80,000 fans booed him. He wanted to give up. Instead, Jordan Travis turned himself into a Heisman candidate

80,000 fans booed him. He wanted to give up. Instead, Jordan Travis turned himself into a Heisman candidate
  • PublishedSeptember 20, 2023


TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — For most of his first two years at Florida State, Jordan Travis tried to ignore the voice in his head, the one that kept telling him he wasn’t good enough to play college football.

Maybe it started at Louisville, where he’d landed as a freshman, enmeshed in the chaos of Bobby Petrino’s miserable final season there. It certainly got louder in 2019 after he transferred to FSU — his “dream school” — where the staff thought he had talent, but wasn’t sure he was a true QB. The voice got loud enough that, when he took the practice field in 2020 with Mike Norvell and a new staff of coaches, he struggled to consistently throw a spiral. It was so loud by then, he put almost no stock in Norvell’s insistence that, buried deep beneath that shroud of disbelief, there was a superstar waiting to emerge. After all, he’d spent all of the 2021 fall camp locked in a battle with veteran McKenzie Milton for the starting job. How much did Norvell really believe if he wasn’t even sure Travis deserved to play?

But as Travis trudged off the field against Notre Dame in the 2021 season opener, battered after his third interception of the game, he didn’t need to listen to the voice anymore.

Eighty thousand fans told him instead.

“There’s so many different emotions running through your mind,” Travis said. “It sucks. Being a fan of Florida State for so long, going out on the field, it’s like dang you got booed.”

The crowd roared when Milton entered the game. When he led Florida State on a furious comeback that forced overtime, it appeared as if Travis might have played his last meaningful snaps at the school he’d grown up rooting for. After the game, he found his father, Tony, and broke down.

“I’m doing everything I can, and they’re booing me,” he told his dad. “What am I playing for?”

It took Travis months to find an answer to that question, nearly walking away from the game in the process. It took a small army of coaches, teammates and family to provide a chorus of support so loud, Travis could no longer hear that voice in his head that cast so much doubt. It took another two years before the dazzling future Norvell and his staff promised was possible finally came into focus.

Now, as Florida State prepares to take on Clemson — the defending ACC champs and a team the Seminoles haven’t beaten since 2014 — Travis hears a different voice telling him this is his moment.

“Everything Jordan’s gone through has made him the player he is today,” said his father, Tony Travis. “He appreciates it. He enjoys it now. I think it made him a much more well-rounded kid. He wasn’t given anything. He had to get out there and earn it every day, fight for it. And when God figured it was the right time, he got it.”

TRAVIS LEFT LOUISVILLE after the 2018 season. It had never felt right. He landed at Florida State the following year, where he’d watched his older brother, Devon, star on the baseball team years before. But somewhere in between, he’d gotten the yips.

That’s the best way he can explain it anyway. Really, there is no explanation for what happened.

“I felt like I couldn’t throw anymore,” Travis said. “My mindset was locked in on that.”

He’d dug through old high school tape, watched himself tossing effortless spirals downfield, and he wondered where that quarterback had gone.

So when Travis had arrived to FSU as a transfer on a roster bereft of QB talent, Willie Taggart’s coaching staff wondered the same thing. Taggart failed to land a number of top recruiting targets at the position, and so the Seminoles were desperate for arms, but Travis was in no position to help. His arm looked shot.

The end result of that dismal 2019 campaign was a pink slip for Taggart and his staff. Norvell was hired to right the ship — a job made tougher by the utter lack of a clear-cut starter at quarterback.

Norvell saw Travis as an option.

Travis saw himself as a wide receiver.

“The new staff coming in, they’d seen I could run around a lot,” Travis said. “I didn’t think they’d have faith in me. But I was wrong.”

New offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham had watched that same high school game film, but instead of nostalgia for better times, Dillingham saw raw material he was certain he could refine into something special.

“He didn’t really know football,” Dillingham said. “He knew plays, but he didn’t know football. He didn’t know how to protect himself, what runs to check into, how to flip [protections], where pressure was coming from and why. You combine this kid who thought very low of himself physically and combine that with a kid who really didn’t know the game — you really have this canvas that was such a high ceiling.”

