Milestone Moment: Gators Wowed at Opening of Heavener Football Training Center

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — They began to assemble in their game-day locker room at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium late Sunday afternoon, anticipating the arrival of head coach Billy Napier to lead them on a short walk down Stadium Road.The Gators were aware of their destination, and the mood reflected such. They were like kids waking up on Christmas morning.

“See you later,” said tight end Nick Elksnis as he tapped the Gator Head on his way out.

Once the group gathered outside, Napier led the players and coaches on a five-minute hike to the front steps of the glistening $85 million Heavener Football Training Center, the new headquarters of the UF football program.

Napier and director of football operations Joshua Thompson held the front doors open as players eagerly stepped inside the 142,000-square building for the first time, a facility that has been on the radar since 2016 and under construction since the demolition of McKethan Stadium started in the summer of 2020.

A celebratory tone soon engulfed the building as players explored every corner, recording the moment on their smartphones and sharing their excitement with high-fives and triumphant shouts.

Borders, Chief (2022 facility opening)
Chief Borders, center, and his teammates react as they enter the Heavener Football Training Center for the first time on Sunday. (Photo: UAA Communications)

“I know a lot of Gator alumni and people who have been part of this program have waited on this facility for a very long time, and for me to be part of the first group to step in here, it’s a phenomenal experience,” linebacker Chief Borders said. “You want to be the best you can possibly be, and I know this facility is going to bleed nothing but Orange & Blue and do that for us.”Nowhere was the players’ reaction more festive than in the team’s dazzling new locker room. They raced around the room, yelling with excitement, admiring the zero-gravity reclining chairs, Jordan-brand signage, and lighted graphics above each stall featuring their uniform number and picture.

Linebacker David Reese, who signed with the Gators in 2018, was overcome with emotion as he stared at the shiny panel with his image above his locker. He took pictures and pointed toward it repeatedly to show those in the vicinity.

Soon, the amped-up Reese was in the team’s new weight room with his shirt off, pumping iron.

“This building was talked about my freshman year, and to see it physically, and just be here, it’s overwhelming,” Reese said. “All the boys I came in with, some are gone, some are still here. We talked about this freshman year. To see it now it’s an amazing feeling.

“I got some curls in. I did some push-ups, some bench presses. I had to be the first one to get it in. We fixing to turn it up a notch.”

Gators Locker Room (2022 opening)
A look inside the Gators’ locker room at the Heavener Football Training Center. (Photo: UAA Communications)

As the players and staff checked out the different areas of the new facility, Napier and UF Athletic Director Scott Stricklin visited the modern and high-tech offices where Napier and his assistants will spend their workdays. Napier’s office is on the second floor, equipped with a balcony that overlooks the practice field. The facility still has some punch-list items developed once Napier took over the program in December, with the building already under construction.

Work crews will complete those tasks soon, but Napier will park in a different spot when he arrives at work on Monday.

“I changed my route to work a couple of months to get ready for that,” he said Sunday.

Napier had a significant role in selecting much of the Gator-themed signage in the building and used the knowledge from his previous stops to ensure the facility functions efficiently.

He said the facility is one more step in the right direction for where he envisions the Gators going during his tenure.

“The first thing is, just really appreciative of all the people that invested to create this and the leadership to execute it,” Napier said. “I think it’s one of the unique things about the University of Florida. We’ve got the resources, the people who care and have passion. The University of Florida impacted the direction of their lives; they care about the place and are willing to give back.

“It’s been a long road here. So many people contributed. Just really blessed and humbled. It’s truly a day I think that we’ll look back on and say, ‘man, that really made a difference.’ We’re very grateful. The game is about the players. It’s great to see that initial reaction.”

Napier, Billy (2022 Heavener Opening)
Gators head coach Billy Napier is all smiles as the team moves into the Heavener Football Training Center. (Photo: UAA Communications)

After checking out the locker room, Quarterback Anthony Richardson visited the training room and outdoor area that features a resort-style pool and basketball court, which Napier’s office overlooks.

Richardson was in the middle of his exploration when asked about his initial reaction.

“Walking in, all I could do was smile,” he said. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while and finally got to see it. It’s amazing, honestly.”

As Richardson checked out the outdoor basketball court, other players toured the area devoted to recovery and rehab. The space features a 50-foot plunge pool, steam room, two HydroWorx pools with underwater treadmills, and a float tank.

Without a doubt, this is not your big brother’s football facility. This dynamic state-of-the-art facility has an area open to all UF student-athletes once classes start later this month, including a hair salon, dining hall and virtual-reality room.

“Everybody likes to talk about recruiting, but I think, more importantly, just the championship-level experience of the players and staff day in and day out relative to their development, not just as a football player, but also as a person with the ‘GatorMade’ Program being in-house,” Napier said. “We’ve got all the things that we need to help a person develop and achieve their potential.

“We’ll continue to evolve. This place will continue to get better. The level of square footage we have, we’re going to learn how to maximize each opportunity each day.”


Heavener Football Training Center (2022 opening)
A look at the outside of the $85 million, 142,000 square-foot Heavener Football Training Center. (Photo: UAA Communications)

Stricklin stood by the door as the players entered to watch their reactions. He then attended a team meeting in which Napier discussed the facility’s logistics to help everyone get acclimated.

Like Richardson, Stricklin couldn’t help but smile on a day the Gators ushered in a new era. Several players stopped to shake his hand and offer thanks as they exited the meeting.

“It’s always fun when it comes together,” Stricklin said. “To do things that are special and unique that you don’t find at other places, and the Gators are the only ones to have them, that’s really special. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a reaction quite like this.”

Offensive lineman Joshua Braun shared a familiar sentiment on a Sunday afternoon these Gators won’t forget.

“Exceeded every expectation I had,” he said.


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