By Tom Mattingly
Over the years, it hasn’t mattered how players ended up at Tennessee to play football. It didn’t matter who they were or what their “credentials” were. Once players arrived in Knoxville, they still had to prove themselves.
For those who did, there were great rewards.
Col. Tom Elam of Union City, the long-time trustee and athletics board member, loved telling this story about local product Stockton Adkins. (For the record, it’s Doug “Atkins” from Humboldt and Stockton “Adkins” from Union City.)
In June 1988, Doug Dickey “suggested” that I travel to Union City to assemble a VOLUNTEERS Magazine story about Elam titled “King of the Hill.”
There are three ways to get to Union City from Knoxville, none of which are easy, one even going through western Kentucky via I-24. It’s an all-day trip, regardless of the route.
But the eventual destination—after a wide-ranging Friday interview and subsequent story—was well worth the journey.
During his undergraduate days at Tennessee, Elam had been involved in a number of campus activities, capping his career as the editor of the 1930-31 Volunteer yearbook.
“I was the associate editor of the annual in 1929-30,” Elam remembered. “The group that put the annual together wanted to dedicate it to Maj. Neyland. I said that would be putting too much emphasis on athletics, and I sold them on that idea.”
But that was not the end of the story.
“Guess who the annual was dedicated to in 1931, the year I was editor? I was determined that my annual was going to be dedicated to him.”
From those humble beginnings, he became close enough to Gen. Neyland that he could offer advice, mostly unsolicited, about recruiting and other important matters.
There weren’t many people connected with the Vol program who could get away with that, but Elam always believed in the scriptural injunction, “You have not because you ask not.”
In the early- to mid-1950s, Elam had an epiphany that Adkins could have a significant impact on the Vol football program. He queried Neyland about the possibility of putting Stockton on scholarship and received a quick and terse response.
“Neyland looked me in the eye with that cold, piercing stare, and these are the words he said: ‘You country son-of-a-gun, what the heck do you think you know about recruiting a football player?’”
Neyland’s question brought a quick rejoinder. “I told him I did not categorize myself as a football scout or recruiter. I said, ‘I know this boy, and he can play football for you. You’ll make a mistake if you don’t take him.’”
Then came the clincher, as Elam offered a “money back guarantee.”
“If you do take him, and he doesn’t pan out, I’ll pick up the tab on his scholarship. I don’t think that was illegal in those days.” Adkins did come to Tennessee and lettered three years. He was a starter at blocking back in 1956 and 1957, playing at 5-10, 178. Fulfilling Elam’s promise to Neyland, Adkins won the Jacobs Trophy, emblematic of the SEC’s best blocker, in his junior and senior seasons.
“It was nice of him to do that,” said Stockton. “It surprised me when I heard about it. It didn’t suit me too well at first, because I didn’t want anybody to give me anything. I appreciate him helping give me the opportunity. I wouldn’t take anything for that experience. He was as good to me as anybody in my lifetime.”
These are two of a number of vintage Tom Elam stories.
He often recalled the Nov. 23, 1963, late Saturday afternoon he first met Dickey, about a week before Bob Woodruff named Dickey the university’s new head football coach.
The two men steadfastly disagreed on the location of the meeting. Elam was firmly convinced he and his wife, Kathleen, had driven to Memphis to meet Dickey, while Dickey is equally convinced that he flew from Fayetteville, Ark., to the airport near Union City to do so. Such are the vagaries of history.
The result was Elam being impressed with Dickey. “He made an impression on me, and I was sold. Once I have a firm impression, I stay with it.”
These stories and many more came out of an interview on a Friday in June 1988 at his law firm in downtown Union City. Elam held court for nearly four hours, including lunch at the local Rotary club. It was a trip through 60 years of the history of the University of Tennessee and its athletic program. Memories are made of such moments.
Col. Elam came as close as anybody could to being a “one-question” interview. You just asked the right questions and kept that tape rolling.