabama in March 1950 but moved to Tampa as a child. There, he became one of the best quarterbacks in state history, carving a prolific Florida niche at the prep, college and pro levels.
“Maybe the best pure drop-back passed I ever coached,” Spurrier said.
Saddened to learn of John Reaves' passing. A true Tampa legend and a person I can say was a friend. He'll be missed. pic.twitter.com/WH7EvPkhim
— Keith Niebuhr (@Keith247Sports) August 2, 2017
He starred at Madison Junior High School, then at Robinson. Mr. Reaves led the Knights to the Class 2A state championship game in 1967, earning state player of the year honors. In 2007, the Florida High School Athletic Association honored him as one of the best 100 players in the first century of Florida prep football.
Mr. Reaves’ success continued with the Gators.
In the wake of two nondescript six-win seasons following the departure of Spurrier (the 1966 Heisman Trophy winner), Mr. Reaves started as a sophomore for a ’69 Gators team that finished 9-1-1. He left UF as the NCAA’s all-time leading passer (7,581 career yards) with an SEC-record 54 touchdown passes.
“Great talent, great thrower. He was unflappable,” said former longtime UF sports-information chief Norm Carlson, widely considered the foremost Gator football historian.
“Could make plays and if he made a bad play, he shook it off immediately and never thought about it the next few plays.”
That audaciousness, while reinvigorating the fan base, also put Mr. Reaves into football infamy. In a 38-12 loss at Auburn in ’69, he threw nine interceptions — an NCAA record that still stands.
“I think he was all we had,” Carlson recalled.
“He was the best option, and John wasn’t afraid to throw the ball. Two interceptions or nine, it didn’t matter to him, he was gonna fling it. You needed a guy to stand in there and has got the guts not to say, ‘Oh my god, I’ve already thrown six, I might throw another.’ He didn’t even think about that.
“(Spurrier) was the same way.”
The Philadelphia Eagles chose him with the No. 14 overall pick in the 1972 NFL draft, and he’s still one of only five quarterbacks from Florida high schools to be chosen in the first round.
Mr. Reaves’ pro career included 17 NFL starts — including two for the ‘scab’ Bucs during the 1987 players’ strike. His best season with the Bandits came in 1984, when he threw for more than 4,000 yards.
“He was sensational (in ’84),” Spurrier said. “Every game, he was really something.”
After his football career, Mr. Reaves served as an assistant to Spurrier at Florida in the early ’90s, and later spent three seasons as a South Carolina assistant.
— Edgar Thompson (@osgators) August 2, 2017
“Just thankful he believed in a 5-foot-8, 155-pound kid from tiny Fort Valley, Ga.,” said former Gators All-American and Buccaneers receiver Jacquez Green, who was recruited primarily by Mr. Reaves.
“He believed I could play at UF more than myself.”
Mr. Reaves battled drug and alcohol problems throughout his life, and in later years struggled with his mobility. He lectured children about his problems — including a $1,000-a-day cocaine habit, two drunk driving arrests and a marijuana possession — and found redemption through religion and real estate sales. In 2008, he was arrested on gun and cocaine charges.
As recently as last fall, he was an occasional visitor to USF practices, where son David — one of Mr. Reaves’ three adult children — served as an assistant.
“It’s a day to remember John, celebrate. That’s the way it should be,” Spurrier said. “Shed a tear a little bit, more than a little bit, then celebrate what he did while he was here on Earth.”