By Tom Mattingly
Reporters once asked Southern Cal head coach John McKay why he gave the ball to O. J. Simpson 25-30 times a game.
His response: “He doesn’t belong to a union. Anyway, the ball doesn’t weigh that much.”
The ball may not be heavy, as McKay noted, but the pigskin can get away when you least expect it and can take some funny bounces. It seems an article of faith that players should be able to hold onto the ball, but, over the years, football fans have seen that fumbles can change the course of a game very quickly.
Take Arian Foster at the Outback Bowl against Penn State in 2007 or Cory Anderson at Alabama in 2005. These bobbles turned each game around. One team is close to scoring, but the other team grabs back the momentum. It happens in an instant.
Vol fans also fondly remember the “Stoerner Stumble” at Neyland Stadium in 1998, when Arkansas looked to be in control of the game and their destiny under rookie coach Houston Nutt. Quarterback Clint Stoerner tripped over one of his offensive linemen coming out from under center and tried to break his fall with the ball. That was a bad move. Billy Ratliff grabbed the ensuing fumble, and the Vols went in for the score, won the game, and kept hope alive for an SEC and BCS national title.
Georgia might not have won the national title in 1980, save for an ill-timed Glenn Ford fumble near the Bulldog goal at the south end in the final minutes. Had the Vols gone in for a score or even kicked a field goal, the whole season might have turned out differently for both teams. The momentum engendered by the 16-15 victory in the season opener carried the Bulldogs a long way. Having Herschel Walker in their backfield didn’t hurt, either.
There was also the John Majors fumble in the 1957 Sugar Bowl against Baylor, leading to a 13-7 loss for Bowden Wyatt’s team. His mother said after the game that, “Everybody burns the biscuits once in a while.” Many years later, she wished she hadn’t said it.
Majors told Knoxville sportswriter Ben Byrd an interesting story about the aftermath of that game.
“At Kingsport, a gentleman came up to me with a little girl about one year old,” Majors said. “He wanted to talk with some friends, and I asked him if I could hold his little girl while he was gone.”
Majors said he got a letter from that gentleman the next week. His friends wanted to know who was holding his child.
“Johnny Majors,” the man told them.
“Johnny Majors?” his friend replied. “Aren’t you afraid he’ll drop her?”
In the 1971 Liberty Bowl, Tennessee looked dead in the water. Arkansas had the ball late in the game leading 13-7, when there was a loose ball in front of the Vol bench. Players on both sides scrambled after the ball, while everybody on the Tennessee bench was helping game officials determine whose ball it was.
“Arkansas had played a very good game,” Vol defensive end Carl Johnson said. “It’s obvious the Arkansas guy fell right on the ball.” What happened, Johnson explained, was that everybody not involved in the pile, including those on the bench, pointed toward the Arkansas goal, trying to steal the call. It’s one of the oldest football tricks in the book, and it worked in the Vols’ favor.
“The timely fumble that changed the game occurred in the late minutes, when Conrad Graham walloped Jon Richardson after a screen pass,” wrote Marvin West. “The loose ball attracted a considerable crowd. Bodies were stacked on top of bodies. No telling what all went on down near the ground.”
Arkansas thought they got hosed twice in that game, the other call coming for holding on a successful field goal attempt. They remember that play and that game to this day, nearly 50 years later.
Finally, former UT assistant coach Bob Davis often told the story of a freshman game at Notre Dame in the late 1960s or early 1970s. After a Tennessee fumble, one game official ran into the mass of humanity and told anyone who would listen, “Our ball!” He then gave the signal that Notre Dame had recovered. Bob didn’t recall being impressed by the turn of events.
Fumbles thus have the ability to give and to take away. They’re good or bad, depending on your perspective and team loyalties.