Tom Mattingly: Travis Stephens stayed, played, keyed win at Florida

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.

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Comments » 9

Dalton writes:

I shy from conspiracy talk but Staley winning the Doak Walker after a season he didn't finish was a TAKE THAT BIG ORANGE neon sign from whoever voted....anybody but a Vol should be posted on any nomination form...how did Berry and Henderson ever win?

BigVolinCarolina writes:

I will never forget that game, mainly because I was there. It was my first and only trip to The Swamp--but not my last, I hope.

It was a HUUUGE game with so much on the line and a lot of emotion due to the fact that the game had to be rescheduled for December due to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. By God's grace alone, I had a great seat in the UT section. I was so proud of my Vols and, honestly, "The Swamp" wasn't as loud as I expected it to be throughout the game, either.

Travis Stephens ran like crazy that night. Never before can I recall (in my short 39 years) a UT running back playing with as much guts, intensity, passion and purpose as he did that night. He really was a highlight film.

After the game, I saw folks passing out roses in the stands. I remember telling folks it was way too early because we had to beat LSU the next week in the SEC Champ Game--a team we had barely beaten in Neyland earlier that same season. Losing the SEC Champ Game certainly squelched the good from the UF game the week before.

Great article, Mattingly. That game was one I'll never forget and, if taken alone, was one of the true great "wins" in Vol history. Great times. And, the fact that Spurrier quit after the game made it even better that his last UF home game was a loss to Tennessee.

Hope there's more like this for UT in the future.

jack_2222#231746 writes:

in response to lakindofguy:

(This comment was removed by the site staff.)

What a pathetic leader Spurrier is, huh- an 18 point favorite at home against his whipping boy UT, a win and the Gators go to the SEC title game. And Florida loses?? Just another example of what a poor leader Spurrier is- you know that loss for Florida was all his fault.

BigVolFaninSC writes:

I remember that game very well! Stephens ran through that Gator D like a hot knife through butter! And the fact that the pompous and arrogant Spurrier lost his last game in the swamp made it that much sweeter! He also had a great game during the championship season in Athens against the Dawgs right after Lewis got hurt! I think he went for 107 if I remember correctly! He was a dynamo for sure during the '01 season though! Good memories!

dalvol writes:

One correction, I'm 99% certain that Jamal Lewis injured his knee in the 1998 Georgia game between the hedges, not against Auburn. When it happened, I could see that he was through, though he did try to come back in and play later in the game. He missed the rest of the championship season. Thank goodness Fulmer had good depth at running back. Please let me know if I'm wrong about this.

nwcs writes:

Yeah, we lost Jamal really early that year. I just wish he had played the full year the year before. May have been a back to back NC for us...

I remember that Florida game. The whole GameDay crew had to eat crow. Loved it. I felt so bad after the LSU game though. We were totally ineffective. Hated it.

easleychuck writes:

I believe that he was injured against Auburn, "on the plain". He was running sweep around the right side fairly early in the game.

govols1234567 writes:

in response to dalvol:

One correction, I'm 99% certain that Jamal Lewis injured his knee in the 1998 Georgia game between the hedges, not against Auburn. When it happened, I could see that he was through, though he did try to come back in and play later in the game. He missed the rest of the championship season. Thank goodness Fulmer had good depth at running back. Please let me know if I'm wrong about this.

It was Auburn. The Georgia game was when we first started Stevens and Henry

sm1 writes:

I believe the article is incorrect when it says, "The 35-yarder was for a score that gave the Vols a 20-14 lead in the third quarter." If I remember correctly, the Gators were leading at half-time, 20-14 (thanks to two Tennessee turnovers and one push-off by a Florida receiver that was not called), and this 35 yard TD run by Stephens tied the score, with the PAT giving us the lead, 21-20.

After this, as I recall, the Gators kicked a field goal to go up 23-21. I believe this was the last play of the third quarter.

The first play from scrimmage in the fourth quarter was a long run by Stephens, from about the Tennessee 23 yardline, to somewhere inside the Gator 10-yardline: First and Goal.

Tennessee scored a TD, but the attempt at the two-point conversion failed because the snap hit the man who was coming accross the backfield in motion between the center and the QB.

Anyway, this made the score 27-23. After this, the Gators kicked another field goal to make it 27-26. Tennessee scored another TD, the PAT was good to make it 34-26.

After this (though maybe not immediately after), I believe it was on second down, Tennesse attempted a counter play, which I believe would have gone for big yardage. However, Will Bartholomew chose not to block Andra (sp?)Davis, and Stephens was tackled for about a one or two yard loss. The third down play, as I recall, was a pass to Bobby Graham, that came up about 1 yard short of the first down.

After punting, Tennessee seemed to play somewhat of a prevent defense. the Gators drove down the field to score, but their two-pont attempt failed (Rex Grossman was running for his life, and his pass was knocked down by Buck Fitzgerald in the endzone, while the Florida receiver begged, in vain, for a flag.)

TN held on to win 34-32. But truth be told, the game was not as close as the score might indicate. Tennessee dominated! As I recall, the aforementioned fourth quarter punt was TN's only punt of the game. Florida's offensive line could not handle our front four--Jackson, Henderson, Haynesworth, and Overstreet. The Florida defense could not tackle Stephens, but it seems like the Florida left offensive tackle was tackling Overstreet on almost every play.

Anyway, Tennessee won. Stephens shined. Everyone contributed. The 2001 team was, IMO, the last National Championship calibre team that TN had. After this, for whatever reason, TN football declined.

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