‘You have to be 21 to win the Heisman’
By Tom Mattingly
In the context of Tennessee football history, consider the impact of Sunday evening, Jan. 9, 1994, when Vol quarterback Heath Shuler held a media conference that filled Vol fans with dread and all those other adjectives associated with bad things happening.
Shuler had finished leading the Vols to a 10-2-1 record in Phillip Fulmer’s first full season as head coach.
He had achieved legendary status at Tennessee, much as he had in his hometown of Bryson City, N.C., just across the Smoky Mountains, where he had written his name large across the athletic and social fabric of Swain County. He led the hometown Red Devils to three consecutive state titles from 1988-90.
In 1993, the Vols stormed up and down Shields-Watkins Field and other stadiums across the SEC and elsewhere, putting 484 points on the board in 12 games.
Shuler was the linchpin for the attack, running and throwing with equal dexterity and being an inspirational leader for the men in orange. He’s like most capable quarterbacks. Give him the ball, and he’ll do something with it.
He was SEC “Player of the Year” and came from nowhere to finish second to Florida State’s Charley Ward in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
UT publicists assembled an innovative campaign themed, “You have to be 21 to win the Heisman,” referencing Shuler’s jersey number. Vol publicists gave out Heath bars to media members as the Tennessee publicity machine chugged along relentlessly all season.
Shuler was 19-5 as a starter in 1992-93, finishing 10th on the career yardage list with 4,088 yards behind Jonathan Crompton (4,187). He tossed 36 TD passes and completed 61.6% of his passes.
Vol fans worried that a sound thumping by Penn State, 31-13, in the 1994 Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1, would have a “negative impact” on recruiting, whether or not Shuler stayed in Knoxville. Everything in Tennessee football parlance is measured by its effect, real or imagined, on the fortunes of recruiting.
There had been all kinds of talk, loose and otherwise, around Orlando and the entire expanse of Big Orange Country that Shuler’s decision to stay or go pro had affected the Vols’ preparation for and performance against Penn State.
During those early days of January 1994, and even before, Shuler had been asked repeatedly what he planned to do, much the way Peyton Manning was three years later when he faced a similar choice of going pro or staying in Knoxville. The questions were persistent, testing his patience at times.
“Just today, probably five or six times so far,” Shuler had told Knoxville journalist Russ Bebb.
His departure announcement thrust Oak Ridge’s Jerry Colquitt, a fifth-year senior, into the attention that comes from being under center at Tennessee. Losing Shuler did make finding a quarterback or two a major priority in the 1994 recruiting class.
As things turned out, two new quarterbacks did come in as part of an impressive recruiting haul. They were Peyton Manning, son of Archie, from New Orleans, and Branndon Stewart of Stephenville, Texas.
That embarrassment of riches at quarterback was a good thing since Colquitt was lost for the season against UCLA, playing only seven plays, and backup Todd Helton, better known for his prowess on the baseball field, was injured against Mississippi State three games later., That left the Vols with two rookies under center, fans choosing up sides as they are prone to do.
The 1994 Vols were able to overcome a 1-3 start, losses at UCLA, to Florida in the home opener, and at State. The only win came at Georgia under Helton’s tutelage, as the Vols played horse-and-buggy football, with James “Little Man” Stewart rushing for 211 yards and scoring four times and Aaron Hayden adding 113.
Fulmer deftly balanced the two quarterbacks to the point that the Vols won seven of their final eight games to finish 8-4, culminated by a 45-23 win over Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl.
While all that was happening in Knoxville, Shuler’s professional career, his “dream,” in the NFL with the Redskins (1994-96) and the Saints (1997-98), may not have been all that he or anybody else wanted.
But there was good news. Washington beckoned, and, in 2007, he became U. S. Rep. Heath Shuler from North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, serving until 2013.
Leadership, on and off the field, seemed to be in his blood.
In the time marches on relentlessly category, his son, Navy, is now on the Vol roster as a quarterback. You don’t have to ask what jersey number he’s wearing. He now wears the famous Shuler No. 21.
No one can foretell what he might bring to the Vol program over the next few years, but one thing is certain. He’s a Shuler, and that seems to say it all.