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HAMMOCK: From Devils to Dadgum

As he sat in the office of Florida State legend Bobby Bowden, Mark Schlabach watched the longtime head coach pull out a taped-up manila folder some 30 inches thick.

Inside was a hodgepodge of papers that included every pre-game speech Bowden used as the Seminoles coach, dating from 1976 until his final one before last season’s Gator Bowl. Some were on paper, others were scrawled on the back of parking passes and napkins.

“That was the gold mine, that was the treasure chest,” said Schlabach, a national college football columnist and TV contributor for ESPN.

The stack of speeches, each tied into a scripture or devotional, could no doubt go for high dollars to some rich FSU booster. But Bowden trusted Schlabach with the priceless collection, which he promptly took to Kinko’s to copy every page.

Those words of wisdom then became an important part of “Called to Coach: Reflections on Life, Faith and Football,” a 288-page book released in late August that profiles the famous FSU coach. Though it’s the sixth book written about college football by Schlabach, a 1991 Norcross grad, it’s the showcase of his career thus far.

“It’s (Bowden’s) voice, his words, I just put it into chapters and into a book,” Schlabach said. “No doubt it’s the best thing I’ve done in my career. It’s an opportunity I never thought I’d have.”

Schlabach once thought he would be the star in Theo Caldwell’s pass-heavy Norcross football teams of years past. He heard those words in the locker room one day, “let me introduce you to the next great Norcross wide receiver.” Then the group passed his locker and shook hands with freshman Juan Daniels, a future standout at Georgia.

Like Daniels, Schlabach ended up in Athens, only to write about sports instead of play them. He was good enough to play on baseball, basketball and football teams at Norcross, but was never a star. Instead he’s been on a successful fast track in sports journalism, working now with ESPN and settling down in Madison with his wife and three young children.

Of all his projects, the latest one — centered around 50 hours of audio tape from two weeks he spent with Bowden earlier this year — has gotten the most notice. It’s already rising on the best-seller lists, thanks to a publicity boost because Bowden uses the book to speak about his sudden departure from FSU.

But that’s just a touch of what is covered, thanks in part to those decades of speeches.

“The biggest challenge was with a guy as iconic as he is, he’s had so many books written about him and there aren’t many stories that haven’t been told,” Schlabach said. “This is one of the first books to realy examine his spiritual path, what faith means to him and how it relates to his football team.”

Will Hammock can be reached via e-mail at will.hammock@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Thursdays.