Tom Mattingly: 'Team game' summed up best in three recent examples

Associated Press
Florida quarterback Rex Grossman, left, is sacked by Tennessee's John Henderson on Dec. 1, 2001 during the Vols' 34-32 upset of the Gators in Gainesville.

Photo by SCOTT AUDETTE

Associated Press Florida quarterback Rex Grossman, left, is sacked by Tennessee's John Henderson on Dec. 1, 2001 during the Vols' 34-32 upset of the Gators in Gainesville.

When the experts say football is a "team game," they really mean it. It takes a "team" to win. That's been true since the days of Pop Warner and Amos Alonzo Stagg. Tennessee coaches from the days of Bob Neyland have preached the concept of "team."

Game heroes come in all shapes and sizes, however. Sometimes the heroes are not the ones you might expect. They might be an older player buried on the depth chart or a youngster who only needed a chance to prove himself.

The history of Tennessee football is replete with players who have stood tall, making a key play at exactly the right moment. In each of their cases, their contributions should not be forgotten.

Here are four of them.

Anybody remember former Vol wide receiver Bobby Graham, defensive back Buck Fitzgerald, tight end John Finlayson, and defensive end Xavier Mitchell?

Anybody remember each of their most significant plays as Volunteers?

Think back to the critical moments of the 1999 Memphis game, the 2001 game at Florida, and the 2006 Air Force game. The Vols won them all, but it wasn't easy.

Each of them "saved" a game, as we look back at what they contributed through the prism of history.

Bobby Graham was a sophomore wide receiver from Statesville, N. C., who seemed destined for obscurity until Homecoming Day, Sept. 25, 1999, when the Vols trailed Memphis 16-10 late in the fourth quarter.

The Vols had lost to Florida a week earlier. Three years earlier, they had lost to the Tigers at Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium. A loss at Neyland, on Homecoming, could have proven catastrophic. Losses to Memphis have that impact, real or imagined.

Things really looked bleak, and fans were expecting the worst until Tee Martin threw what seemed to be a desperation pass in Graham's direction down the east side going to the north end.

Graham hauled it in, the play covering 53 yards. That put the Vols in position for the winning score and sent fans scurrying to their game programs to see exactly who No. 11 was. They know now.

Afterwards, Graham emerged from the shadows to become a capable receiver, often called a "possession receiver" by media pundits.

He wasn't the fastest guy in the world, but he could catch the ball.

When Bobby made his first major contribution as a Vol, Tennessee fans, old and young, breathed a sigh of relief. There would be no loss to the Tigers that afternoon.

Bobby had proven emphatically what he could do, if only given the chance.

Fitzgerald, a senior from Nashville, and Finlayson, a senior from Selmer (McNairy County), were not exactly household words across Big Orange Country. They had been on the roster and made all the travel squads, but there was precious little else to remember them by. They would, however, establish a legacy when it mattered most.

On Dec. 1, 2001, at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium in Gainesville, Fla., the Vols and Gators met to decide the SEC East crown in what would prove to be Steve Spurrier's final game in the "Swamp." Florida was a prohibitive favorite. Members of the media gave the Vols little chance.

It was a back-and-forth game all day, momentum shifting quickly from the Gators to the Vols. Tennessee led going into the final, frantic moments.

The Gators had pulled to 34-32 when Fitzgerald stepped to the front. Buck made the play on Jabar Gaffney when Rex Grossman looked to Jabar for the tying two-point conversion.

He never had a chance. Buck's coverage was that good. Gaffney had been on the good end of a controversial call a year earlier in Knoxville. This one was not controversial, even though Gaffney did protest.

Mere moments later, Finlayson corralled an onsides kick, one that took an initially scary bounce. John grabbed the ball and fell to the turf, just as he was coached to, setting the stage for the "victory formation" and a wondrous flight home.

Then came Mitchell's turn to make a play. The date was Sept. 9, 2006, against Air Force. The Vols won 31-30, and a stop by Mitchell was one of the game's biggest stories.

Air Force had rallied and had a chance to win the game at the end, needing only a two-point conversion to take the lead and, more than likely than not, win the game.

Mitchell would have none of that, being right where he was supposed to be and stopping a toss sweep to the right side at the south end. Somehow, by the hardest, the Vols survived.

One thing is certain about all of their contributions.

When each of them was given a chance, they made the most of it.

Of such big plays are legend and tradition created.

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Comments » 16

volroadwarrior writes:

Great stories. Another was Wardlaw's punt block for a TD vs. Georgia and his interception to seal the deal against Wisconsin. There are many others that would be fun to read.

dvhill100 writes:

Good article. Always enjoy reading about a less well known player who steps up when it counts.

Ga_Dave writes:

Well, Dale Jones was not a little-known player, but his "interception" of a lateral in the Alabubba game sealed the victory. That was one of the greatest single-effort plays I've ever seen. It's almost football time in Tennessee and I can't wait-expecting at least 7 wins, hoping for 8-9. GBO

Voluvr writes:

Here's some team effort.....last year we had one player that could squat over 500 lbs. This year we have 28. Good work!

hueypilot writes:

in response to Ga_Dave:

Well, Dale Jones was not a little-known player, but his "interception" of a lateral in the Alabubba game sealed the victory. That was one of the greatest single-effort plays I've ever seen. It's almost football time in Tennessee and I can't wait-expecting at least 7 wins, hoping for 8-9. GBO

Don't think it was a lateral. I remember Jones jumping to block a forward pass attempt by Mike Shula. Jones jumped with both hands extended and tipped the pass and followed the deflection and gathered it in for the play that turned the tide and eventually sent us to the Sugar Bowl. We had been beaten in Gainesville, home of the Cheatin Gators, said cheating of which, caused them to be banned from the SEC championship, even tho I think that annoying twit Steve Superior liked to claim a championship for them in 1985. At least thst's the way I remember it.

cloudodust writes:

01DEC2001 takes my vote. Sending Spurious to the NFL by losing to the team he loves to hate at The Bog was a sweet end to a season marked by fools with boxcutters. I'll wager Gaffney still feels that hit...

