By Tom Mattingly
Consider the impact of Sunday evening, Jan. 9, 1994, on Tennessee football history, as Vol quarterback Heath Shuler held a media conference that filled Vol fans with dread and all those other adjectives associated with bad things happening.
Fans were in a tizzy, given that Shuler had announced he was “following his dream,” heading to the apparently greener pastures of the NFL, instead of staying for his senior season.
Shuler achieved legendary status at Tennessee, much as he had in his hometown of Bryson City, N.C. He had written his name large across the athletic and social fabric of Swain County, leading the hometown Red Devils to three consecutive state titles from 1988-90.
In 1993, the Vols stormed up and down the final artificial surface on Shields-Watkins Field and in other stadiums across the SEC and elsewhere, putting 471 points on the board.
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 outstanding quarterbacks. Give him the ball, and he’ll do something with it.
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 each week as the publicity machine chugged along relentlessly.
Shuler became SEC “Player of the Year” and came from nowhere to finish second to Florida State’s Charley Ward in the Heisman Trophy balloting.
Shuler was 19-5 as a starter in 1992 and 1993 and is No. 11 on the career yardage list with 4,472 yards behind Jimmy Streater (4,807) and ahead of Jonathan Crompton (4,171). He tossed 36 TD passes and completed 61.6% of his passes.
Consider the context of Shuler’s announcement, however.
Vol fans worried that a sound thumping by Penn State, 31-13, in the 1994 Citrus Bowl might 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.
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 in early 1998 when he faced a similar choice of going pro or returning for his senior season. The questions were persistent, testing his patience.
“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 spotlight that comes from being under center at Tennessee. Losing Shuler did make finding a quarterback or two a priority in the 1994 recruiting class.
As things turned out, two new quarterbacks did come in as part of an impressive recruiting class. History recounts that they were Archie Manning’s second son, Peyton, out of New Orleans, and Branndon Stewart of Stephenville, Texas.
The embarrassment of riches at quarterback was a good thing, since Colquitt was lost for the season at UCLA, playing only seven plays, and backup Todd Helton, better known for his prowess on the baseball field, was injured at Mississippi State three games later, leaving the Vols with two rookies under center.
The 1994 Vols were able to overcome a 1-3 start, with 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.
For Shuler, his professional career, his “dream,” with the Redskins (1994-96) and the Saints (1997-98), may not have been all that he or anybody else wanted. But there was also good news. Washington beckoned, and, in 2006, he became U. S. Rep. Heath Shuler from North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District, serving until 2013.
This season, his son, Navy, has transferred into the Vol program from Appalachian State. According to utsports.com, he is slated to wear his dad’s No. 21, sharing the number with defensive lineman Omari Thomas.
Heath Shuler made his mark on Tennessee athletics starting in 1991 and continuing through 1993 on the field and well beyond. He was a “can’t-miss” prospect who didn’t. If you don’t believe that, a quick check of the Tennessee record books is in order.