Foreword/Disclaimer: Props to Smitty for posting the video last week, hence jogging my memory to do this, and also to Volter Ego for the words of encouragement for putting my thoughts into text. Also, I could not find the full game recap anywhere, so specific details of specific situations of the game are murky. Please forgive/correct if I've stated a gross error.
One day a few weeks back, I was checking out the Volnation Website and came across a request for video footage of the famous Clint Stoerner fumble towards the end of the 1998 meeting between our Volunteers and the Razorbacks of Arkansas at Neyland Stadium. Somebody was kind enough to post one to the forum, so I checked it out to relive the experience.
Now, like all of us, our Vol football fanaticism has a limited history. For those of us who have only been full-blooded Volunteers for less than 9 years, the story of the Stoerner Stumble may be nothing more than an incredible bedtime story, straight out of fairy-tale land. A fantastic fable, if you will. While I'm not the most descriptive writer, I'm going to attempt to convey not only my personal thoughts, but also the thoughts of all the Big Orange faithful watching the game live, on the TV, listening to the John Ward radio broadcast, or perhaps even following the "game tracker" on the internet (I'm not so sure the game tracker was an option back in the day).
Before I begin, a little bit needs to be known about myself and the "intimacy" I have with the most special 1998 season. August of 1998 was my freshman year at UT and I had the privilege of being a member of the Pride of the Southland Marching Band. There has been some off/pre-season banter of the importance of college marching bands at football games, and I'm not here to debate that issue, but I will say that at the University of Tennessee, The Pride is as much as a part of the team as the 100 person (coaches, players, trainers, managers, etc.) cadre, so you can guess which way I'm biased! With that said, let's begin!
Saturday, November 14, 1998. It was an 8pm kick-off, which meant a long day of activities and events leading up to game time. By activities and events, I mean morning rehearsal, a long afternoon primarily reserved for drinking and the viewing of other football games, and the step-off on the parade to Neyland Stadium around 5pm. The temperature that night was rather mild (low 70's, perhaps?) which made for semi-comfortable viewing (even while wearing a 10 lb wool suit and a plastic bucket on my head), except for the fact that if was pouring rain like none other! Rain showers and thunderstorms loomed upon Knoxville for most of the day and carried into game time. The intensity of the water droplets varied over time from a light mist to that of a monsoonal deluge. There were times that I was literally blinded by the spray. Yeah, we in the band had ponchos for "weather protection", but don't think for one minute that they actually worked! It was just another layer of clothing to contain/trap water against an already soaked uniform that served a multiple role as a drainage gutter to ensure that your feet stayed nice and moist throughout the game! Delightful, indeed!
I honestly don't recall much about the first half of the game, but the game box score showed Tennessee trailing at the half 21-10. Typical of UT during inclimate weather conditions. At home. With everything on the line. Let me say that again...With EVERYTHING on the line. You see, Tennessee, a team being led offensively by Peyton Manning's multi-year backup, a team that was in a true "rebuilding" year, was unpredictably 8-0 on the season up to that point and running like a well-oiled machine. The team was gunning for a 2nd consecutive SEC Championship, and quite possibly a berth in the inaugural edition of the BCS Championship Game. But Arkansas had other plans for UT's fate.
The 3rd quarter rolled by with both teams scoring and Arkansas continuing to lead 24-20. If I recall correctly, with about 5 minutes remaining, Arkansas wound up taking a safety, that I believe was "self-induced", meaning that they voluntarily gave up a 2-point play on 4th down instead of trying to punt from deep in their own territory and risking a quick TD (see example) for the opposition. Not an awful call by any means. However, that meant decent field position for the Vols with plenty of time left in the game.
So Tennessee receives the "punt-off" and begins their drive with decent field position (approx. UT 35) for what was supposed to be the winning score. I mean, seriously, we only needed about 40 yards for a long Jeff Hall FG to get the win. 40 yards was nearly a certainty. After all, it was destiny for this year's team. Tee Martin, "The Travis(es)" and the rest of the Vols march the ball about 35 of those needed yards, down to around the Arkansas 40 and then quickly find themselves in a 4th and some distance with the game on the line. Unfortunately, we're out of FG range so Coach Fulmer obviously elects to go for it. The situation is quite rudimentary here...make the first down and you live. Don't make it, and Arkansas could run the clock out after the change of possession. Again, the details are blurry, but the play came and went...and not with favorable results (incomplete pass, I believe); First Down, Arkansas...on the turnover on downs. Game over; SEC repeat champs over; MNC shot over. Done. Fine.
The pain. The agony. The disbelief. The uncomfort of wearing a rain drenched wool suit for 5-hours was even more miserable knowing that it's all for naught. My fingertips and toes had greatly exceeded the wrinkly "raisins" to the point where the skin contracted to the point of pain to touch. Such uncomfort isn't so bad (and in some cases even welcomed) when your team is guaranteed a victory. But when that victory isn't delivered, that same pain hits the multiplier; just in the negative direction.
Dr. Gary Sousa, UT's Director of Bands, insisted that the band keep spirits high by playing our beloved "Rocky Top" for the 625,834th time that evening. Perhaps it was just his way of thanking the team and the fans for a great and exciting game. It was quite late (midnight-ish) and many fans decided to pack it up and head home. Who could blame them? Despite my being a life-long sports fan, who tries to NEVER leave before the final whistle, horn, buzzer, bell, whatever; I was `required' to keep my butt in the seat with the band (hey, my grade depended on it!) and to watch the last few minutes tick away. I too, probably would have begun the trek to the car, given the circumstances that night if I had the option. So Arkansas lines up to snap the ball and runs straight forward for no gain. Tick-tock-tick-tock. Tennessee elects to save both of their remaining timeouts. 2nd and 10; another run up the middle, but the RB was hit behind the line for a loss of 2 yards. Tennessee takes a timeout to stop the clock with 1:47 remaining in the game. Now we have only 1 timeout remaining, so there's hope that with a stop right here, we can get the ball back with about 1:30 to go. That is, assuming we can prevent the 3rd down conversion.
Arkansas lines up for a 3rd and 12. "Ready! Set! Blue 42, Blue 42! Hut! Hut! Hike!" And then it happened.
Like a hand stretched down from the heavens, the football was fumbled! Even better; IT WAS RECOVERED BY TENNESSEE!!! The dreams are still alive! The joy! The elation! The improbable! The disblief! You see, Arkansas quarterback Clint Stoerner was stepped on by one of his offensive linemen during what appeared to be a roll-out pass play or some type of bootleg. Stoerner stumbled and placed the ball on the rain-soaked turf to try to regain his balance, but lost his grip on the ball, causing it to squirt right out! We in the band, jumped right into yet another round of "Rocky Top" that was played at what seemed like about 100 beats/min. faster than the already lively tempo! Granted there was still work to be done to win, but the ball was literally back in our court. Pure amazement! Remember what I said about the physical discomfort a couple of paragraphs up? Yeah, there was no more. The adrenaline boost negated any pain or misery that existed just a few minutes prior.
As you've seen, Travis "Cheese" Henry took full advantage of the momentum swing and punched the ball into the end zone with the "over the top play" with just a few seconds remaining in the game to secure the win for the Volunteers. The perfect season remained intact, along with our SECCG and MNC hopes.
And as they say...the rest is history.