Tennessee football players made little impact in SEC media polling. There were no first-team selections.
If the future is anything like the past, someone will surprise us and become an unexpected hero. It could be a reserve who emerges as a star or maybe a walk-on you didn’t know was on the team.
Sometimes, when opportunity knocks, Volunteers volunteer and really good things happen. Perhaps it will be only one decisive play. It might be the winning edge in a really big game. It could turn out to be a season-long surprise.
Unexpected heroes made a wonderful difference for one of my favorite teams, the 1985 Sugar Vols.
Chris White came out of nowhere. The fifth-year senior made his first career start in the opener against UCLA as an injury replacement. Three interceptions later, he was the No. 1 safety. He picked off six more passes that season to lead the NCAA. White finished with 62 tackles and three fumble recoveries. He made one all-America team. To me, he is unforgettable.
Quarterback Daryl Dickey, an unheralded sixth-year senior, stepped in for injured star Tony Robinson in mid-season, set a school record (that still stands) for completion percentage and ended up Sugar Bowl MVP.
Jeff Powell, transfer from the William & Mary track team, delivered the defining play of that big bowl upset of Miami, a 60-yard TD sprint. If you listen closely, you may still hear the celebration. New Orleans has never been the same.
Hubert Simpson had four touchdowns in one game (1979) versus Notre Dame.
Buck Fitzgerald broke up the two-point conversion pass intended for superstar Jabar Gaffney to preserve the 34-32 upset at Florida in 2001.
Mike Whitehead, in 1987, stopped Kentucky’s Mark Higgs inside the 1 on fourth-and-goal to save a 24-22 victory.
Bill Duff made a very big play in the 1996 Citrus Bowl against Ohio State. He butted Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George under the chin and stood him up, on fourth and goal.
Bobby Graham’s second career catch went for 53 yards and set up the last-minute TD for a 17-16 escape against 31-point underdog Memphis State.
Antonio Wardlow blocked a Georgia punt and recovered it for a touchdown as the Vols rallied from a 17-point deficit to win at Sanford Stadium.
There was an unforgettable one-night stand by Rick Clausen, a relative nobody, middle brother between two famous quarterbacks, generally ignored but sometimes swept aside and put down deeper with discouraging words.
He was buried on the LSU depth chart for two years. He transferred to Tennessee and was buried on another depth chart. Someone explained it all, that he just wasn’t good enough to play in the SEC.
On September 26, 2005, at Baton Rouge, with the multitude screaming and turning cartwheels, the Tigers went three touchdowns up on Tennessee. Phillip Fulmer finally turned to Clausen under the theory that he couldn’t do any worse.
Rick engineered one of the most amazing comebacks ever and produced a 30-27 overtime upset over his old LSU buddies. He finished 21 of 32 for 196 yards with a touchdown pass and a TD run. Fulmer shed tears of joy.
“Getting done what he got done, going back to a place where he had been, I don’t know if there is a better story in the world,” said Fulmer.
“There are a lot of games to remember in Tennessee history. This will be one we’ll talk about for a long, long time.”
Coach was correct. We’re still talking.
Marvin West invites reader reaction. His address is email@example.com