The 2020 season was already chaotic due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and FSU’s quarterback situation added to the mess. Four different players started at QB that season, including Travis, who showed flashes of potential, particularly as a runner, but he completed just 55% of his throws and tossed six interceptions.

Travis showed enough progress that coaches believed he would be the team’s starter in 2021. That offseason though, Norvell invested in an insurance policy, bringing in Milton, who’d been a star at UCF but missed the previous two years with a severe leg injury.

In some ways, the move was a blessing for Travis. He’d always idolized his older brother, Devon, who’d been a star on Florida State’s baseball team, and now Milton served a similar role. Travis viewed Milton as a mentor as much as he was competition, and seeing how hard Milton worked to rehab his injured leg just for a shot at playing football again was an inspiration.

“Jordan is a great teammate, a great dude,” Milton said at the time. “I’ve been in QB rooms where it’s not always like that, where it’s not always guys have each other’s backs. … It’s a tough situation for both of us.”

Travis got the start for the opener against Notre Dame. Before the game, Milton sent him a text message: “Obviously I want that starting job, but man, you earned it and you worked really hard and I’m so proud of you.”

But by the time the game ended, with Travis enveloped in boos and Milton cast as a hero in one of college football’s most remarkable comeback stories, the tables had turned.

“I was so happy for him,” Travis said, “but at the same time, to get booed like that.”

The doubt crept back into Travis’ mind. The QB competition was playing havoc on his psyche — the voice had gone from a steady murmur to a primal scream.

A week later, Milton got the start against FCS Jacksonville State. Travis played, too, and again, he struggled, as the Seminoles blew a late lead on a final Hail Mary throw that would instantly become one of the lowest points in program history.

That probably should’ve been the end, the moment when the voice was so loud, Travis could hear nothing else.

“I remember it clear as day,” Milton said. “He overthrew a hitch route, they started booing him. He was telling Coach Norvell, ‘I’m done.'”

LOOKING BACK, DILLINGHAM, now the Arizona State coach, says there should be a movie made about Travis’ career, and it would center around September 2021.

How close did Travis come to quitting football for good?

“I was close,” Travis said.

On the field, he was shaken. The boos, the bad throws, the back-and-forth QB battle — he’d had enough. Away from the field, he was dealing with health issues he’s still uncomfortable discussing publicly. It made it difficult to train or practice and left him unsure whether he could keep playing even if he’d wanted to.

Tony Travis remembers Dillingham driving to his son’s apartment in the middle of the night to bring medication or food. Dillingham and Norvell refused to let Travis drift away from football, with Norvell checking in on his QB daily, and Dillingham often picking up his quarterback and driving him to practice, even when Travis wasn’t healthy enough to play.

“The kid needed a father figure, and I wasn’t there,” Tony said. “Kenny Dillingham was there 24/7.”

Still, the future looked bleak. At one point, Travis called his brother, Devon, and said he was ready to walk away from football for good.

Travis had grown up in Devon’s shadow. Devon was a star baseball player, and folks around West Palm Beach assumed Travis would follow in his footsteps. Devon still remembers his little brother pulling their dad aside when he was just 11 or 12 and breaking the news he wasn’t going to be a baseball player. He wanted to focus on football. Devon went on to play at Florida State, and the family never missed a home game. That’s where Travis’ love for the Seminoles took root. But he was ready to give up on it all — football, Florida State, his dreams.

Devon’s response was simple: It’s OK.

“If you stopped playing football today,” Devon told his brother, “I’m forever proud of you.”

But, Devon asked, would Travis be OK with his decision when he looked back on it years down the road?

“In life, very few people get chances to live out their dream,” Devon said. “When you hang your cleats up and you look in the mirror, you have to live with that person, and I don’t think you’ll be proud of yourself if you walk away.”

On the field, Florida State was a mess. The Seminoles opened the season with four straight losses, and by the end of September, Milton, too, was hurt, and Norvell wasn’t sure he had anyone who could suit up at QB.

That’s when Travis made his choice.

It was the Tuesday evening before Florida State hosted Syracuse, and Tony’s phone rang. It was Travis.

“Dad, let’s go,” he said. “I’m ready to play football again.”

