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When Tennessee kicker Derrick Brodus booted four field goals and five extra points through the uprights a few weeks ago against Akron, tying a Tennessee school record for points, Taylor Stokes read about the accomplishments with a smile.
Brodus, a walk-on from Alcoa High School, wore No. 42, a selection that he said was entirely coincidental. But the jersey number of Jackie Robinson — retired and revered at every baseball stadium in America — drove home what many assumed: Brodus was the first black place-kicker to participate in an SEC game.
In 1969, Stokes became the first black to play football at Vanderbilt. He also was a talented place-kicker. Forty years removed from his college career, he still has a passion for the game.
"I still get excited every time I turn on the TV," he said from his home in Pleasantville. "I call plays. I read defenses. I love the game. I think I'll be like that until I close my eyes for the last time."
So when friends alerted him to Brodus, Stokes paid particularly close attention.
"Now I'm a fan of Derrick's — except when he plays the black and gold, of course," Stokes said, referring to Vanderbilt's colors. "I wish the young man nothing but success. And my prayer is we won't have to wait this long between African-American kids kicking and participating from that position."
Today, blacks are well represented at every position on the football field, a fact that gave Stokes great pride when he returned to Vanderbilt in 2007 to finish his degree.
But today, much like 40 years ago, there are few if any black kickers.
"There weren't many then and there aren't many now," Stokes said.
Stokes was a talented athlete in Clarksville, who had a passion for baseball but found his true calling in football. He was a talented high school receiver, but most college teams were attracted to him because of his kicking ability.
Whereas Brodus and many of today's kickers come to football through soccer, that sport was still all but nonexistent in the South 40 years ago.
"As far as the kicking part goes, I kind of just fell into it," Stokes said. "I used to just goof around on my street with some kids. They used to hold the ball for me, and I would kick it over the telephone wire. Of course, it was an anomaly then to have a black kicker in any high school game, but I really took pride in being good at what I did.
"When I was in high school, all of my kickoffs used to go down to the 2- or 3-yard line or inside the end zone, then I'd try to go down and make a tackle. I really enjoyed kicking, but I considered myself to be a football player."
The high point of Stokes' Vandy career came in 1971, when he went 15-for-15 on extra points, including seven in one game against Mississippi State, which was a school record for more than 20 years.
Stokes arrived at Vanderbilt during one of the most socially tumultuous years in modern American history. As a black from a small town, he admitted he wasn't fully prepared for the racial and class divides that marked his college experience.
"I left Vanderbilt not in the most pleasant of states," he said. "I had unfinished business."
Stokes moved east, started a successful business, married, divorced and remarried. And eventually his path came back to Tennessee, not far from where he grew up. His wife Chandra knew that there was a gap in his life from those college years.
"Even though I had success in other areas, there were still parts of me that didn't feel like I had accomplished what I wanted to in parts of my personal life," he said. "The episode at Vanderbilt still remained open ... Chandra really encouraged me to take a good, hard look at tying up some loose ends."
So in 2007, he returned to campus, a nearly 60-year-old student trying to earn his degree. Along the way, he befriended students — athletes and non-athletes — and shared his experiences.
"They were a little curious about who this graying old man sitting in the back of the room was," Stokes said. "I was able to talk to several of the kids, and develop good relationships. I spoke to several of the football players and some of the other young people on campus about some of the experiences I had when I was at Vanderbilt. It really warmed my heart to look out on the field and see African-Americans are now playing for Vanderbilt University in great numbers when at one point there was only one of us. It really made me take pride in the fact that I was able and blessed enough to be the forerunner for a group of many that would follow."
Stokes earned his degree in 2009 and added a master's degree just a few months ago. He helps coach a middle school team in Clarksville. He's at peace with the path his life took, but said he wants his experiences — good and bad — to be a guide for others.
"I tell young college kids to make sure they identify their priorities and focus on being positive influences inside and outside their sport," Stokes said. "My story doesn't necessarily have to be anyone else's story. Make sure that when you go to school, don't stop until you finish. I wish I had gotten through in four years. But God always has other plans, sometimes different from ours."
Evan Woodbery covers Tennessee football. Follow him at www.Twitter.com/TennesseeBeat.