The ball is not heavy

By Tom Mattingly

Legend has it that an enterprising journalist once asked Southern Cal head coach John McKay why he gave the ball to O. J. Simpson more than 20 times a game.

His response was, “It’s not heavy.”

It is an article of faith that players should be able to hold onto the ball, but we have seen over the years that fumbles can change the course of a game and a season very quickly.

That leads us to fumbles by Arian Foster at the Outback Bowl against Penn State in 2008 or by Cory Anderson at Alabama in 2005 as a couple of examples. Both those bobbles turned the game around. One team is close to scoring, but the other team grabs the momentum. It happens in an instant.

Vol fans also remember the “Stoerner Stumble” at Neyland Stadium in the national championship season of 1998, when Arkansas looked to be in control of the game and their destiny. Things looked so bleak for the home team that more than a few fans in orange were streaming toward the exits. That also changed in an instant.

Quarterback Clint Stoerner tripped over lineman Brandon Burlsworth coming out from under center and tried to break his fall with the ball. That was a bad move, as defensive tackle Billy Ratliff grabbed the ensuing fumble. The Vols then go in for the score, 43 yards in five plays, win the game, and keep hopes alive for a national title.

On Homecoming Day in 1959, the Vol defense denied LSU’s Billy Cannon a two-point conversion early in the fourth quarter. If “The Stop” is No. 1 on the best defensive plays list in Vol football history, the “Stoerner Stumble” has to be 1A.

Georgia might not have won the national title in 1980, save for a 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 freshman running back Herschel Walker didn’t hurt either.

Then there was the John Majors fumble in the 1957 Sugar Bowl against Baylor, leading to a 13-7 loss for Bowden Wyatt’s team.

Someone asked his mother, Elizabeth Majors, about it, and her reply was something special. “Everybody burns the biscuits once in a while,” she said. Many years later, she told one reporter covering the Vol program she wished she hadn’t said it.

John Majors told 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,” said Majors. “He said he wanted to talk with some friends. 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 had been curious to know who was holding his child while he was away.

“Johnny Majors,” the man had told them.

“Johnny Majors?” his friends had 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 from both sides went after the ball, while everyone on the Tennessee side was pointing emphatically toward the Arkansas goal.

That tradition probably dated to Gen. Neyland’s tenure as head coach and has been a vital part of Vol football history. Nothing wrong with helping the officials make the call, right?

There’s no telling what happened under the pile that night, but Carl Witherspoon somehow came up with the pigskin, or at least the officials said he did. Thus inspired, Tennessee went in for the winning score. Jim Maxwell completed a pass to Gary Theiler, and Curt Watson scored. The game tape shows Vol wide receiver Joe Thompson clearing Watson’s path to the Promised Land.

Arkansas backers thought they had gotten hosed twice in that game, the other penalty coming for holding on a successful field goal attempt.

Former UT assistant coach Bob Davis often told the story of a freshman game at Notre Dame in 1968, when freshman games were in vogue. Bob remembered a pileup after a fumble, when one official ran in, quickly assessed the situation, and said, “Our ball.” He then gave the signal giving possession to Notre Dame.

What all this shows is that the ball may not be heavy, as McKay observed, but the spheroid can come loose when you least expect it.