Aaron Douglas will always remember the day the fog of depression began to break.
It was March 25, when he asked for his release from his Tennessee football scholarship.
“It took a lot of the pressure off my shoulders,” Douglas said Tuesday. “It relieved me of a lot of that stress and that depression that I was going through.”
Before that meeting with first-year UT coach Derek Dooley, there wasn’t much that made the 6-foot-6, 280-pound offensive lineman happy.
“It was really tough there for four, five, six weeks,” he said. “I had no desire to really do anything. It’s hard to explain. It’s just like your self-esteem bubble has been popped. I tried to handle it the best I could.”
The former Maryville High School star committed to UT in 2007 as a junior. Douglas declined overtures from most every school in the nation and signed with the Vols in 2008.
“Ever since I committed to Tennessee, I felt like I had this pretty good mapped-out plan of what my future was going to consist of,” Douglas said. “I felt like the plan just got flipped upside down. I wasn’t the happiest. I was down a lot.”
Douglas has decided to join former Maryville teammates Brent Burnette and Tyler Clendenen at Arizona Western College in Yuma.
With his class credits he obtained at UT, Douglas plans to graduate from Arizona Western in December and enroll at a Division I school in January. By transferring to a junior college, he can play this season.
“It’s going to be a good situation,” said Douglas, citing the importance of a fall routine in his recovery. “It’s going to propel me in the right direction.”
By most accounts, this is the first time Douglas has actually chosen a college for himself. He said he’s excited to go through the recruiting process — for the first time.
And this time he won’t be swayed by pressure to play for his favorite program, a nearby school, or his parents’ alma mater.
Douglas’ mother, Karla Horton Douglas, played basketball for the Lady Vols. His father, David Douglas, was a UT offensive lineman.
“Until I asked for my release I was real stressed out because I just thought about all the family history,” Aaron Douglas said. “I love the Vols. I’ve been to every home game since I was in third grade. It was the toughest decision in my life.”
Said David Douglas, “It’s finally his choice. It’s his decision to go out there and the next decision will be his choice. That’s so important. We never really gave him an opportunity to do what most recruits do.”
The Douglas family has been the center of attention since Dooley mandated that his only returning offensive lineman transfer to a school that is at least an eight-hour drive from Knoxville to gain his release, which would allow him to be placed on scholarship immediately.
David Douglas offered to exclude schools within the state, in the SEC and any school on UT’s schedule for the next three years. But Dooley, citing Aaron Douglas’ need to get away from East Tennessee, demanded more, which led to more public scrutiny.
“It’s been tough on all of us, but I’ll always love Tennessee. I know Karla feels the same way,” David Douglas said. “I feel like Coach Dooley is a good guy. I don’t agree with some of the stuff when he’s been popping off, running his mouth. That’s OK, I guess.
“I’ve contributed (money) since ’86, bought season tickets since ’86 and I’ll continue to do that and wish Tennessee nothing but the best.”
Still, David Douglas doesn’t understand the strict release stipulation.
“He didn’t know the whole big picture,” David Douglas said, adding that Aaron Douglas has been diagnosed with depression. “He walked into it and just decided he was having personal issues and if he’s going to leave, he’s going to send him a long ways away.
“Well, that’s not his decision. That should be the family’s decision.”
Aaron Douglas maintains leaving Knoxville was only small part of his decision to transfer.
“It’s not so much getting away from Knoxville is the reason I’m leaving,” Douglas said. “I’m going with my heart, really.”
His heart told him the same thing when former UT coach Phillip Fulmer, who was David Douglas’ position coach, was fired in 2008. Again, Aaron Douglas had trouble making a tough decision after consulting with friends and family. In retrospect, staying at UT paid off.
“It wasn’t too public but after Coach Fulmer got fired, I wanted to possibly transfer but I stuck around, which I’m glad I did,” Douglas said. “I had a lot of fun last year.
“ . . . When this next coaching change came along, I just felt like it may no longer be right for me here.”
Douglas not only had fun; he also blossomed into one of UT’s best young players while developing a strong relationship with former Vols offensive line coach James Cregg. With Cregg joining former UT coach Lane Kiffin’s staff at Southern California, it’s natural to assume that Douglas could end up with the Trojans.
“I’ve got some schools in mind but I want to live the recruiting process because I didn’t really do that in high school because I was so one-dimensional with UT,” Douglas said.
Cregg, however, will be a factor.
“He really means a lot to me,” Douglas said. “I feel like he put me in the position that I was in last year. I felt like he molded me from a first-year tackle into a player I saw succeeding down the road and possibly getting drafted. I just loved his coaching style.”
The scrutiny around Douglas has become personal at times.
Fans often guessed that drug use was the reason he was having personal problems, a charge Douglas denied.
Then, fans clamored to Douglas’ MySpace page where Douglas had posted audio of himself rapping.
“I like to write music,” Douglas said. “It started off with poetry. I’ve been writing poetry since I was 11 or 12-years-old.”
After six weeks off, Douglas has started working out again. He’s even got a job at a local manufacturing plant.
He maintains he’ll always root for UT and repeatedly said he has no ill will for any Vol.
But most of all, Douglas is just happy to be happy again.
“I’m feeling really good right now,” he said, “not only about my decision, but what’s ahead for me.”