A true All-American football player

By Tom Mattingly

When I once wrote a column asking Vol fans to name the legendary figures over the course of Tennessee football history, someone wrote in and nominated George Cafego, the Vol tailback from 1937-39 and assistant coach from 1955-84. There are numerous others, on and off the field, but George Cafego was a good starting point.

Some people say that a number on a Tennessee orange football jersey is merely a number, a ready means of identification. There is, however, more to the impact of a number than you might realize.

There was a night in early 1998 that that thought process hit home. It was Feb. 11, the night the Tennessee community paid tribute to George’s life at Rose Mann Heritage Chapel in West Knoxville. The line of visitors stretched up the aisle and nearly out the door.

On the sign-in book outside the chapel, the following signature appeared, short and to the point: “Frank Kolinsky, No. 72.” Here’s the connection.

Nicknamed “Bad News,” George Cafego had worn No. 72, rising from obscurity to become a Tennessee legend on and off the field. For his part, Frank had also worn orange jersey No. 72 during his time as a Vol lineman from 1955-57.

“I was proud to wear his number,” Frank said. “It was an indication of the respect and admiration I had for him, on and off the field. I wanted people to know how honored I was to share that number with him.”

There have been numerous stories written about Cafego’s journey to Tennessee from Scarbro, West Va., starting with an all-night bus ride to Knoxville. He became an All-American selection in 1938 and 1939 in Gen. Neyland’s second tenure as head coach.

Gen. Neyland once described Cafego as “the only practice bum I ever coached who was a true All-American football player. He couldn’t do anything in practice, but, for two hours on a Saturday afternoon, he did everything an All-American player is supposed to do.”

The SEC “Player of the Year” in 1938, George was featured in a Look magazine spread on the lure of college football and centered around the 1939 Alabama game. He was a consensus All-America selection in 1938 and 1939 and the No. 1 NFL draft choice of the Chicago Cardinals in 1940.

A member of the Vol coaching staff from 1955-85 under head coaches Bowden Wyatt, Jim McDonald, Doug Dickey, Bill Battle, and John Majors, George coached the backs and kickers and oversaw the scout squad. He earned great loyalty from his scout team members, as evidenced by another reference in the guestbook.

After a former Vol walk-on signed his name, he wrote: “Proud to have been a scout team member for Coach Cafego.”

“It’s a great chance to be with the boys who are going to be leaders in the community one of these days,” said Cafego about his experience with the scout team. “Most of the boys who work for me think they’ll make it to the varsity. Many do. These boys are part of the team, and they make a great contribution. Once they come to realize this, they work hard.”

Cafego, who came to Knoxville as an undersized tailback (5-10, 145), challenged his charges to make the most of their opportunities on the practice field.

“Sometimes we move the ball down to the five-yard line, and there is the varsity defense across the line,” said George. “I put the monkey on their backs. I tell them every man on the field is watching to see what they can do. If they want to get on the varsity, right there’s the place to make it. Take that ball and stuff it down their throats.”

On ABC’s telecast of the 1999 Fiesta Bowl, Keith Jackson paid tribute to George’s life and Tennessee career. Here’s what Keith said late in the game: “Phillip Fulmer went to see George Cafego, who is an absolute legend in Tennessee football history, two days before he passed away. George said, ‘Good luck. I’ll be watching.’ Good night, George, and thanks. Nobody’s name rests higher in Tennessee football than George Cafego.”

Players wearing No. 72 may come and go (31 players have worn that number to date), but, for one night in 1998, there were entries in a funeral home guestbook that revealed special truths about the life of a great man and his impact on Tennessee football.

No. 16 will always be Peyton Manning. No. 17 will always be Tee Martin. No. 45 will always be John Majors. No. 57 will always be Steve Kiner, No. 64 Jack Reynolds, and No. 92 Reggie White.

No. 72 will always be George Cafego.