VOODOOley-2011 (Inactive) writes:

in response to Voluvr:

Here's some team effort.....last year we had one player that could squat over 500 lbs. This year we have 28. Good work!

That's great news. Now if the VOLS have to take a "SQUAT" during the game, we'll have it covered 28x over.

"Wait running back, let me bench press you before you go running down the field like a deer ala Oregon in 2010."

volnvette03 writes:

in response to hueypilot:

Don't think it was a lateral. I remember Jones jumping to block a forward pass attempt by Mike Shula. Jones jumped with both hands extended and tipped the pass and followed the deflection and gathered it in for the play that turned the tide and eventually sent us to the Sugar Bowl. We had been beaten in Gainesville, home of the Cheatin Gators, said cheating of which, caused them to be banned from the SEC championship, even tho I think that annoying twit Steve Superior liked to claim a championship for them in 1985. At least thst's the way I remember it.

St. Steve did not become the Gator coach until 1990. His first game as Gator coach, UT 45 - Gators 3

pecaro#648647 writes:

John Finlayson could have been one of the best tight ends we ever had. He only dropped one (1) pass that was catchable in his career. Never understood why he wasn't used more for those short yardage situations.

ProwlinAndGrowlinSmokeyDog writes:

I love the picture of Grossman being sack by "Big John"..I remember that game so well because my husband was working in the mall during that time and he said when the Gators threw that incomplete pass into endzone(before the onside kick) that you could hear yelling and screaming throughout West Town...I happened to have a stuffed Gator(NOT a UF Gator) and I tied him up by a shoestring and drug him around for a while.

Smokey is on the prowl for more Gators...

pingkr62 writes:

in response to volnvette03:

St. Steve did not become the Gator coach until 1990. His first game as Gator coach, UT 45 - Gators 3

You are correct, it was a pass by Mike Shula to the right flat. Dale Jones jumped to knock down the pass, but was able to make the catch. If I'm not mistaken, this was the 1984 season, and the game Tony Robinson had a season ending knee injury. U.T. went on to win the game and the S.E.C. Championship, then went on to POUND Miami in the Sugar Bowl. What a season! G.B.O.

givehim6 writes:

These were all great plays by great players and I'm proud to say watch them all via TV, [can't go to the games due to disabilty]. Unfortunately also shows where Phil's way of coaching changed after the NC from great team effort to individual heroics. This was the beginning of the UT decline. When we stop having good teams with two or three great players and one supperstar, and get back to having one great team we will get back to the championship levle.

dvsvol writes:

in response to pingkr62:

You are correct, it was a pass by Mike Shula to the right flat. Dale Jones jumped to knock down the pass, but was able to make the catch. If I'm not mistaken, this was the 1984 season, and the game Tony Robinson had a season ending knee injury. U.T. went on to win the game and the S.E.C. Championship, then went on to POUND Miami in the Sugar Bowl. What a season! G.B.O.

Yes. I was at the game with a Bama buddy. We made the trip from Texas. I called in sick for the week after my grandmother died (for the third time, god bless her). We fished in Tenn and went down to Tuscaloosa for my first trip there. Stayed with his A-Hole cousin the night before the game, who dogged me unmercifully. God they hated VOLS. Either my friend or I were cheering every play (we were a minature "wave"). It was a quiet ride home, but I grinned all the way. Game wasn't over until they missed a LONG field goal that looked good from where we sat, but fell JUST short. Love the memories, love the VOLS.

pingkr62 writes:

in response to dvsvol:

Yes. I was at the game with a Bama buddy. We made the trip from Texas. I called in sick for the week after my grandmother died (for the third time, god bless her). We fished in Tenn and went down to Tuscaloosa for my first trip there. Stayed with his A-Hole cousin the night before the game, who dogged me unmercifully. God they hated VOLS. Either my friend or I were cheering every play (we were a minature "wave"). It was a quiet ride home, but I grinned all the way. Game wasn't over until they missed a LONG field goal that looked good from where we sat, but fell JUST short. Love the memories, love the VOLS.

Those were the days when you would see a Johnny Majors coached team over-acheive and win big games with somewhat lesser talented teams (Notre Dame 1991). This was much different than seeing highly talented teams under-acheive under Fulmer in his latter years. I think Coach Dooley may be the second coming of Johnny Majors. G.B.O.

Southland writes:

in response to pingkr62:

Those were the days when you would see a Johnny Majors coached team over-acheive and win big games with somewhat lesser talented teams (Notre Dame 1991). This was much different than seeing highly talented teams under-acheive under Fulmer in his latter years. I think Coach Dooley may be the second coming of Johnny Majors. G.B.O.

Coach Majors 1986 team was named the flop of the year by Sports Illustrated so Majors had a few underachieving teams as well. The 1988 teams that started 0-6 wasnt worth bragging about either and they had talent. Coach Majors teams were fun and frustrating. Look at his overall record and see how up and down it was. Fulmer started out great and got us spoiled and then he went on cruise control and then headed downward. No one stays on top always. Look at LSU during the 90's and Bama during the mid 90's till The evil saban came on board for them. Florida was a mediocre program for decades. They did not win an sec title until the 90's. They may drop down this year and the next like they did when they hired the Zook. Texas didnt look great last year. Notre Dame has always been over rated but they have been a joke for a while and are just now coming back. We will be back, just not as quickly as the "want it right now crowd" wants it to be.

volbike writes:

And Then there was Kelly Washington............

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