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<p>McClain Kessler returns a ball during Florida's 6-1 win over Troy on Jan. 17, 2016, at the Ring Tennis Complex.</p>

McClain Kessler returns a ball during Florida's 6-1 win over Troy on Jan. 17, 2016, at the Ring Tennis Complex.

Six years ago, McClain Kessler was sitting in his living room with his grandfather, Andrew Driggers, watching a Florida men’s basketball game.

The Gators were facing the N.C. State Wolfpack and trailed by two points with two seconds left in the game.

Livid that UF appeared to be headed for a loss, Driggers stormed outside, unable to look at the television any longer.

What followed was one of Florida basketball’s most incredible plays in program history.

After a missed free throw by N.C. State, UF forward Chandler Parsons dribbled twice before hurling a prayer from 75 feet away, nailing the shot as time expired.

Gators 62, Wolfpack 61.

In shock, Kessler went outside and found his still-enraged grandfather.

“I come outside and am like, ‘You just missed an incredible shot,’" McClain said.

“He didn’t believe me. Even for a couple days. He would watch the replay and he still wouldn’t believe me. I don’t know what was going on, but it was the funniest thing ever.”

Kessler, a freshman on the Florida men’s tennis team, was best friends with Driggers.

After deciding to be homeschooled as a teenager in order to devote more time to tennis, the Calhoun, Georgia, native was frequently on the road training and participating in tournaments across the southeast.

When Kessler wasn’t traveling, however, he was at home with his grandfather.

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The relationship they cultivated was one of the main reasons Kessler committed to the Gators.

Following a stint in the Air Force during World War II, Driggers enrolled at UF and walked on to the football team as a linebacker in 1948.

Driggers developed an adoration for Florida during his time at the university, an adoration that stayed with him long after he graduated in 1950.

“He loved Gator sports,” McClain said.

“I grew up watching basketball games, football, everything with him. Every Saturday was scheduled around watching games with him. I would take off tennis and not play and just watch Florida sports.”

Kessler grew a fondness for the Gators early on in his childhood, creating an unbreakable bond with his grandfather.

The two would often sit together, and McClain would listen as Driggers recounted stories about his experiences at UF.

“He had a lot of quality time with my dad, and that’s probably the best teacher that you can have,” McClain’s mother, Julie Kessler, said.

“Eighty nine years of life that McClain probably knows more about my dad than I do.”

 

It’s difficult to find someone more animated on a tennis court than Kessler.

The freshman yells and shouts his way through every match he plays.

Sometimes it’s encouraging phrases, such as “Let’s go Gators!”

Other times it’s exclamations of relief following a big point, like “Come on! Yeah!”

And sometimes, McClain is so fired up his words are simply unintelligible.

No matter what sound is coming from Kessler, his teammates always appreciate his emotion.

“Even if he’s winning or losing, he’s going to be screaming, and that just pumps you up,” sophomore Chase Perez-Blanco said.

“It just brings a smile to my face when I hear him going nuts. I think it’s just fun, and it’s just a lot of fun watching him do that because he’s so good at it.”

McClain has had a lot of practice roaring over the intensity of a tennis rally.

Kessler’s mother still has a home video of an 8-year-old McClain furiously hitting a ball off his family’s garage wall, shouting triumphantly after each forehand.

“He annihilated our drywall,” Julie said.

“We had to have a contractor come in and put plywood in our garage.”

It’s not a coincidence Kessler is forceful and aggressive in his style of play.

It’s in his genes.

Driggers was the epitome of an ultimate competitor.

The former UF linebacker was assertive and backed down from no one.

Even his grandson.

“(He was the) most competitive person ever,” McClain said.

“Christmas we would have different games and he would always try to win. He would do whatever it took to beat me when I was like 7 or 8 years old.”

Driggers’ relentless desire to win ingratiated itself into Kessler’s core at a very young age.

Over a decade later, that determination still burns within McClain, leading the freshman to have a big impact in his first season at Florida.

Kessler finished his 2016 campaign 14-6 in dual singles matches and tallied eight wins in Southeastern Conference play.

“Anything I do, I’m probably the louder person there, and the most intense and focused and fired up about it,” McClain said. “It’s just any sport. I love it, and especially tennis is where I can leave it all out on the court.”

 

Kessler committed to the University of Florida in early 2014.

The top-ranked recruit also received interest from Georgia, Georgia Tech and Alabama, but when it came time to make a decision, the choice was obvious.

“(Florida) was basically a no-brainer,” McClain said.

“I looked at other places. My friends, everybody that I grew up with went to different places so I looked at them. The programs were nice, but it was a no-brainer.”

Not only was Kessler enamored with UF, but UF was also enamored with Kessler.

The five-star prospect matched what Florida coach Bryan Shelton wanted in an incoming player: fire, determination and grit.

“One of the things that we were looking for in that class was to bring in obviously talent, but to bring in a competitive spirit, almost an edgy competitive spirit,” Shelton said.

“He fit the bill. It doesn’t take long to watch him play and see how competitive he is on the court.”

If Kessler had even a shred of trepidation about his college choice, those doubts were quickly washed away after he had a conversation with his grandfather about the Gators’ fan base.

“He said the fans obviously were really loyal and the best,” McClain said.

“He said everybody gets addicted to it and they love watching, and it’d be a great place to go … He loved it more than anything.”

 

Driggers’ temper boiling over at the thought of Florida losing a basketball game to N.C. State encapsulates just how much the Gators meant to him.

The former UF linebacker lived and breathed Florida sports.

He was the definition of a die-hard fan, and he imparted that passion on the rest of his family.

“I was born in orange and blue,” Julie said.

“I grew up my whole life going to Florida games.”

Driggers owned UF football season tickets for over 50 years, taking his kids and grandkids to the Swamp as often as he could.

When the team wasn’t playing in Gainesville, Driggers would organize family get-togethers to celebrate and prepare for Florida’s upcoming game.

“We’d have parties pretty much in advance, like days before,” McClain said.

“We’d just sit around and talk about those games, and it was pretty fun. My grandad would run the events, and we’d do different things, but he loved it.”

Driggers passed away on July 1, 2015, at age 89.

Surrounding his hospital bed, Driggers’ entire family was present to say goodbye to him. Everyone except his grandson.

Kessler had left Calhoun one week earlier to begin his freshman year at UF.

With McClain over five hours away in Gainesville, he was put on speakerphone to say farewell.

“McClain was probably the last person to say goodbye,” Julie said. “That was probably the hardest.”

In his final few years, Driggers’ body began to wear down due to various health problems. One thing that never left him, however, was his passion for athletics.

“Even when he was sick he would stroll out to the matches, and try to come to my junior matches,” McClain said.

“He always, always loved sports. More than anybody I have ever seen in my life.”

Although he never got to see his grandson play for his beloved alma mater, the impact that Driggers had on McClain will last forever.

“He is the reason that McClain is the way he is about Florida,” Julie said.

“There’s just no question."

 Contact Dylan Dixon at ddixon@alligator.org and follow him on Twitter @dylanrdixon.

McClain Kessler returns a ball during Florida's 6-1 win over Troy on Jan. 17, 2016, at the Ring Tennis Complex.

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