Tennessee tradition means something to Butch Jones. The coach appreciates checkerboards, the walk to the stadium and even the navy, though he seldom finds time for autumn boating.
He tips his cap to the General’s statue, listens to the Pride of the Southland band and has been known to pet Smokey in passing.
Butch respects old Vols and has created a ceremony where his players stand, one at a time, face the squad and tell the story of former players who made their number famous.
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Large defensive lineman Eric Crosby, freshman from Virginia Beach, has been assigned 27. What a break! That number has a great history. Tailback Hank Lauricella carried it up and down the field for the national championship team of 1951, all the way to all-America honors and second place in the Heisman Trophy race.
Al Wilson wore 27 for the 1998 national championship team. This linebacker refused to lose. Florida was one of his favorite targets. Al Wilson set the bar high. Look up, Eric, look up.
Tradition? There have been men in orange shirts who never gave up, who defied odds and kept scratching and scrapping until time ran out and was totally gone.
Billy Ratliff (No. 40) endured three knee surgeries and a frightening spinal cord injury. He was hurt on the practice field and hauled to a hospital. He had no feeling in his body for several hours. He declined to give up football.
Ratliff was in the thick of the fight on that damp November day when Tennessee did not lose the 1998 national championship. It almost did. Arkansas was ahead and quarterback Clint Stoerner was milking the clock.
Ratliff remembers losing the one-on-one war with big Razorback Brandon Burlsworth – until one fateful play. Billy jumped the snap and knocked the guard backwards. Stoerner stepped on his foot, stumbled and put the wrong hand down to avoid falling. The ball slipped from his grip.
Ratliff remembers it in slow motion. The ball was there on the ground, unattended. Billy finally fell on it. The unexpected opportunity occurred with 1:43 remaining. Tennessee responded. Travis Henry (20) scored the winning touchdown with seconds to spare. The Vols went on to an undefeated season.
Butch Jones likes that story.
He’ll like walk-on linebacker Nick Humphrey even more if he wears 40 with the pride and determination Ratliff (and Hal Wantland, Bill Bates and Nick Reveiz) displayed.
Tight end Ethan Wolf has a good number, 82. Ken DeLong wore it to all-SEC honors. Charles Severance had it in 1959 and was a leading man in one of Tennessee’s most famous plays, “The Stop.”
Wayne Grubb and Bill Majors were his partners at the goal against LSU great Billy Cannon.
Jakob Johnson now wears Majors’ 44. Grubb’s 61 is unoccupied.
Micah Abernathy and Tim Jordan currently share 22. When they stand to talk about tradition, they’ll have choices. Johnny Butler wore it in the first golden era of Tennessee football. The reserve tailback, 5-10 and 160, unraveled a legendary run on the third Saturday of October, 1939.
Officially, it was a 56-yard touchdown. In reality, it was at least twice that long.
Butler started left, chasing his blocking back, Ike Peel. He crossed midfield, suddenly cut right and raced toward the other sideline. Several Alabama players were blocked off their feet. Others grabbed at Butler but missed.
At the 40, a defensive halfback came close and Butler turned back toward the middle. He feinted, paused, swiveled and spun away when he encountered resistance.
A safety waited at the 30. Butler blew past but Tide pursuit caught up. Peel scored another knockdown. Butler ran the last 20 without a threat. Fans came out of the stands and danced around the goal post. Tom Siler said it was quite a spectacle.
Number 22 has had some fine times. Richmond Flowers gave it another ride.
Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org