Many college athletes have achieved greatness in Gainesville. Far fewer have taken the next step to the pros, and even fewer have stood out among the crowd once they make it to the highest level of their sport.
The athletes nominated for the alligatorSports Pro of the Year are former Gators who not only compete at a professional level, but stand out, due to a triumphant story or excellence in play.
Our writers make their case for the four athletes nominated: Bradley Beal, Antonio Callaway, Caeleb Dressel and Pete Alonso.
Bradley Beal did not just have a good year in the 2018-19 NBA season.
He had the best year of his career.
Beal had career highs in points (25.6), assists (5.5), rebounds (5.0), steals (1.5) and minutes per game (36.9). He was also the one constant in an otherwise disappointing Washington Wizards season, playing all 82 games.
Star point guard John Wall missed most of the season due to injury, and the Wizards unquestionably became Beal’s team. Despite his best efforts, the Wizards finished with a 32-50 record.
Still, Beal earned his second All-Star Game appearance and became the first player in franchise history to reach 2,000 points, 400 rebounds and 400 assists in a season.
Beal never won a championship at Florida, but I believe he will go down as the best basketball player to ever represent the Gators in the NBA.
The 6-foot-5 shooting guard is in the prime of his career and is one of the best players in the NBA, and he proved it in the 2018-19 season.
He is my pick for alligatorSports Pro of the Year. – Joseph Salvador
Follow Joseph Salvador on Twitter @JSalvador_14 and contact him at [email protected].
Antonio Callaway had his fair share of detractors.
His numerous off-the-field mishaps -- including a suspension at UF for alleged sexual misconduct, his involvement in a credit card scandal and, later, a dropped marijuana charge -- left scouts and fans wondering if he could truly compete on America’s biggest sports stage.
It didn’t take long for him to prove that he could.
Callaway entered a Browns roster in 2018 competing for the fourth spot on the depth chart behind Josh Gordon, Jarvis Landry and Corey Coleman. After Coleman was traded to the Buffalo Bills, Callaway won the third spot, and he became an even bigger part of the offense when the Browns traded Gordon to the New England Patriots.
Callaway proved his worth quickly. He averaged 13.6 yards per reception and caught five touchdowns during the year, including a spectacular grab on Fourth-and-5 during Week 2 against the New Orleans Saints. Once he was paired up with a young gunslinger in Baker Mayfield after Week 3, the two developed a rapport, and Callaway’s last three games of the season included 2 TDs, nine receptions and 114 yards.
Perhaps Callaway wasn’t the flashiest wide receiver in the NFL last season, but to enter the league surrounded by doubt and then become an integral piece of a team that came back from a winless season to net seven victories makes him the alligatorSports Pro of the Year. – River Wells
Follow River Wells on Twitter @riverhwells and contact him at [email protected].
In the scope of Florida athletics, some sports and athletes fail to garner half the attention the major revenue drivers do.
Swimming and diving, a program consistently ranked amongst the best in the nation and notorious for developing world-class talent, is one of those programs often overlooked. Every Olympic Games since 1968 has featured a UF swimmer, with 12-time medalists Ryan Lochte and Dara Torres highlighting the alumni.
But with the 2020 Olympic Games arriving sooner than later, it’d be wise to get to know former Gator Caeleb Dressel.
The 22-year-old was on campus as recently as last year and snagged two Olympic gold medals while still a student three years ago in Rio de Janeiro.
Since his graduation and subsequent professional career, Dressel has been preparing for his second Olympics. His talents and potential for Michael Phelps-esque dominance next year in Tokyo were on full display this past week at the 2019 FINA World Championships in South Korea.
The native Floridian went on a tear, breaking former Team USA teammate and Olympic-deity Phelps’ record of seven world championship medals in a single event with eight. Dressel won six golds – the 50- and 100-meter butterfly, the 50- and 100-meter freestyle and the 4x100 meter freestyle in both mixed and men’s. He also bested Phelps’ world record 100-meter butterfly time by 0.32 seconds, which is far longer in the pool than the numbers would indicate.
Some athletes on this list have had successful professional careers up to this point, but only Dressel has the distinction of challenging the greatest in one’s sport, giving him my full-fledged vote for Pro of the Year. – Jack Braverman
Follow Jack Braverman on Twitter @jack_braverman and contact him at [email protected].
UF’s Pro of the Year in my eyes is someone who hadn’t played in a single Major League Baseball game before 2019. Three years removed from his final season at Florida, Mets first baseman Pete Alonso has taken MLB by storm this year and is the frontrunner for the National League Rookie of the Year award. A bright spot in what has been an otherwise rough season for the Mets, Alonso has 34 home runs and 77 RBIs.
The 24-year-old from Tampa did enough to earn himself a spot on the National League All-Star team, picking up two key RBIs in the top of the eighth to cut the American League’s lead to 1.
Arguably the biggest moment of his rookie campaign came on July 8 when Alonso won the MLB Home Run Derby in Cleveland.
An impressive 91-home run performance from runner-up Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was spoiled by Alonso’s final round as he hit the go-ahead home run with 18 seconds left to beat Guerrero Jr. 23-22 and add to his already incredible first year as a MLB player.
Alonso’s breakout rookie season has been impressive. Easily the best by any pro Gator this year, and that’s why he’s the clear-cut choice for the alligatorSports Pro of the Year. – Evan Lepak
Follow Evan Lepak on Twitter @evanmplepak and contact him at [email protected].