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Who's your favorite Tennessee Football player of all-time?
No choice is a wrong choice. There are football legends like Peyton Manning and Reggie White. There are players who defined a generation like Johnny Majors or Condredge Holloway. There are guys who meant the most to championship teams in Al Wilson or Dale Jones. And there are those who we only saw for a moment, but whose memories stay with us: Tony Robinson, Chuck Webb, and others in every category.
And there's an important difference between favorite and best. Here, it's okay to pick Manning, and it's okay not to. Favorite means you can make an argument for just about anybody.
So who are your favorite players?
The Pride of Rhea County
When I was little, I wanted to be Andy Kelly when I grew up.
Perhaps no quarterback at Tennessee has been surrounded by so much talent. Kelly got to hand off to Reggie Cobb, Chuck Webb, Tony Thompson, and James "Little Man" Stewart. He got to throw to Carl Pickens and Alvin Harper. He was protected by top ten NFL Draft picks on the offensive line.
And yet, Kelly's will to win seemed to make the Vol offense go more than anything else. From 1989-1991, the Vols went 29-6-2 under his watch, winning two SEC Championships. He didn't just get by on talent - though he never had a real shot at the NFL, Kelly left Knoxville and went to Arena Football, where he played for fourteen years, including five with the Nashville Kats. He retired as the AFL's career leader in every major passing category.
Winning was his greatest talent. He could hand off and let the CobbWebb attack do the damage when need be. Or he could gun it out - before Peyton Manning came along, Kelly had most of the significant passing records at UT.
And for me, watching him play from ages 7-10, he was the guy we all pretended to be in the backyard. And he was a local kid, the last to live the dream of every young boy in East Tennessee. The starting quarterbacks that followed him have been from North Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama, California, and Oregon. Kelly was a homegrown kid that made you believe, at least for those few years, that you could one day lead the Vols too.
There are a thousand great memories of Kelly, but my favorite is the January 1, 1991 Sugar Bowl against Virginia. At the end of an insane 1990 season that saw the Vols repeat as SEC Champions, this game was the perfect ending: down 16-3 going to the fourth quarter, Kelly went 14 for 18 in the final period and led three touchdown drives, the last one winning it in the final seconds, 23-22. It was the best ending to a remarkable season: Kelly finding a way to win in the end, one more time.
When he graduated, I thought he'd go down in history as the best QB the program had ever seen. Then the next three guys came in second in two Heisman Trophy races and won a National Championship...and unbelievably, Kelly's name and lore have been pushed to the backburner.
But to me, he'll always be the guy who made me believe anything was possible for Tennessee as a kid, and the leader of the Vols when the program's greatest run began.