Neil Clabo has had almost 40 years to come up with an explanation for his fourth-down maneuver from the Tennessee end zone against Auburn in 1974. That hasn’t been long enough.
“I was standing 9 yards deep in my own end zone,” said the former Tennessee punter, who will be inducted into the Greater Knoxville Sports Hall of Fame on July 11. “Why I took off, I have no idea.”
Neither did his coach, Bill Battle, who somehow managed to remain upright and fully conscious when his senior punter made a madcap dash for a first down while trampling football logic along the way.
“I guess it was temporary insanity,” Clabo said with a laugh before offering supportive evidence on his behalf. “I saw the outside man go way wide and the end crashed down.”
Their actions provided a suitable opening for Clabo, whose football instincts took it from there. He ran for a first down, one of the few positive plays for Tennessee in a 21-0 loss to the Tigers.
Clabo’s run probably wasn’t as startling for the Tennessee fans who knew his history.
He surely will be announced as “Tennessee punter Neil Clabo” at the hall of fame induction ceremonies July 11 at the Knoxville Convention Center. He qualified for that introduction by punting for the Vols from 1972 through 1974, then later punting his way into the Super Bowl with the Minnesota Vikings.
However, anyone who identifies him solely as a football specialist, hasn’t read the entire resume. Clabo was so good in so many sports he would have been worthy of the local hall of fame if he had never punted a ball past the line of scrimmage.
And, thanks to his mother, he has the scrapbook to prove it.
One newspaper clipping showed he was a Parade All-American defensive back at Farragut High.
Another recognized him as one of the top five basketball players in the state.
“My mother kept everything,” said Clabo, who has worked at Farragut for 32 years, supervising troubled students. “I went back and looked through the boxes (when he was inducted into the Farragut Hall of Fame earlier this year). I found out a lot of stuff I didn’t even know.”
The clippings reminded him that he averaged 24 points per game as a high school senior. He also was proficient enough at shortstop to draw the attention of major league scouts.
In football, he was literally an every-down player. He punted and kicked, starred in the secondary, and played quarterback for three years before moving to running back.
He continued his running back career on the UT freshman team. Once he joined the varsity, he became a full-time punter under UT kicking guru George Cafego.
“I had a disagreement with one of the assistant coaches (before his sophomore season),” Clabo said. “It ended up that I talked to Coach Battle. He was very nice.”
And was just fine with Clabo focusing exclusively on punting.
Maybe Clabo’s football career would have included more than punting if he had gone somewhere other than UT. Despite all his scholarship offers, he preferred to stay home.
“The Clabo family was real closely knit,” he said. “The main reason that I went to Tennessee is so my parents, aunts and cousins could watch me play.”
Years later, Clabo’s football career must have made for great conversation at family reunions. All those aunts and cousins were probably still wondering what he was thinking on fourth down against Auburn.
John Adams is a senior columnist. Follow him at http://twitter.com/johnadamskns.