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August 2, 2006

Pajcic: 'Just a prince of a man'

Gary Pajcic, the man who completed the most famous pass in Florida State football history, died on Wednesday afternoon.

Pajcic, 58, was pronounced dead just three days after being hospitalized in his hometown of Jacksonville and then later falling into a coma. The official cause of death has not yet been announced.

"As I told his five children this morning, we all lost a true champion, a true friend and a wonderful person," former teammate and childhood friend Ron Sellers said. "Anyone should be so lucky to be thought of as well as Gary Pajcic is thought of throughout Jacksonville, by FSU alumni and, most importantly, by his family."

FSU president T.K. Wetherell, a former teammate, said Pajcic's death is a tremendous loss for Florida State University - and for everyone in the state of Florida.

"We've lost an awfully good Floridian and a good friend of Florida State University and a good friend to education," Wetherell said.

Wetherell helped remind Florida State football fans what they have known for almost 40 full years now - that it was Pajcic who threw the last-second, 45-yard touchdown pass to Lane Fenner on Oct. 8, 1966.

The pass was ruled incomplete and allowed the University of Florida to steal a 22-19 victory from the Seminoles.

"By God, it was in bounds," Wetherell said. "It was in bounds then and it's in bounds now."

That play is just one memorable slice of Florida State history that Pajcic's name is forever linked to, but it is hardly his only claim to fame.

Long before recruiting became a full-time obsession for college football fans, Pajcic was considered perhaps the most heralded recruit in FSU's brief history when he signed with the Seminoles in 1965.

A star football and basketball player at Jacksonville's Paxon High, Pajcic was believed to be the first athlete to ever win Player of the Year honors in both sports in Duval County.

He was named the state of Florida's Scholar-Athlete of the Year following his senior year and was ranked the No. 1 player in the state by several newspapers.

Among his numerous prep accomplishments in both sports, Pajcic hit the game-winning shot - from the top of the key - against Tampa-Hillsborough to clinch the 1965 state title in basketball for Paxon. That shot came one night after Sellers hit a half-court shot at the buzzer to beat Orlando-Edgewater in the state semifinals.

"They called us the 'Buzzer Twins,'" Sellers said. "One of Gary's kids told me this morning that Gary had so many stories about the two of us, but the one thing he was most fond of is how I beat Edgewater on one night and he beat Hillsborough the next night to win the state title."

Sellers said he first met Pajcic when the two were five years old. They attended schools together from the time they reached first grade all the way to Florida State. And while Pajcic was considered the recruit that every college wanted, not everyone held Sellers in the same regard.

"Gary and I made a pact because we were a quarterback/receiver combination," Sellers said. "If one school offered both of us scholarships, we would both go to that school. Well, Florida wanted him but they told me I wasn't major college material. Florida State said, 'We want both of you.' And that's the end of that story.

"Gary and I both went to Florida State. Bob Harbison recruited us and we both felt very fortunate. Gary and I both love Florida State very much, and FSU lost a true champion today."

Pajcic starred for FSU's freshman team in the fall 1965 before taking over as the starter on the varsity team in 1966. Sellers said his former teammate had to prove himself almost daily as a freshman to fight his way up the depth chart.

"We had 13 quarterbacks who signed with us out of high school that year," Sellers said. "We had 75 freshmen in our freshman class. And out of those 13 quarterbacks, Gary just rose up to the top. He was the cream of the crop. Just a great leader - everybody loved Gary."

Pajcic earned honorable mention All-America honors as a sophomore in '66, throwing for 1,590 yards and eight touchdowns. His success throwing the ball that season helped establish FSU as one of the more innovative offenses of the day.

In fact, it was Pajcic's success on the field that helped open the eyes of future FSU Hall of Famer - and future NFL receiver -- Barry Smith.

"I grew up in Miami," Smith said. "And I remember being in junior high and they used to show highlights on Monday nights at 11 o'clock on some local PBS channel. And I remember watching Gary Pajcic in black and white do his thing with the early Bill Peterson teams. When he and Ron Sellers hooked up for all those big plays, I was in awe."

Smith said Pajcic should be remembered as one of the great quarterbacks at Florida State.

"Gary Pajcic was the first quarterback that really put up big numbers in FSU history," Smith said. "He was a great quarterback at Paxon High and he's the guy who convinced Bill Peterson to sign Ron Sellers. And Gary started a hell of a run of great quarterbacks at Florida State -- from him to Kim Hammond to Bill Cappleman and later to Gary Huff and to what it is today."

