‘It was all football, just rock ‘em, sock ‘em’

By Tom Mattingly

If you were to go to war on the gridiron, you’d want to have former Vol Steve DeLong on your side. Steve DeLong could play the game… and play it at a high level.

Steve died Aug. 18, 2010, at age 67, but left Vol fans a wondrous collection of memories.

DeLong, who came to Knoxville from Norfolk, Va., played for three coaches in three years during his time at Tennessee: Bowden Wyatt (1962), Jim McDonald (1963), and Doug Dickey (1964).

His teams never had a winning record, but DeLong was hard to miss from his middle guard position. You generally found him by locating who had the ball. Steve was generally in the vicinity, always in a bad humor.

One of the most famous plays in Tennessee football history has Steve’s fingerprints all over it. It came on Oct. 24, 1964, at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, La., when No. 7 (AP) LSU, embroiled in a 3-3 tie with the Vols, recovered a fumble at the Vol 15 and later had it first-and-goal at the 5. On fourth-and-goal at the Vol 1, they went for the touchdown that would give the Tigers the lead and likely the game.

They didn’t make it. Steve led the charge up front, getting under the LSU center, and blowing up the play. It was one of those “inspirational ties” that showed Vol fans that Dickey had things going in the right direction.

DeLong was the anchor of a defense that season that allowed 121 points in 10 games.

“Steve was a tremendous player,” said Dickey. “He had quick hands, strong arms, and good use of leverage. He could hit with his hands and move a blocker out of the way. Middle guard was an advantageous position for him.”

He was captain of the 1964 team.

He was twice named All-SEC and All-American.

He was No. 8 in the voting for the Heisman Trophy.

He was a 1989 inductee into the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame.

He was MVP of the 1965 Senior Bowl.

In the 1965 AFL draft, the San Diego Chargers took him with pick No. 6 in the first round, just after Kansas City took University of Kansas running back Gayle Sayers. The formidable Dick Butkus was a step or two behind, chosen No. 1 in the second round by Denver.

On the NFL side, the Chicago Bears drafted him, also at No. 6, ahead of Donny Anderson of Texas Tech and behind Craig Morton of California. Butkus and Sayers were picks No. 3 and No. 4, respectively.

He signed with the Chargers and played from 1965-71. His final NFL season was with the Bears in 1972.

He was a 1993 selection to the College Football Hall of Fame.

Steve came back into prominence among Tennessee fans in 1985, when his son, Keith, came to Tennessee, playing linebacker from 1985-88. During Keith’s career, Vol publicists came up with a poster highlighting “Defense by DeLong,” featuring Keith and Steve as a father-son duo.

Keith followed in Steve’s footsteps as a hard-nosed defender. He was co-captain of the 1988 team (with Nate Middlebrooks) and an All-SEC and All-American selection. He and Steve are UT’s only father-son All-American selections and join James and Eric Berry as father-son captains.

Keith, a first-round draft choice of the San Francisco 49ers in 1989, wasn’t the only DeLong following in Steve’s footsteps to Knoxville.

Brother Ken signed on in 1965 and played tight end from 1967-69. He was an All-SEC tight end in 1968 and 1969. He was an alternate captain of the 1969 team.

Steve spent his final years at Hillcrest North, following a 2002 fall that left him with a broken neck and bruised spinal cord. He took particular delight, however, in helping out and cheering up his fellow residents. He was also always glad to see any of his friends from the University of Tennessee.

There was an emotional moment one day when Dickey visited. There was an instant connection between player and coach. Words didn’t come easily to either man, the rough-and-tumble player who battled so hard in the trenches, and his coach, a man often given a bad rap for being unemotional and calculating.

No one spoke for a brief moment, but a vintage time of storytelling and reminiscing followed quickly. No one who was there would trade the moment.

“We just played football then,” said DeLong years later about his time at Tennessee. “It was all football, just rock ‘em, sock ‘em.”