By Tom Mattingly
When the experts say football is a “team game,” they really mean it. It takes a “team” to win. That’s been true since the days of Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg. Tennessee coaches from the days of Bob Neyland on have preached and praised the concept of “team.” Players have been primed to be ready when their number was called.
Game heroes come in all shapes and sizes, however. Sometimes the heroes are not the ones you might expect. They might be an older player buried on the depth chart or a youngster who only needed a chance to prove himself.
The history of Tennessee football is replete with players who have stood tall, making a key play at exactly the right moment. In each of their cases, their contributions should not be forgotten.
Anybody remember former Vol wide receiver Bobby Graham, defensive back Buck Fitzgerald, tight end John Finlayson, and defensive end Xavier Mitchell?
Think back to the critical moments in the 1999 Memphis game, the 2001 game at Florida, and the 2006 Air Force game. The Vols won them all, but it wasn’t easy. Each of them “saved” a game, as we look back at what they contributed through the prism of history.
Graham, who wore No. 11 as a Vol, was a sophomore wide receiver from Statesville, N. C., who seemed destined for obscurity until Homecoming Day, Sept. 25, 1999. The Vols trailed Memphis 16-10 late in the fourth quarter.
The Vols had lost at Florida a week earlier. A loss on Homecoming Day could have proven catastrophic. Losses to Memphis have that impact, real or imagined.
Things really looked bleak, and fans were expecting the worst until Tee Martin threw what seemed to be a desperation pass in Graham’s direction toward the east side going to the north end.
Graham hauled it in, with the play covering 53 yards. That put the Vols in position for the winning score and sent fans scurrying to their game programs to see who No. 11 was.
Afterward, Graham emerged from the shadows to become a capable receiver, often called a “possession receiver” by media pundits.
He wasn’t the fastest guy in the world, but he could catch the ball.
When Bobby made his first major contribution as a Vol, Tennessee fans, old and young, breathed a sigh of relief. There would be no loss to the Tigers that afternoon.
Bobby had proven emphatically what he could do, if only given the chance.
Fitzgerald, a defensive back from Nashville who wore No. 36, and Finlayson, a tight end from Selmer (McNairy County) who wore No. 96, were also not household names across Big Orange Country. They had made the travel squads, but there was precious little to remember them by. They would, however, establish a legacy when it mattered most.
On Dec. 1, 2001, the Vols and Gators squared off on Florida Field to decide the SEC Eastern Division crown. That game turned out to be Steve Spurrier’s final game in the “Swamp.” Florida was a prohibitive favorite. Media members gave the Vols little chance.
It was a back-and-forth game all day, momentum shifting quickly from the Vols to the Gators. Tennessee led going into the final, frantic moments.
The Gators had pulled to 34-32 when Fitzgerald stepped to the front. Fitzgerald made the play on Jabar Gaffney when Rex Grossman looked to Jabar for the tying two-point conversion.
The Gators never had a chance. Buck’s coverage was that good. Gaffney had been on the good end of a controversial call a year earlier in Knoxville. This time, the call went Tennessee’s way.
Moments later, Finlayson corralled an onside kick, one that initially took a scary bounce. John grabbed the ball and fell to the turf, setting the stage for the “victory formation” and a wondrous flight home.
Then came Mitchell’s turn to make a play. The date was Sept. 9, 2006, against Air Force. The Vols won 31-30, and a stop by Mitchell, who wore No. 93, was one of the game’s biggest stories.
Air Force had rallied and had a chance to win the game, needing only a two-point conversion to take the lead and win the game. Mitchell would have none of that, stopping a toss sweep to the right side at the south end. Somehow, the Vols survived.
One thing is certain about all of their contributions. When each of them was given a chance, they made the most of it.
Of such big plays are legends and traditions created.