Following that '66 season that saw him emerge as a collegiate star, Pajcic's career took a hit when an arm injury slowed him down in his junior year. That opened the door for Kim Hammond (in 1967) and Bill Cappleman (in 1968) to serve as FSU's starting quarterbacks. Sellers caught passes from all three.

"Gary was probably one of the greatest high school athletes I had seen then and that I have seen since," Sellers said. "He was All-State in basketball, All-State in football and he played on a baseball team that lost in the semifinals of the state tournament. If he didn't have that bad arm after his sophomore year .

"I was very lucky to have Gary, Kim and Bill as my quarterbacks at Florida State, but Gary was my personal soul mate because we'd gone back with each other since the first grade."

Though he ended his college football career as a backup to Cappleman, Pajcic made the most of his opportunities on campus. He graduated from FSU's law school and then began a professional career that saw him become one of Florida State University's most beloved benefactors.

Together with his brother, Steve, Pajcic started a law firm in Jacksonville in the 1970's (Pajcic and Pajcic) that has grown into one of Duval County's most successful practices.

But, his friends and former teammates say, Gary Pajcic never forgot the value of giving back to the community - and to lending a helping hand to those in need.

Andy Miller, president of Seminole Boosters, called Pajcic one of the "finest human beings you would ever want to meet."

"He was a great humanitarian who was extraordinarly involved with his community," Miller said. "Gary was a tremendous family man and he was a great friend to Florida State University. This is a tremendous shock and a loss that you can't imagine.

"I think everybody that met him came away feeling what a special guy he was to Florida State. I could not say enough good things about Gary Pajcic. He served on our board of directors and he was just the best guy you could possibly be around. He always answered the call."

Wetherell said it was common knowledge that any FSU students who lived in Jacksonville could always count on Gary Pajcic for help.

"Everyone knew that if a Florida State student ran into trouble in Jacksonville, they could call Gary Pajcic," Wetherell said. "If they needed gas money to get back to school or a meal or anything else, Gary and his brother provided an open door. He helped Florida State, but almost any kid could go in there and he would help them."

Pajcic's generosity is almost hard to fully comprehend.

The Pajcic brothers donated $1 million to Paxon High, and the football field at their alma mater now carries their name. Gary Pajcic donated $1 million to Seminole Boosters as part of the Dynasty Campaign in 2002. The football program's recruiting room is now called the Gary Pajcic Recruiting Room.

The Pajcics donated $1 million to establish a scholarship program for Duval County students attending the University of North Florida, and then another $1 million to a Jacksonville elementary school to help attract quality teachers.

Just this past spring, Gary Pajcic was honored at halftime of the Garnet and Gold spring game for donating $100,000 to Warrick Dunn's charitable foundation.

Tom Carlson, a senior vice-president with Seminole Boosters, said Pajcic would donate money to help almost any cause.

"I've never met anyone more giving and more caring and more friendly to everybody -- to everyone from all walks of life -- than Gary Pajcic," Carlson said. "He's one of the most thoughtful people I've ever come across. He was willing to help anybody, to help every soul."

Wetherell said Pajcic's philanthropy went even deeper than most people realize.

"Gary did a lot of stuff for the underserved population in Jacksonville that was under-reported or had no publicity at all," Wetherell said. "He did some things for abused women in a clinic in Jacksonville that no one knows about. He was a good community partner. It wasn't that he just gave to Florida State; he gave to everybody."

Wetherell said Pajcic left a path that every Florida State student-athlete should follow.

"If you talk about what you want from an athlete and a student from Florida State, you want them to come here and learn and grow and mature and then go on to do great things," Wetherell said. "Right there is your classic study in that -- the Pajcics. If you look at it in the whole sense, it makes you proud of what Florida State University did for an 18-year-old kid and even prouder of what that 18-year-old kid did for 30 years after he left Florida State University."

An emotional Sellers fought back tears when he said he could not believe that his childhood friend was no longer with him. The two had recently begun the process of planning which football games they would attend this fall, and how they would organize the tailgating activities.

"We've had the same tailgate party together for the last 15 or 16 years," Sellers said. "We both played football with Kim Hammond and Johnny Crowe and they are part of that group. And Gary and I were already talking about our first football game this year. I was supposed to play golf with Gary and his sons ... Gary was my very best friend.

"I can't believe he's gone. I just can't believe he's not here."



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