Stephens stayed, played, keyed win at Florida
All Travis Stephens wanted was a chance to be the man.
Consider the Florida game in 2001, the memorable 34-32 Tennessee victory in Steve Spurrier’s final game at The Swamp.
A journalist penned these immortal words: “If he’s not the best back in the country, a Doak Walker Award winner, there ain’t a cow in Texas.”
That assessment came after the Vols, 18-point underdogs, had bested the homestanding Gators, “draining the Swamp,” as Bob Kesling noted on the Vols Network. It was Tennessee’s first win in Gainesville since 1971, the senior season for Vol head coach Phillip Fulmer.
For Travis Stephens, a Clarksville native, it was the high moment of a career that saw him recruited in 1997 with three other more heralded running backs: Dominique Stevenson of Gaffney, S.C., Jamal Lewis of Atlanta, and Travis Henry of Frostproof, Fla.
There were those in the Tennessee camp who rightly wondered how each of them would adapt to the notion that there was only one football. There were only so many carries to be passed around.
It ended up that all of them contributed mightily to Vol fortunes. Stevenson became a linebacker. Lewis, Henry, and Stephens contributed as running backs.
Lewis dazzled observers in 1997, from the Ole Miss game on. He was a solid blend of speed and power, with a running style that gobbled up yardage in big chunks.
Stephens and Henry took up the slack when Lewis banged up a knee in the 1998 Auburn game and were key performers in the drive to a national championship. Henry was a key to the Vol attack in 1999 and 2000, earning All-SEC honors that latter season.
Stephens ended up breaking every dish in the house, earning All-SEC and All-America honors in 2001, his final season. Was he the “best” of the four? You be the judge.
For his career, Stephens carried 488 times for 2,336 yards, a 4.8-yard average. He had 21 career touchdowns. For the 2001 season, he rushed 291 times for 1,464 yards and 10 scores.
The 2001 season and the heroics on the Florida greensward almost didn’t happen.
In 1999, Stephens asked Fulmer for a redshirt season, given the imposing specter of Lewis and Henry ahead of him at the tailback position. It was his junior season, and the idea that he would redshirt that late in his career raised more than a few eyebrows.
“I think I would have transferred if he had said no,” Stephens said, “because I really wanted to have one season at Tennessee as the feature back. I wasn’t trying to be selfish. All I wanted was my opportunity.”
That career decision was a reflection of the adage, dating to Bob Neyland, George Cafego, and/or Doug Dickey, that states, “If you stay, you’ll play.”
For the doubters, for the slow learners, when the Vols squared off against the Gators late on the first Saturday afternoon of December 2001, the chips were on the table: an SEC East title, a berth in the SEC championship game, and a continuing quest for a national championship.
This was Stephens’ time. He would not be denied.
Stephens rushed for 226 yards and two scores and helped set up two more scores. Whenever the Gators challenged, the Vols and Stephens had the requisite response: a 68-yard run to set up one score and runs of 49, 34 and 35. The 35-yarder was for a score that gave the Vols a 20-14 lead in the third quarter.
It came on the field where Vol hopes had, in the past, gone to die.
“I felt like I was in a zone the whole game,” Stephens said. “It was the perfect setup for me. It was the game I wanted to play, and I needed to play in.
“The moment I remember came right after they scored a touchdown. The crowd was going crazy, and I stood back there as we lined up for a play, waving my arms up and down as if to ask the crowd if that was all they had. We snapped the ball, ran one of our zone plays, and I busted them up for 68 yards to set up a touchdown. That was the kind of play I came back to school for.”
Stephens carried the Vols on his back and made his dreams, as well as those of the Vols and their fans, become reality.
He silenced the critics, those who might have thought he was too small and couldn’t take the punishment. He did everything that was asked of him.
He stayed . . . and he played . . . and played well.
You can’t ask for more than that.
Even if someone else — 2001 Doak Walker Award winner BYU running back Luke Staley — ended up getting the big prize.
On that afternoon, the victory over Florida was a big enough prize for Stephens and for the Vols.
Tom Mattingly is a freelance contributor.