Travis arrived at practice the next day and pulled Norvell aside.

“I don’t care how I feel,” Travis told him, “I’m playing in this game.”

Norvell was thrilled at the ambition, but in truth, he had no idea what the execution would look like. Travis hadn’t been healthy for weeks, and the last time he’d taken the field, he was a mess.

At practice, however, Travis looked sharp — “a different bounce, different determination,” Norvell said — and in the game, he provided a genuine spark. Travis threw two touchdown passes, ran for 113 yards, and engineered a 63-yard drive with just over a minute left to set up a game-winning field goal.

Florida State won its next two and delivered a thrilling upset of rival Miami. By November, Travis had gone from the brink of quitting to the team’s clear-cut starter.

Within the locker room, his story resonated for a program that had endured years of misery and defeat and was just beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel.

“You become the person everyone looks to,” Devon said. “Because you may be in the light now, but you know what it was like to be in the dark — to wake up in the dark and eat in the dark and play in the dark. That was Jordan for a long time. He was in the dark.”

Milton, too, understood a torch had been passed. Travis was an introvert, still learning what it meant to have the platform he had inherited, so he pushed his protégé into the spotlight whenever possible.

Travis recalled one day when Milton told the entire offensive group that Travis was going to run the film. Travis grabbed the clicker, and he was nervous. He’d never addressed the team like this, but Milton nodded his approval.

“I’m a quiet guy,” Travis said. “Clicking through, I’m just trying to lead the guys, and [Milton] is helping me as I go on, and he’s just showing me the way. He’s like, ‘Tell them about this, tell them about this.'”

The season’s final game came against rival Florida. A win would earn Florida State a bowl berth. On the first series, however, Travis took a hard hit and injured his shoulder. He went to the locker room to be examined. Tests later revealed a sprained AC joint. Every throw hurt.

“But I didn’t care about that,” Travis said. “I didn’t care about anybody else but the team.”

Travis returned to the game, played through the pain, and led two frenetic touchdown drives late in the fourth quarter.

Still, the Seminoles came up just short, falling 24-21 to end their season.

Afterward, Travis sent a text message to his teammates, promising they’d never feel this pain again and insisting that offseason would be all about the work, whatever it took to turn Florida State into a winner.

It ended with two words that so many around Travis had longed to hear: “It’s time.”

AFTER FLORIDA STATE wrapped spring practice in 2022, Travis met with Novell for the standard exit interview. The two talked about the progress Travis made throughout 2021, about how the team was in his hands now. Norvell accounted for some areas where he saw Travis could improve, and after years of small steps forward, Travis was intent on doing it. Still, Norvell got the sense his QB hadn’t entirely grasped the vision he had when they’d first met two years earlier.

As Travis stood up to leave the office, Norvell offered a prediction.

“I want you to get on the elevator down to the lobby,” Norvell told him. “When you get out, look to your left.”

That’s where Florida State’s three Heisman trophies reside — one from Charlie Ward in 1993, one from Chris Weinke in 2000 and one from Jameis Winston in 2013.

“I believe 100% you can put another one there,” Norvell told him. “I believe it with all my heart.”

By the end of the 2022 season, Norvell wasn’t the only believer.

Travis blossomed into one of the most electrifying players in the sport. In the opener, he engineered a shocking upset of LSU, whose coach, Brian Kelly, had been on the sideline for Notre Dame just a year earlier as Florida State’s fans booed Travis off the field. He stumbled during a three-game losing streak to Wake Forest, NC State and Clemson, but unlike years past, the miscues never rattled his confidence. Travis rebounded by leading Florida State to six straight wins to end the season, a stretch that saw Travis complete 67% of his throws while tallying 19 touchdowns and just three turnovers. The Seminoles won 10 games for the first time since 2016 and finished the season ranked No. 11 in the country.

The QB who Dillingham said hardly understood football when they first met was now texting FSU’s new QB coach in the middle of the night with insight on the film he’d just watched. The guy who couldn’t throw a spiral finished 2022 with 24 touchdown passes and just five picks. A player who once planned to switch positions to wide receiver posted the seventh-best Total QBR in the country, just a tick behind Bryce Young and Caleb Williams, the past two Heisman winners.

