Never let it be said that the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame jumps to conclusions.
Twenty-seven years after Heath Shuler was Southeastern Conference football player of the year and plenty long enough after he became an NFL multi-millionaire, a North Carolina congressman and a very successful businessman, the godfathers of the hall decided to open the door and let him in.
The Saturday announcement at the Tennessee-Florida basketball game was special. Athletics director Phillip Fulmer was on the court with Heath for a congratulatory handshake and a pat on the back. Fulmer is the current president of the Tennessee hall. Fulmer knows a lot about halls of fame.
Fulmer and Shuler are forever linked.
In early September 1992, Fulmer was Tennessee’s interim coach. Shuler was the sophomore quarterback in his first road game. The Vols were in a tough spot, Athens, Ga., between the famous hedges, late in the fourth quarter, trailing 31-27.
Fulmer recognized the crucial situation, fourth down, 14 yards to go. Coach and quarterback met for a sideline strategy session. Shuler listened politely but seemed unreasonably confident. He patted Fulmer’s broad bottom (with national TV cameras sharply focused) and said he’d take care of their little fourth-down problem.
Fulmer said to quarterback coach David Cutcliffe: “Did you see what that kid just did?”
The next thing the kid did was complete a 22-yard pass to Ron Davis. Heath scored the winning touchdown in the final minute.
The pat, the pass and the winning TD became a Shuler trademark. The series generated a lot of momentum and made a difference in the careers of the quarterback and interim coach.
That game was the precursor to Fulmer’s College Hall of Fame career as Tennessee coach. Shuler built on that game to become runner-up for a Heisman Trophy and the No. 3 pick in the NFL draft. Pro football did not go well but after that, it seemed whatever he touched turned out just right.
Not too long ago, the NCAA honored him with a Silver Anniversary Award based on one-third athletic accomplishment and two-thirds success over 25 years.
This was a very significant prize. Only two other Volunteers have gone silver – Bob Johnson and Dr. Andy Kozar.
Heath stories are high on my list of treasured quarterback tales. Condredge Holloway and Peyton Manning whipped up some pretty good ones.
Shuler started his early. Mother Margie remembers him being very active and often rowdy. She put him in a little boys’ karate class and thought that might wear him down. The other 15 kids dropped out.
Heath decided in fifth grade that he would become a football player. That was the year of his science project with two rats. One drank water and lived happily ever after. One consumed too much Pepsi, got the shakes and died within a week.
Heath made an immediate and lasting decision. No more colas, no carbonated beverages, no caffeine. From then on, he would drink pure mountain water, pasteurized milk or fruit juice.
In eighth grade, Shuler decided he was definitely going to be a college quarterback. From that time forth, he was like a train on a track. He was very good in baseball and basketball. He cleared 6-9 in the high jump. He was made for football.
Swain County, N.C., 40-5 during his three years, won three state titles in small-school classification. Heath threw 74 touchdown passes, ran for 30 touchdowns and accounted for more than 10,000 yards.
A newspaper columnist wondered if it was fair that Shuler had everything – athletic talent, movie-star looks, natural charm, quick wit.
Heath gave God credit for physical gifts. He gave his parents credit for most everything else. Coach Boyce Deitz said there were times he asked himself how young Shuler could be such a wonderful role model.
WIVK helped Shuler choose Tennessee over Alabama. WIVK broadcasts of the Vols made it over the mountain.
He didn’t do all that much as a freshman but he did run and pass for touchdowns against Vanderbilt. He figured the Commodores were tired by the time he got into the game.
Shuler started all 12 as a sophomore. His first pass was intercepted.
“All he did after that was get better,” said Fulmer.
His junior season was pretty good – 64.6 completion percentage, 25 touchdowns, eight interceptions, 2,354 yards. He left early for the NFL.
He never lost touch with Tennessee. Fulmer and basketball fans welcomed him warmly on Saturday.
Marvin West welcomes reader remarks or questions. His address is firstname.lastname@example.org