Best-ever Volunteer athletes

Marvin Westwestwords

There aren’t many advantages to being old. Senior discounts go only so far.

Here is one plus: Based on the mind remaining relatively intact, many sports memories are fun. I was so reminded the other day when anonymous participants in one of my favorite forums were buzzing about the greatest athletes ever at the University of Tennessee.

Condredge Holloway (UT Sports Information)

Most insightful observations sounded as if they came from children playing in the sandbox. They had not actually seen the great ones but they had heard or read about Reggie White dunking a basketball at Chattanooga Howard and, because he ate college and pro quarterbacks alive, they decided he was the most athletic Volunteer.

He wasn’t.

Reggie was nimble and quick for his size, played defensive football very well as a senior and much better for pay. Reggie was a positive force. He encouraged those who tried to block him to keep on keeping on, to not give up.

Doug Atkins was in a similar category but a little less inspirational. He was physically gifted beyond belief. He actually had some basketball touch at close range and high-jumped 6-6, good for second place in a Southeastern Conference track meet – without practicing.

He made dominating, intimidating plays in football, had great games and was best on the field when he wanted to be.

He came to Tennessee from Humboldt on a basketball scholarship. That was his sport of choice and what he thought was his future. He used his size as a freshman to sometimes defeat senior center Art Burris when the Vols scrimmaged.

Robert R. Neyland knew others could do what Atkins did in basketball but he foresaw a different level of greatness in football. I do believe the General was correct in his assessment. Atkins was chosen as the best football player in the SEC over a quarter of a century, 1950-1974.

Tennessee’s really fast guys, Christian Coleman and Justin Gatlin, fastest sprinters in the world, are obviously great athletes. We don’t know what else they can do. They have not recently encountered linebackers.

We do know what very fast Richmond Flowers and Willie Gault did, in Tennessee football, NFL football and world-class sprints and hurdles. Willie added ballet and the Super Bowl Shuffle.

Long, long ago, in 1909, Nathan W. Dougherty was captain of Tennessee football, basketball and track teams. He was named to the Southeast area all-time football team (1869-1919).

He did other things of merit. He taught at Cornell and later became dean of the UT College of Engineering. He designed Shields-Watkins Field, helped organize the Southeastern Conference and hired Neyland as Tennessee football coach.

John Barnhill, best known as the Neyland assistant who took over when the head coach was recalled for military service, was captain of football, basketball and track in 1927.

Old Vols Gene McEver, Buddy Hackman, Bob Foxx, Bobby Dodd, Paul Hug and Bert Rechichar were multi-talented. In addition to College Football Hall of Fame honors, Dodd also won letters in basketball, baseball and track.

More recent Vols Dale Carter, Carl Pickens, Heath Shuler, Eric Berry and Josh Dobbs come to mind as superb athletes.

Basketball stars Bill Justus, Larry Robinson and Howard Bayne had pro football opportunities. Admiral Schofield and Yves Pons are gladiator types.

Todd Helton started a few games as Tennessee quarterback, led the baseball Vols to the College World Series and emerged as one of the great hitters in National League baseball.

Tom Pappas won two NCAA titles in the decathlon, 10 events, most demanding challenge in track and field. He was ranked No. 1 in the world in 2001 and 2003.

John Ward and I agreed that Bernard King was the best basketball player we ever saw. The cat-quick 6-7 forward averaged 26.4 points and 12.3 rebounds while shooting 62.2 percent – as a Tennessee freshman. After that, he improved.

His intensity was off the charts. We don’t know what he might have done in other sports.

Samuel Louis Graddy III was a Tennessee track star. He won the NCAA 100. UT says he didn’t do all that much in football, 10 games as a threat, two carries as a runner, minus six yards. He did better as a track and football professional, second to Carl Lewis in an Olympic 100, a gold medal in the 4×100 relay and several seasons in the NFL.

Common sense says Ron Widby was Tennessee’s best-ever all-around athlete. As a senior, he led NCAA football in punting (43.8 yards) and SEC basketball in scoring (22.1 per game). He was all-America in both. He led the baseball team in hitting as a sophomore. He gave up that game to be on the UT golf team.

The 6-4, 210-pounder did more than punt in Fulton High football. He was athletic enough to have done more than punt in college. He played professionally in football and basketball. After turning 50, he just missed qualifying for the senior golf tour.

Something else, maybe the heart, says Condredge Holloway deserves first prize. The Artful Dodger was an electrifying quarterback who often defied the laws of physics. He bounced off tacklers and somehow remained upright long enough to pass for more than 4,000 yards and run for about a thousand during a downward trend for the team.

He was an all-American shortstop (led SEC hitting with .396) who turned down first-round draft money from the Montreal Expos. He was pretty good in high school basketball. John Wooden recruited him to be the UCLA point guard.

Condredge is regarded as one of the all-time greats of Canadian football. He may have been better in ping-pong. There is a precious memory. He shaved points to avoid beating his Tennessee coach, Bill Battle, too badly.

Most of the forum participants missed that.

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