After years of mediocrity, USF football has regained its mojo.

Now if it only could relinquish its grief.

At a time when fans should be basking in the Bulls’ resurgence and eagerly awaiting the start of a potentially historic 2024 season, the optimism is offset by obituaries.

The latest were delivered within six weeks of each other. In mid-May, former Bulls running back Mike Ford died at age 37. Details of his death haven’t been released.

Then on June 24, 20-year-old tight end Teigan Martin died from injuries sustained in a car accident in his native Minnesota. Add the death (cause unknown) of 42-year-old former linebacker Shurron Pierson in February, and that’s three former Bulls players — all under 45 — lost in this calendar year alone.

Lodged amid the latest deaths was news that former Bulls record-setting kick returner Brian Battie had been critically injured in a May 18 shooting in Sarasota that resulted in the death of his brother.

“None of the deaths are related, but it’s just crazy, like, how close they are to home,” former Bulls and NFL cornerback Kayvon Webster said. “All we can do is continue to pray and talk to each other as much as we can, because we never know who’s next or when that time is.”

The deaths of Ford and Martin were the 15th and 16th in the 27-year history of Bulls football. All 16 were 42 or younger. Nine were under 30.

The randomness of the deaths have been accompanied by bizarre causes.

One former Bull (Will Bleakley) died in a high-profile boating accident. Another (Javon Camon) died from a broken neck sustained in an indoor football game. Yet another (Elkino Watson) died after being stabbed in an altercation in Ybor City. Only one (Keeley Dorsey) died on campus, collapsing during an otherwise routine January 2007 conditioning workout.

USF defensive lineman Elkino Watson (53) sacks East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden (5) during a 2014 contest at Raymond James Stadium. Less than a year later, Watson died after being stabbed during an altercation in Ybor City. (Times (2014))
USF defensive lineman Elkino Watson (53) sacks East Carolina quarterback Shane Carden (5) during a 2014 contest at Raymond James Stadium. Less than a year later, Watson died after being stabbed during an altercation in Ybor City. (Times (2014))

“I didn’t know it’s been that many in that few amount of years,” said former linebacker Auggie Sanchez, who remains the program’s career leader in tackles.

“Always one of those things that makes you kind of look back on everything and appreciate what’s going on in your life and appreciate what you have. Just kind of that Bull brotherhood, you generally stay together.”

Statistically, the number seems commensurate with the general population. USF’s official football website lists more than 700 letterwinners, meaning the deceased players represent slightly more than 2% of the Bulls’ alumni base.

“It’s a sensitive subject,” said Jay Mize, a defensive back on the inaugural 1997 team. “And I’m curious what that stat is of, like, 10 random programs; how many guys have died under the age of 40 in the last 25 years? … Are we an outlier or are we in the norm?”

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That’s impossible to ascertain. Neither Florida, FSU, UCF, Florida Atlantic nor Miami have databases that document current and former player deaths.

Moreover, any statistical analysis is skewed by the recent run of tragedy: three deaths in this calendar year, four in the last 13 months and another former Bull hospitalized in an intensive-rehabilitation facility in Sarasota.

“I don’t think USF is cursed, it’s just so unfortunate that we’re going through these things,” Webster said. “I don’t think it has anything to do with the program itself. These people are from different backgrounds. They had different things going on with their families.

“It just sucks that it’s happened to our school.”

Contact Joey Knight at [email protected]. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls

USF football deaths

Listed in chronological order are the USF football players known to have died since the program’s inception. Players are listed with their age at the time of their death.

Patrick Payton, 19: June 22, 2001 (motorcycle accident)

Keeley Dorsey, 19: Jan. 17, 2007 (collapsed during routine weightlifting workout on campus)

Javan Camon, 25: Feb. 26, 2007 (broken neck sustained during indoor football game)

Mike Minus, 27: Sept. 8, 2008 (semitruck accident)

Will Bleakley, 25: March 2, 2009 (boating accident)

Reshod Durant, 31: Jan. 26, 2013 (head injuries sustained during altercation in Gainesville)

Elkino Watson, 23: Sept. 6, 2015 (stabbing in Ybor City)

Joel Miller, 29: Sept. 10, 2017 (cause not revealed)

Kenyatta Jones, 39: June 9, 2018 (cardiac arrest)

Joshua Brown, 28: Oct. 4, 2019 (shooting in Texas)

Maurice Tucker, 41: Jan. 23, 2021 (cause not revealed)

Jamar Taylor, 33: March 9, 2021 (brain aneurysm)

Jon Lejiste, 32: May 26, 2023 (suspected drowning)

Shurron Pierson, 42: Feb. 7, 2024 (cause not revealed)

Mike Ford, 37: May 14, 2024 (cause not revealed)

Teigan Martin, 20: June 24, 2024 (automobile accident in Minnesota)

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