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Cory Zickefoose thought the gunman looked too nervous to shoot him early Thursday during an armed robbery attempt at the Pilot station on Cumberland Avenue.
"I could just tell he wasn't going to shoot me," said Zickefoose, 20. "He didn't have too much authority."
The Maryville man had no idea then that he was looking at a man police say was a football player for the University of Tennessee.
Zickefoose said he was waiting in the front seat of his Hyundai Elantra for a friend to purchase cigarettes from the convenience store. Corey Smith, 18, and Benjamin Everett, 19, also of Maryville, were in the backseat.
Four people drove up in a 2010 powder blue Toyota Prius as Zickefoose and his friends waited in the car at about 1:43 a.m., Zickefoose said.
Two men wearing hooded sweatshirts, one holding a handgun, opened first the driver's door and then the passenger's door, telling them, "Give us everything you got," Smith said.
"I said, 'Sorry, we don't have anything to give you,' " Zickefoose said. "We're broke."
"We ain't got nothing but a cheeseburger," Smith added, "but they didn't take that."
Zickefoose said he thinks a gas station employee who was walking around the premises might have startled the two men, as well as a third man who had emerged from the Prius. The three men got into the Toyota driven by a woman and fled the area, Zickefoose said.
"It happened pretty quick. It happened maybe in 20 seconds, if that," Zickefoose said. "We pulled into the gas station, and bam! - it just happened."
Zickefoose said he glanced at the Prius during the attempted heist and noted the woman seemed amused.
"She was smiling, with a big grin on her face," he said.
Zickefoose said he was "pretty shocked" to learn that three University of Tennessee football players were arrested on charges of attempted robbery. He assumes they wanted "a little bit of pocket money."
"It really blows my mind," he said. "Why they would even do that with a career like that, you know?"
Chloe White Kennedy may be reached at 865-342-6341.