WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of stories highlighting Hernando High’s 2011 Sports Hall of Fame inductees.
Fred Abbott had just arrived at the University of Florida, a 17 year old from Brooksville taking advantage of a scholarship to play football for the Gators.
He quickly learned most of the team was compilation of players from metropolitan areas, and that those from small towns tended to gravitate toward one another.
One day, a buddy from Newberry introduced him as “Catfish” and the moniker has stuck ever since.
That was 1968, only a few months after Abbott graduated from Hernando High, where he shined as an offensive and defensive lineman, as well as a track and field athlete.
Next month, Abbott will return to his old campus and hometown as one of the eight new inductees to the Hernando High Sports Hall of Fame.
“There’s something unique about coming home. I’ve been back to Brooksville several times and every time I don’t feel like I ever left,” Abbott said.
“In high school, (football) is one of the most important things you can do because there’s really some value in the lessons you can learn. At that level, it’s not what you know, it’s not about status. It’s what you can do as an individual. For me, my lessons learned right there in Brooksville paid dividends.”
Cutting a deal
F. Catfish Abbott – he legally changed his middle name – now works as a lawyer out of Jacksonville. His own firm, Abbott Law Group, P.A., specializes in personal injury and wrongful death cases.
But before he returned to UF to earn his law degree, Abbott pieced together a career on the gridiron that spanned three different levels.
He played two varsity seasons with the Leopards as a starting right tackle and nose guard after spending his sophomore year on JV.
As a freshman he couldn’t play. The Abbotts built Bayport Inn and lived above the restaurant and lounge, and with the passing of his father everyone in the family had to pitch in.
Finally Abbott cut a deal: If he could find his way home, he could join the football team.
“I’d go to the intersection of 50 and 98, and that was a long time ago,” Abbott said. “Everybody in Brooksville knew everybody. Eventually somebody would give me a ride home.”
It was an arrangement that benefitted both the player and team. Abbott, 6-foot-3 and 228 pounds during his playing days, earned the Leopards’ Defensive MVP honors as a senior.
He was an All-State selection that season, garnering a spot on the High School All-Star Game and earning his way into the program at UF.
“He did everything I asked him to do,” said Vince Thompson, who took over as Hernando’s head coach in 1967. “He played offense, he played defense. He was a team leader. I just was very proud to say I was his coach.
“He was a 100-percenter. He doesn’t know about not going full speed. And he led by example.”
Thompson, who served as football headman for eight years, was an assistant coach during Abbott’s first two prep campaigns, and they built a close enough relationship that Thompson will introduce Abbott during the Hall of Fame induction banquet Nov. 3.
“I love Fred,” Thompson said. “I was going to be the head coach, so we had our head coach-star conflicts. But I needed him.”
Both Abbott and Thompson relayed the same story about that 1967 season. The Leopards were hosting long-time rival Pasco and Abbott turned into a receiver on a play as the tackle eligible. He ended up hauling in a pass for the only touchdown he would ever score.
“I played high school and college and professional football, but my biggest thrill occurred right there on that field,” Abbott said of that moment.
The field he referred to is Tom Fisher Memorial Stadium, named after one of Abbott’s idols at Hernando. He also counts fellow Hall of Fame inductee Frank Vohun among those he looked up to at that time.
“Tom Fisher was one of my heroes,” Abbott said. “When I was in junior high I saw him play and I wanted to be like him. Frank Vohun was part of a great FSU defense and he was phenomenal. I wanted to be like those guys.”
In track and field, Abbott mostly threw discus and shot put though he would occasionally run a race. He said he was the high-point scorer on the team and a state qualifier in shot put his senior year.
Success at other levels
At UF, Abbot would end up starting at three different positions over three seasons. He began as an offensive tackle and then became an offensive guard.
As a sophomore he was a second team All-Southeastern Conference pick. However, he felt he didn’t have the size to reach the NFL as an offensive lineman and persuaded the Gator coaching staff to give him a shot at middle linebacker.
The move worked out nicely, as he collected first team All-SEC and honorable mention All-American honors in 1972, along with awards for his character and leadership as a team captain.
He was All-SEC academically three years in a row, as well, adding to a stellar resume that led UF to induct him into the school’s Athletic Hall of Fame in 1985.
“It (a football scholarship) was the only way I could afford to go to college. It meant everything,” Abbott said. “I got a chance to go to college and play more football.”
After displaying his talents at that year’s Senior Bowl as captain of the South Team, Abbott was selected by the Minnesota Vikings in the NFL Draft.
He played in the preseason with the Vikings and initially made the team out of camp, but quickly got plucked away by the Miami Dolphins, coming off a perfect season in 1972.
Ironically, the Dolphins would go on to repeat as champions by defeating the Vikings in Super Bowl VIII that January.
Abbott, though, had been released from the practice squad midseason due to injuries to other players that forced various personnel moves. He finished up with the Philadelphia Eagles, never appearing in a game that year.
By 1974 he had been claimed by the New York Giants. Bill Arnsparger had just been hired as head coach after a stint as Miami’s defensive coordinator, and wanted to give Abbott an opportunity.
Instead, Abbott opted to sign for three times the money with the upstart Jacksonville Sharks of the World Football League. He started as an outside linebacker during the franchise’s only season of existence.
During one game, he “stood up when I should have sat down” on a play, tearing four ligaments and the cartilage in his left knee.
“I knew the moment I got hit (his career was over),” Abbott said. “I felt my knee come apart.”
On to law school
By that point, Abbott had periodically returned to Gainesville to attend the law school at UF. Though his bachelor’s degree was in psychology, he never put it to use.
Instead he earned a juris doctorate and went into the legal field where he remains today.
“It’s been beyond my wildest expectations,” Abbott said of his work in the courtroom. “When I moved into professional football, I knew it couldn’t last and I wondered what I could do that would be as exciting. Being a lawyer is more exciting. You get to play every position and you never get hurt.”
He has three grown children, including his son 28-year-old son Forrest, a UF grad who works at his firm.
His 26-year-old daughter Megan attended Villanova on a full volleyball scholarship and works in public relations, marketing and personal coaching. His youngest daughter, 24-year-old Amanda, graduated from UF and works in graphic design. Both live in Denver, Colo.
Forrest and Megan will each be in attendance for their father’s Hall of Fame induction. So will Abbott’s finance, Beverly Thomas. The couple plans to marry in early December.
They’ll be on hand to see Abbott receive just a little more recognition for what he achieved on the gridiron during his day wearing the Purple and Gold.
“Everything I wanted to do in football I got to do,” Abbott said, “and I feel blessed.”
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