There were multiple times during his final two years in orange and white when former defensive tackle Wes Brown felt like quitting. The pain in his knees was excruciating to the point that he couldn't practice and could barely play. But with meds coursing through his veins to mute the constant throb of his surgically repaired knees, he hobbled to take his place alongside Dan Williams on the defensive line because the Vols simply had to have him.
Game after game, the Athens, Ala., native would play. Game after game, he'd writhe on the ground in pain, often having to be helped off the field -- following a vicious Ryan Pugh signature chop-block or after simple fatigue from playing so many snaps. Game after game, he returned and continued to make plays.
Brown had entered Knoxville as a heavily recruited four-star defensive end in 2005, but despite playing in double-digit games all four seasons after his redshirt year, the injuries robbed him of his quickness. Depth issues along the defensive front forced him to conclude his career as a vastly undersized defensive tackle. At 6-foot-4, 257 pounds, it wasn't uncommon for Brown to give up 50-60 pounds to the offensive linemen standing in front of him. It also wasn't uncommon for him to beat them, get in the backfield and make plays.
During his career -- and especially in his final two seasons -- Tennessee was dreadful. That was during Phillip Fulmer's final season in 2008, a losing campaign that orchestrated his ouster, and in 2009, when Lane Kiffin roamed the sidelines for a barely competent squad.
None of that mattered to whether or not Brown played. If he could, he did. It didn't matter the score, and it didn't matter the record. Brown was a gamer, and gamers played, gave it all they had and then let the pain set in afterward. He was a soldier, and he felt like he was leaving his men behind if he exited the battle ground of the football field. In his 51 career games, he started 24. He wound up with 77 career tackles, 8.5 for a loss, three sacks and an interception. Those are far from Hall of Fame numbers, but Brown was one of those Vols who will always stand out as one of my favorites.
He understood what it meant to wear the Power T, and it meant everything to him. I feel like he was the epitome of how I'd always envisioned I would respect having the opportunity to play for UT if I hadn't been short, fat, slow and untalented.
If you want to know what playing for the Vols meant to Brown, watch this.
2008 Tennessee Football. Wes Brown Feature (via UTSPORTSoCOM)
Brown once famously gave a fiery pregame speech before UT's '09 epic game against Alabama. You'll unfortunately remember that one as the "Rocky Block" game where all the Vols had to do was have Daniel Lincoln kick a football over the outstretched arms of Julio Jones and penetrating bulk of Terrence Cody for a Vols' upset win over the eventual national champions. As we all know, that didn't happen, and the Vols -- who had no business winning that game, anyway -- went on to a depressing loss.
I fully believe that team played over its head with the burning pulse of Brown's passionate speech pushing them. In that pregame meeting with his teammates, Brown told a story of how his grandfather -- a man he adored and revered -- passed away back in his home of Athens, which is a town on the Tennessee border where the Third Saturday in October gets a bit personal. At the funeral, some Alabama fans shook Brown's hand and said something along the lines of, "Sorry about your grandfather, but Roll Tide." While I'll keep personal feelings to the side here for the purposes of tact, Brown -- who ultimately chose Tennessee over Alabama in his recruitment -- despised Alabama after that, and vowed to beat them.
He famously told his teammates that he was proud to play alongside them for the Vols and had rather lose every game as a Tennessee Vol than win them all as a member of the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Though that finale in Tuscaloosa was far from a storybook conclusion, his career did get its happy ending. During Brown's final home game, he made a remarkable play against Vanderbilt that he'll never forget and one that became the signature play of a winning season. With UT clinging to a 24-16 lead late in the game against the Commodores, VU's quarterback MacKenzi Adams was flushed heavily from the pocket left.
Brown strung out with the play as the clock crept under 10 seconds remaining in the game, and when the Adams frantically flipped the ball out of desperation, it found the arms of Brown. With nothing but green in front of him, Brown rumbled, hobbled and stumbled the 27 yards toward the end zone. A Vanderbilt player clung to him the last 9 yards of the run, but Brown refused to be dragged down. Instead, he dragged the would-be tackler toward the goal line and lunged over for a remarkable pick-six to close his career in Neyland Stadium.
The play was a microcosm of his entire career. He simply could not be ridden down.
I had the pleasure of covering that game for the Huntsville Times, which was Brown's hometown paper. Afterward, I had the opportunity to talk to Wes and his family and see what the touchdown -- and his career in the orange and white -- meant to them all. I wrote one of the best articles I've ever written on that play and on that kid. Though the Internet obviously ate the story, it was pretty overwhelming for somebody whose love for UT matched theirs to get to see it and hear it firsthand.
Not only did Brown cement a win -- those had been very hard to come by in his career and since -- he was dog-piled after the heroic touchdown by basically the entire team, who understood the significance of his score. Though there aren't many great videos of the play on Youtube, you can see it here.
Wes Brown wasn't one of the greatest Vols football players of all-time. He won't be remembered as a legend, and the teams for which he played certainly won't be considered any of the more memorable on the Hill. But, everybody who truly loves a team and knows that team inside and out has players who develop an iconic status for their exploits on the football field.
Vols who come to mind who fit that bill are Bill Duff, Billy Ratliff, Daryl Dickey, Fred White, Scott Wells, and many, many others. These aren't necessarily all-conference types, but they're just absolute gamers who put the team first and become fan favorites because of it.
For me, that player is Wes Brown. He always seemed to make plays, always played through unspeakable pain when his knees were linguine, and he wore his Tennessee jersey with as much pride as anybody before him or anybody after him ever will. He was simply a warrior, and he was a Tennessee Volunteer.
We all have players we think of like that, and it's truly the mark of a great program.