This week marks the beginning of college football season, which means that I will be driving to Knoxville for another opening game for the University of Tennessee. This made me think about past seasons and other opening games. Then, I realized that it was 20 years ago that the Volunteers had one of their most interesting starts.
In 1994, Larry and I flew to Pasadena, California to watch the Big Orange play UCLA at the Rose Bowl. A few things about that trip stand out.
Our room overlooked Colorado Boulevard, the main route of the Rose Bowl Parade. It is too bad that we were there in September.
The temperature was super hot. It felt more like Tennessee temperatures than what you would find in southern California.
A man and his son brought their luggage to the game. Apparently, they did not have time to go to the hotel. They came to the stadium straight from the airport. Can you imagine someone trying to bring suitcases into a stadium during these times?
Larry upset one of the concession stand workers. We tried to get a cup of ice, and the guy said that it would be $10 or some other outrageous amount. That is when Larry said, “Damn, Jesse James carried a gun when he robbed people.” Apparently, the guy did not like the Jesse James reference.
There is something else I remember. Those were good times to be a fan of the University of Tennessee. Although we had lost Heath Shuler, who had finished second for the Heisman Trophy, we had a senior quarterback ready to take the helm. Jerry Colquitt had patiently waited his turn, and it was his time to shine.
Another upper classman, Todd Helton, was the backup. Everyone knew he would be drafted into the Major Leagues and had a bright future in baseball. He did not expect to play that often, but the team needed someone with experience because the other two quarterbacks were freshmen. They were also highly recruited.
One was Branndon Stewart, a son of Texas who came from the Heath Shuler mold. He could make things happen with his arm and his legs. The other was Peyton Manning, the son of a southern legend who played more traditionally. Everyone knew that there would be a quarterback battle in the future, but that was a year away.
At least, everyone assumed it would be a year away. On the seventh play of the game, Colquitt injured his knee and was out for the season. Suddenly, Tennessee was down to a baseball player and two talented freshmen. Before the game was over, all of the quarterbacks would take snaps, and Tennessee would lose 25-23.
Helton became the reluctant starter and led the Volunteers to a big win over Georgia. However, he was injured in another game, and no one wanted to ruin his chances at baseball. He stayed on the team, but the freshman quarterback battle was at full force.
Stewart and Manning split playing time, and the fans were split, as well. Remembering Shuler, some fans wanted Stewart. Seeing a pro typical quarterback, other fans wanted Manning. Eventually, the coaches settle on Manning.
Stewart, seeing the writing on the wall, transferred to Texas A&M and led them to the 1998 Big 12 championship. In the title game, they beat Kansas State, which insured that Tennessee would go to the first BCS Title Game. The Vols won the National Championship, and, ironically, Stewart helped them do that.
Helton was drafted by the Colorado Rockies and recently retired after playing for them his entire career. Not long ago, they also retired his number.
Despite his injury, Colquitt by drafted into the NFL, but his playing career did not last long. He got into coaching and made it onto the staff of the Seattle Seahawks.
Manning is, well, Peyton Manning and is considered to be one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Like Shuler before him, he finished second in the Heisman Trophy voting, which is one of the greatest travesties in that award’s history. Then, he was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts. Now, he plays for the Denver Broncos.
Thinking about the opening game of 1994 made me wonder about how lives were changed by one injury on one play. What would have happened if that injury had not taken place? Would Colquitt have gone on to a more promising NFL career? Would Helton have come in during a later game and gotten hurt more seriously? Would another year allowed Stewart to beat out Manning for the starting job? Would Manning have transferred? Would Tennessee have won the National Championship in 1998?
I have no idea, but I know what we were thinking when that injury took place. Holy crap, what are we going to do now?