All-time favorite players and games

By Tom Mattingly

In this business, people are always asking intriguing questions, whether it’s on the street, in restaurants, via E-mail, or on the telephone.

Fans are nothing if not dedicated to their craft. There are precious few aspects of history that escape their attention. There’s no telling how far back in history the questions might go. Everybody has a question about something. Sometimes, fans even send pieces of memorabilia that have great historic significance.

There was once a postal employee in Chattanooga who called and asked who the third string tailback was sometime in the 1950s, probably in 1956 or 1957. When I said “Al Carter,” he said “Thanks” and hung up. There was apparently a bet in his section of the Post Office, and I never had a chance to find out who won. I had the impression he dropped 50 cents into the cash box to cover the cost of the call.

I was once asked who the most underrated player I ever saw was. My answer was Shawn Bryson, one of the captains of the 1998 national championship team. He could do it all, run, block, catch passes, and always be in the right place at the right time. Think about his touchdown run against Florida in 1998, his touchdown catch in the 1999 Florida State game, and a very big fourth-down reception when the Vols were trying to kill the clock late in the game.

One December, a lawyer called and asked when the Vanderbilt game had started and ended. He also wanted to know what the weather conditions were. That was all readily available on the official play-by-play put out after the game. It seemed a client had fallen outside the stadium, and he was preparing the case. That’s about all I could get out of him. There was also no word about the disposition of the case, either.

In my much younger days, I always liked 1965, 1967, and 1970. The 1965 bunch was the one that put the Vols back on the national radar. There’s always something special about those types of teams. The 1967 and 1970 teams were flat-out good.

The 1985 team, led by Tony Robinson and then Darryl Dickey after “T-Rob” was injured against Alabama, was a personal favorite later on. Then there was the Cotton Bowl team in 1989, and the 11-1 team in 1995 that defeated Ohio State.

The 1998 national championship season was something to behold week-by-week, despite some close calls along the way. Once the Vols got to No. 1, things became very exciting, but not without a few anxious moments.

There was Nov. 14, Tennessee versus Arkansas. It was late in the game. Arkansas led and had the ball. Things looked bleak across the expanse of Neyland Stadium.

Billy Ratliff not only caused a fumble but recovered it as well, setting up a 43-yard drive in five Travis Henry runs. Billy was an exceptional player, who suffered more than his share of injuries. He was injured once on the practice field and left via ambulance. That was a scary moment.

There was a sad sidebar to this game. The Arkansas lineman Billy faced off against was Brandon Burlsworth, a very good player who bore a striking resemblance to comedian Drew Carey. Brandon was later killed in a traffic accident on April 28, 1999, near Alpena, Ark. He was a walk-on who became an All-American and third-round draft choice of the Indianapolis Colts.

I liked the way the 2001 team came back from the loss to LSU and took Michigan apart, piece-by-piece, on New Year’s Day 2002. Hearing “Hail to the Victors” was a great deal of fun. Watching Vol receivers slice through the Wolverine secondary was more fun, including Jason Witten out in the wide-open spaces for 64 yards and a score. That 2001 team won at Arkansas, Florida, Alabama and Notre Dame.

To this day, the LSU game that season was an inexplicable loss and will always be so. One sportswriter led his game story as follows: “Uneasy lies the head that lies near the crown.” It wasn’t quite Shakespeare, but it was as good an explanation as any.

One of the officials from the 2001 SEC Championship Game called with a request for a picture. He also asked the following pertinent question: “Why couldn’t No. 14 come up with an interception when he had the ball right in his hands?” No. 14 was defensive back Julian Battle, and he nearly did have a couple of picks that might have changed the course of the game. I never came up with a good answer to why he didn’t.

Those are just a few of the interesting questions and comments from a lifetime of observing Tennessee football history.