Tennessee running back Tony Thompson played alongside some incredible names in Knoxville. At first, it seemed he'd be the odd man out with elite runners Reggie Cobb and Chuck Webb standing between him and playing time.
As his career unfolded, however, that was far from the case. Thompson became a star throughout a two-year period in 1989-90 when the Vols went 20-3-2 and won a Sugar Bowl over Virginia and the Moores. Thompson's legend was cemented in 1990 when he finished an All-SEC season with a league-leading 1,261 rushing yards and the game-winning score against the Cavaliers.
But that wasn't the beginning of Thompson's fill-in success. In 1988 when Cobb went down, Thompson had 124 rushing yards against Memphis State. Cobb would be missed for good midway through the '89 season when Johnny Majors kicked him off the team for cocaine abuse. So, Thompson became Webb's complement, and when Webb was lost to injury prior to the Vanderbilt game that season, Thompson filled in and rushed for 128 yards.
He was already looked upon as being a dependable fill-in, but with the dynamic duo of Cobb-Webb, no Tennessee fan wanted to see Thompson because that meant those players weren't on the field. As it turned out, Thompson was more than worthy of playing time and would be forced into earning our love.
As we've already discussed, Cobb didn't finish his career because of drug issues. Then, during the second game of the 1990 season in a blowout win against Pacific, the unthinkable happened. I'll never forget what happened. I'd just gotten finished playing in a youth-league football game [a win over Cowan]. I was in the fifth grade. We'd just gotten back in the car and I asked Dad to turn on the Tennessee game.
Within five minutes of him flipping on the game, John Ward was describing how Webb was being helped off the field. He'd torn knee ligaments. His season -- our season -- we figured, was over. Webb was without question good enough to be in the Heisman discussion, and all of a sudden, he was through. The rest of the way home from Winchester, my dad cursed the turf field and Majors for playing Webb in a 55-7 blowout [even though it was early in the game].
Though the Vols went on to have a great season without Webb, who knows if we'd have lost to Alabama and Notre Dame or tied Auburn with Webb AND Thompson in the backfield? Until then, Thompson had filled in nicely at times, but his own career, as Russ Bebb noted, was marred by "injuries, brief stints on defense and long stints on the bench."
Anyway, Tennessee wound up having a great season despite losing Webb. That was thanks largely in part to Thompson, who was inserted and didn't skip a beat, leading the league in rushing. The Lake Wales, Fla., native was a team captain in '90 and the 5-foot-9, 180-pound back led the Vols behind a strong offensive line all season. He wound up with 16 touchdowns as well.
Besides the game-winner against Virginia, his epic game came against Mississippi State. Despite an early fumble, he regrouped for 248 yards and two touchdowns, including an 80-yard scamper. He also had 236 yards and four touchdowns against Vanderbilt before finishing his career with 151 rushing yards against UVA.
He also won the Mickey O'Brien Award for overcoming physical obstacles and making a valuable contribution to the team. He won the Bill Majors Award, too.
Thompson was a true Vol. Like Travis Stephens, he waited his turn and made the most of it when that turn came around. He also led that scrappy bunch of Vols to a Sugar Bowl title. He was one of my childhood favorites, and I remember his contributions to this day.