‘The ball’s not heavy’

By Tom Mattingly

A reporter once asked John McKay why he gave the ball to O.J. Simpson more than 30 times a game. His response: “The ball’s not heavy.”

He might also have said, “He’s not in a union.”

The ball may not be heavy, but the spheroid can come loose when you least expect it and can take some funny bounces. It seems to be 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 very quickly.

Take Arian Foster at the 2007 Outback Bowl or Cory Anderson at Alabama in 2005. 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 1998, when both teams were undefeated. Arkansas looked to be in control of the game and their season’s destiny. It had rained the whole game, and Arkansas seemed poised to win the game. They had the ball with mere minutes to go. It was second down. Fans were streaming to the exits.

Quarterback Clint Stoerner took the snap and tripped over teammate Brandon Burlsworth coming out from under center. As he fell, he 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, five running plays for 43 yards. The Vols won the game and kept hopes alive for a national title.

Georgia might not have won the national title in 1980, save for an ill-timed Glenn Ford fumble near the Bulldog goal 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 didn’t hurt, either.

Then there was the John Majors fumble in the 1957 Sugar Bowl game against Baylor, leading to a 13-7 loss for Bowden Wyatt’s team. His mother, John Elizabeth Bobo Majors, said after the game, “Everybody burns the biscuits once in a while.” Many years later, she wished she hadn’t said it.

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,” Majors said. “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 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. Orange and white shirts scrambled after the ball, while everybody on the Tennessee bench was giving the signal for “our ball,” something Vol players are coached to do from the time they arrive on campus.

There’s no telling what happened under the pile that night in Memphis, but Carl Witherspoon came up with the pigskin somehow, or at least the officials said he did. Tennessee was in the end zone three plays later. Tennessee went in for the winning score.

Curt Watson earned the game-winner at right end, with Curt making a nifty move to help find the end zone.

That engendered great controversy among Arkansas fans, who thought they had been hosed twice in that game. The other call came for holding on a successful field goal attempt that would have put the game out of reach. They remember that game to this day.

Former UT assistant coach Bob Davis always told the story of a freshman game at Notre Dame back in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when freshman games were in vogue. He remembers a pileup after a fumble in front of the Irish bench when one official ran in and said, “Our ball.” He then gave the signal that it was Notre Dame’s possession.

Fumbles have the ability to give and to take away. They’re good or bad, depending on your perspective and team loyalties.