Lane Fenner was last heard from in November 1986, on the 20th Anniversary of "The Catch," when Gerald Ensley of The Tallahassee Democrat tracked him down somewhere in the Southwest.
A reluctant Lane talked to Ensley, but made him promise to never tell where he lived. The story Ensley wrote is believed to be the last time Fenner spoke to the media about his moment in FSU history. (Garnet & Great had no luck in locating him 40 years after.)
Our thanks to The Democrat, and Gerald Ensley in particular, for greenlighting this slightly condensded version of that story.
COMPLETING THE LEGEND OF LANE FENNER
by Gerald Ensley
Democrat Staff Writer
Ron Sellers tells the perfect Lane Fenner story. The year was 1966, the same season Fenner became famous. The Florida State football team was amid the mountains in El Paso, Texas, preparing for the Sun Bowl.
After one practice, the team was loading up the buses. Coaches did a head count. One player was missing...
"It was Lane," recalled Sellers. "We searched for 20 or 30 minutes before we found him, halfway down the mountain, in a cave, looking for rocks."
Bingo, the quintessential Fenner story, perfect not just because Fenner was a geology major but because Fenner was a maverick.
Fenner was a player who once stood up in a team meeting and criticized head coach Bill Peterson. A player who refused to join the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, to which almost all his FSU teammates belonged. A player who chewed sunflower seeds while most other Seminoles chewed tobacco.
There's only one thing wrong with Sellers' story. It's not true.
Nor is is true that Fenner went off to join a commune in Colorado after college. Nor is it true that Fenner was in a terrible car accident in Indiana, and saved himself by crawling into a snowbank and freezing his cuts shut.
But when you leave behind a reputation for individuality like Fenner left at FSU, and you have had no contact with any of your college friends or teammates for 18 years, fiction and fact become entwined.
"It's like Howard Hughes or Bob Dylan. When you remain out of contact, people make up stories about you," said Fenner.
"I never went climbing around the mountains at the Sun Bowl, never lived in a commune, never was in a car wreck. But it's funny. People back in Indiana tell those same stories (about the commune and the car wreck)."
Stories and rumors are all that most people have heard of Fenner since 1968, when he completed his football career by playing one year for the San Diego Chargers.
Almost yearly over those 18 years, as the Florida - FSU football game approached, reporters sought to located and interview Fenner. Most failed. Until two weeks ago, Fenner had granted only one media interview about his football career in the ensuing 18 years.
Part of Fenner's inaccessibility has been circumstantial — he has lived in several places since college (including Colorado). Part of his inaccessibility has been intentional — old friends were instructed to tell reporters, "Lane is in El Salvador."
But two weeks ago, mindful of the 20th anniversary of the 1966 Florida - FSU game, Fenner spoke with this reporter. He spoke on the condition that his present home be identified only as "a city somewhere in the Southwest."
"I've purposely tried not to (talk about the 1966 game). With me, once something's done, it's done," said Fenner, who then laughed. "I'm trying to remain a legend."
Fenner became that on Oct. 8, 1966 when he caught a 45-yard pass from quarterback Gary Pajcic in front right corner of the north end zone at Campbell Stadium with 17 seconds left and Florida leading 22-19. Official Doug Moseley ruled Fenner out of bounds, extinguishing FSU's last chance for an upset.
Fenner, than a junior, played another season, compiling career statistics of 40 receptions for 442 yards and one touchdown, which he caught his senior year. Losing what would have been his first touchdown catch to Moseley's call has never, said Fenner, bothered him.
Fenner left FSU in 1968 without the degree in geology that he would later earn at a Southwest university. After his single year of pro football, Fenner's National Guard unit was activated and he began a somewhat nomadic life that has carried him to several Rocky Mountain states and California.
After three years in the Army, as a demolition expert, Fenner went on to be a bus driver, a surveyor, an illustrator, a commercial artist and a free-lance artist. Today, he is a high-school math and science teacher and an accomplished artist, painting oils...
Fenner's memories of FSU — which he has not visited since 1968 — are a mixture of warmth and bitterness.
He has fond feelings for the friends he made in college, notably such former football players as actor Robert Urich and Richard McClean, who was later a track star...
But Fenner's dominant memory of FSU is of unpleasant duty in what he labeled "a football factory that cost me a lot of blood, sweat and tears."
That experience, he said, is part of the reason he has remained anonymous for the past two decades...
"We had a different program in those days, and had to do things I'm not sure I would do today," said (Bill) Peterson, the FSU head coach from 1960-1970.
Others think Fenner's bitterness was personal.
"I'm sorry Lane feels that way," said (Ron) Sellers (a first-team AP All-American receiver in 1967). "Unfortunately, Lane never reached the potential he thought he had. Frankly, he wasn't as good as he thought he was"...
"Lane was a loner who did his own thing. But he was a great guy. I liked Lane a lot," said Pajcic. "There were about 10 or 15 guys on the team who studied hard and thought about the future. Lane was one of those guys."
"Lane was a nice guy who just didn't want to conform to rules," said Peterson. "But shoot, he was a nice kid. He never gave me any trouble."
Almost none, anyway.
In 1967, FSU opened the season by losing to Houston, then shockingly tied Top 10-ranked Alabama 37-37. But the following week, FSU lost to unheralded North Carolina State 20-10. Peterson called a team meeting the next day, Sunday, and read players the riot act. Much of Peterson's theme was that he was going to practice them next week until their tongues dropped off...
Fenner was dismayed by the tone of Peterson's remarks.
"I stood up and said, 'Coach, what we need is less threats and more inspiration from the coaches," said Fenner, then a senior. "I realized I was taking a chance on my scholarship. But I had to say it."
Peterson, who now uses the story in his speaking engagements, was affected. FSU practices became a little more relaxed, and once included a humorous soccer game between the players.
"No question I learned something," said Peterson. "I learned you can't do anything under a threat."
Fenner called that meeting his proudest moment in football.
"To me, I was one of the first liberated athletes. And I think I had the respect of every guy on the team, and that they saw me as standing up for their rights," said Fenner. "The only way I was a loner was that I did things differently."
Actually, Fenner has no feelings one way or the other about his catch.
"My main feeling is that whether or not the catch against Florida had been a touchdown is irrelevant. It makes no difference, especially 20 years later"...