Instead of heading directly to the locker room, Tyler Bray jogged right down his familiar path to the family section beyond the north end zone.
The last time he made his way there in pads he was breaking the news about his broken thumb. This time he came bearing a huge smile and enough energy to jump into the stands and continue celebrating his return.
The Tennessee quarterback didn't directly trigger the postgame party himself in a 27-21 win over Vanderbilt on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium, but the Vols might not have put themselves in position for an overtime victory if not for Bray.
And even without his best stuff in the first game since breaking his thumb more than a month ago, his family wasn't the only group wrapping their arms around Bray and enjoying his return.
"It was a boost, a big one," sophomore Rajion Neal said. "Definitely everybody feels more comfortable with him, he's comfortable with this offense, knows what is going on, and everybody feels a little more comfortable having him out there. It brought great security and comfort to everybody.
"He never complained
about (the pain). You know, Bray does what's asked of him and he's going to keep balling. He's a true ballplayer. He was out there working and fighting through whatever he may have been going through — for us, this team, the seniors, coaches, the fans, everybody."
They were all soaking it in together after the win was confirmed by a controversial review, which officially kept the Vols (5-6, 1-6 SEC) alive in the chase for a bowl bid and set up a postseason play-in game for them at Kentucky (4-7, 1-6) on Saturday (TV: WVLT, 12:21 p.m.). The overtime drama also might have overshadowed a gritty rally Bray led in the fourth quarter that was capped with a nice throw to Da'Rick Rogers and an even better catch to tie the game and force the extra session.
The Vols might not have been in that difficult situation if not for a couple costly interceptions from Bray, who clearly was not at full strength and was nowhere near as accurate as he was before the injury. And while he did deliver a pair of touchdowns to Rogers among the 16 completions in 33 attempts for 189 yards, the lift he provided seem to go well beyond the stat sheet.
"Just because he's an older guy and he has his presence there, he knows those guys, how to corral those guys when they're getting a little mopey," UT coach Derek Dooley said. "It doesn't mean the other guys can't, but he's kind of been their guy. So, I do think it helps.
"Of course, he's proven it out there that he can find a way to win."
The Vols now need just one more win to clinch bowl eligibility and finish off another late surge to extend the season.
Just like the run they staged a year ago, Bray is squarely in the middle of it and showing up again right on time.
"I mean, our team stuck in there, the defense played one hell of a game — they've been doing that for the last couple weeks," Bray said. "If they just keep doing that and the offense steps it up, we're going to win a lot of ballgames.
"The guys did seem dead the last couple weeks, but that's not just about me. We had two games left, had to win both games. We won one (Saturday), and now we've got to win one more."
If they get it, Bray might have to blaze a new trail to celebrate when it's over. But the party might be even bigger.