I'm not sure what the cutoff age is for understanding the significance of Jay Graham in Tennessee Football history, but it's easy to figure out which group you're in. It's funny: of all the great backs in the straight line from Reggie Cobb to Travis Stephens, it's Stephens and Graham who had the least NFL success...but who meant the most to Tennessee's best teams, and had the two best single seasons in the history of the program.
So if you remember Jay Graham, you remember this:
No disrespect to the great Ron Franklin, but here's how special John Ward was: when this game ended, my Dad and I waited for the replay of each of his touchdown calls in the last segment of the Final Scoreboard Show on the Vol Network, used a tape recorder to copy it off the air, then put it on our answering machine (remember those?) for the rest of the season.
Jay Graham was Peyton Manning's tailback in 1995 and 1996, a position that could've made it easy to get lost in the shuffle. But Graham made his own name by running for more than 100 yards in nine consecutive games on what still might be Tennessee's most talented team ever. The '95 Vols may have struggled in The Swamp, in part due to Graham dropping the football, but in Birmingham he atoned for his sins and the sins of ten years against Alabama with this run.
This run was the throat slasher. Peyton Manning's work on play number one to Joey Kent was certainly the first shot, but again if you're too young to remember, things happen to you when you can't beat a team for almost an entire decade. When they start to come back, as Alabama had by scoring a touchdown and cutting Tennessee's lead to 28-14 late in the third quarter, you get very fearful that they will somehow find a way again.
But Graham's run instantly put an end to all of that, a vicious knockout just as soon as the Tide had gotten back to their feet.
And Graham was just getting started.
On January 1, 1996, what is perhaps Tennessee's most talented team ever played against what is perhaps their most talented foe ever in the Citrus Bowl. 10-1 Ohio State had Eddie George and his Heisman Trophy. George couldn't make a yard against Bill Duff on 4th down. Graham did this:
It's an incredible run in one of the hardest rains and against one of the best defenses I've ever seen. And the Vols prevailed 20-14.
But Graham's biggest run came a year later in Knoxville, when Alabama came calling once more. What happened in 1995 was one thing, but it would take this game to truly change the rivalry. Alabama built a 13-0 lead against Manning and Graham into the third quarter. But in the final twenty minutes, Tennessee made every break that Alabama had been getting for the last decade, and truly turned the Tide.
After tying the score at 13-13, the Vols appeared to be playing for overtime in the final minutes eighty yards away. But Jay Graham does not play for overtime, as you'll see at the end of this highlight package:
It is arguably the most memorable run in Neyland Stadium history.
Jay Graham was a great, great college tailback. He's the guy that lives on in that special way because all of our memories of him are in orange and white. Tennessee's list of great tailbacks is long and storied and full of NFL greats. But in a big game, I'll take #25. Why not run it every time.
Derek Dooley's journey as Tennessee's Football coach continues into this offseason, with a bitter year behind us and a marriage of hope and anxiety on the horizon. No games can be won until September 1. But the program took a step forward today, and Tennessee fans get the good news that's been so hard to find around here recently.
Welcome home, Jay.