University of Florida

After practice, Mullen gives these UF Gators walk-ons the surprise of their lifetime

Dan Mullen, head football coach at the University of Florida.
Dan Mullen, head football coach at the University of Florida. Orlando Sentinel

R.J. Raymond set three goals before enrolling at the University of Florida.

The redshirt senior pictured himself getting a college degree, earning a scholarship and garnering playing time on the Gators’ football team.

And when Florida coach Dan Mullen gathered his players in a huddle after Monday’s practice, it wasn’t to just talk about drills or plays. It was to ensure that Raymond, a walk-on for the team, would get to live one of those dreams.

Mullen surprised Raymond as well as fellow walk-on Nick Villano with football scholarships after the team’s Monday evening practice.

While players took a knee and listened to Mullen speak with his usual fervor, the coach addressed Raymond and Villano and asked each of them about their roles on the team.

After expressing to the room their jobs on special teams, Raymond and Villano heard Mullen declare the words they’d worked so hard to hear, and the group erupted in an elated roar as players cascaded onto the backs of their two teammates and showered them with congratulations.

“That was a huge weight off my shoulders,” Raymond told reporters on Tuesday. “It let me know that everybody around here is appreciating the work and the time that I’ve put into this.”

Raymond was recruited to Florida as a linebacker and walked on the team in 2014. He suffered a foot injury during his sophomore year but returned to fulfill a need on the defensive line. He’s seen time as a fullback and has contributed as a member of the Gators’ special teams for the past two seasons. And in the spring, he moved to tight end under the new coaching staff. The Atlantic Beach, Florida, native played in all 11 games last season and earned playing time during UF’s Orange and Blue game.

Raymond had dreamed of donning the Orange and Blue Gators uniform for most of his life, and from age three, he has attended Florida football games with his family.

“I knew I was coming into one of the top programs in the country, and I told myself I’m going to put my head down, go to work and I’m not going to listen to what anybody has to say negative about me,” Raymond said. “I’m going to listen to my coaches, get all the information I can as well as get a degree from the University of Florida.”

And when he graduates in December of this year, Raymond will have surpassed each of those three milestones he set for himself.

For Villano, the redshirt junior from Wellington, Florida, he hasn’t yet appeared in a game for the Gators but is on his way to seeing some time on the field.

“It was a great feeling,” Villano said. “I have been working for this for the past three years, and for this to finally come is truly a blessing for me and my family. I have been working my butt off, and a dream came true today.”

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