“Jordan’s ability to develop as a rhythm passer, to be able to anticipate throws, read a defense, work through progressions — that’s been the culmination of moments of seemingly monotonous work,” said Tony Tokarz, Florida State’s current quarterbacks coach. “It’s not fancy. It’s not flashy, but we’re going to rep it over and over again so that it becomes muscle memory. And then what my eyes see, what my brain processes matches with what my feet and my legs do. From there, he’s got the rest.”

By January, the Seminoles had kicked off a Heisman campaign for Travis, too. FSU planned to send Travis to Los Angeles for the 2023 national title game between Georgia and TCU as a way to gain some early hype for the next season.

After years of doubts, Travis now fully believed he belonged in the Heisman conversation. Still, he refused to make the trip.

“I wanted to make a statement,” Travis said. “A lot of guys would have taken the opportunity to go there and watch the national championship. I could care less about that. It was important for me to be [with my teammates.]”

This spring, Norvell said no Florida State player improved more than his QB1. Travis worked like he still had everything to prove, even if he was now getting real Heisman buzz. That word, by the way, is off limits even in casual family discussions, Devon said. It’s a testament to the QB’s perspective on his game now. There was no magic trick to turning his career around, no sudden realization that he was good enough to win the Heisman. There was just a long, slow grind to something better.

“Seeing him at his lowest and seeing him progress each and every day,” said linebacker Kalen DeLoach, “it’s like I’m really watching greatness.”

IN JUNE, TRAVIS invited his dad on a road trip. He was set to attend the Manning Passing Academy in Louisiana, and he thought maybe Tony would be up for a drive. In the early days of Jordan’s career, Tony would drive through the night to get to Louisville to visit his kid, once staying for nearly a month to help Jordan through a particularly low point. But these days, it was rare for them to get some real time together, just father and son.

So Tony picked up Jordan in Tallahassee and the two drove west out I-10, talking about fishing and life and almost anything but football.

“Normally he’s pretty reserved and quiet,” Tony said, “but we had a great conversation going.”

The camp went well, and when they hit the road to return to Florida, Jordan couldn’t wait to talk about the experience. He pulled out a notepad, with handwritten insight scribbled everywhere — “a copious amount of notes,” Tony said — gleaned from a long talk he’d had with Peyton, Eli and Archie Manning.

This wasn’t the kind of football conversation Tony was used to having with his boy. So often, it’d been Tony preaching about some goal, some small step Jordan could take, hoping to prop up his kid’s confidence just a bit. Now, Jordan was gushing about all he’d learned, all the tips he was hoping to put into practice this season.

“I’m listening to this kid talk,” Tony said, “and I’m thinking, ‘Wow, is this the same Jordan that I was talking to a few years ago that was not loving football and just didn’t care for it at all?’ He’s loving it.”

For Tony, it was a moment of clarity.

This wasn’t the kid he’d driven out to Louisville, the one who was ready to walk away again at Florida State.

Jordan, Tony said, had grown up.

“His whole perspective now is totally different,” he said. “It blows me away to see that.”

Jordan can still obsess over the criticism though. He’s a sucker for social media, though he admits it can be toxic. That stuff used to stir up that voice in his head, get it talking too much. There’s far less criticism now, but Travis looks for it wherever he can.

“I screenshot it,” he said. “Just to motivate me.”

It’s a trick Dillingham taught Travis in 2021. He’d spent so long trying to build up Travis’ confidence, but the QB just wouldn’t listen. So Dillingham changed tack. He started insulting Travis — “you stink,” and “you can’t throw.” Coming out of Dillingham’s mouth, Travis saw the criticism for what it was — barbs so absurd no reasonable person would believe. It forced him to realize that voice in his head was just as ridiculous.

Yes, Travis is a quarterback. Yes, he can throw. Yes, he can lead Florida State past Clemson, to an ACC title, to the College Football Playoff. Yes, more than anything, he loves playing football. How could he have ever doubted?

“I’m 23 years old, and I’ve been through a lot in my career,” Travis said. “It’s not always going to be perfect, but it’s about how you respond to things, both good and bad. I just tried to keep my head straight and focus because I knew the time was coming. And eventually, it clicked.”


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