I realize that this is probably going to be one of the things about my love for Tennessee that not a lot of folks can share, so that's why I'm writing it here for a Saturday when our readership is down a bit. But for somebody who is now out of the sports writing business professionally, I look back fondly on my days covering the team.
It was a lifelong dream of mine to be associated with Tennessee football, so when I had the opportunity to cover the team -- albeit objectively as I possibly could -- it was the chance to be close to something I'd always wanted to know the inner-workings of.
The first time around, I covered UT in its heyday during the 1999-2001 seasons. After a hiatus while I was paying my professional dues, I returned for the Lane Kiffin season before ducking out of the industry for good.
There are far too many stories to tell about my days carrying the steno pad and tape recorder, too many dumb questions I asked, great stories I lucked up on, players I interviewed and times I spent during and long, long after games on deadline. But I figured I'd hit a couple high points, anyway.
The first day that I covered football practice for the Daily Beacon way back in 2000. I'd already done some games in '99, but this was my first time working out some daily details. No joke, the first day I was there, chaos unfolded. Albert Haynesworth and Will Ofenheusle got in a tussle -- which wasn't their first. After several pushes, shoves and punches thrown, Haynesworth got so mad that he left the field only to return a few minutes later with a long-handled instrument, swinging it and saying to nobody in particular that he was going to kill a [Fulmerized].
I'll never forget Phillip Fulmer making it to Haynesworth in time to talk the craziness out of his eyes and get him calmed down. Practice was open back then, and when Fulmer met with the media after practice, he made perfectly clear that if any of this appeared in any media the next day, he'd close practice and shut down access. Nobody reported anything. Though it came out later, that was a perfect indication that UT knew then what it took to win, would keep things like that under wraps and handle things in-house. Though the late part of Fulmer's career was marred by inmates running the asylum, he had things under control at that point.
That was an awesome story and a cool one to get to witness firsthand.
When it came to great people, there were no better guys to talk to than Will Overstreet, Jabari Greer, Michael Munoz, Jason Witten, Travis Stephens and Wes Brown. Those guys are far-and-away my favorites. If I needed a money quote, I'd go to Overstreet or Greer. Those guys were excellent. Gibril Wilson and Julian Battle were good for one-liners when you needed them.
My fellow sports reporter buddies [Drew Edwards who works for UTSports, Travis Haney who is at ESPN, Wes Rucker with GoVols247 and Tim Vacek, who now teaches in Knoxville] would always laugh at certain things that players said. While Deon Grant was always colorful and a pretty good quote, he prefaced everything -- answered every question with a "Ah, mo definitely ..." so that became part of our lingo.
Anthony Sessions talked about how much he liked to play linebacker as a speedy safety-sized bullet, saying that he likes to "fly around," which, in his South Georgia accent, sounded more like "fly a rye." He was an awesome character and just a great guy to talk to. Tee Martin was great. Munoz and Scott Wells were great, as was Fred Weary. It was a fun time to cover the team with a lot of colorful characters. When you had to talk to kicker Alex Walls, he was one of the most well-spoken guys you'd want to talk to.
Then, there were plenty of frustrating subjects. Haynesworth was awful to deal with. So was Kelley Washington. Jamal Lewis -- what little I dealt with him -- was tough to handle. John Chavis hated the media and was a bore when you spoke to him. Fulmer could be great ... until there was a loss or a dicey situation, then he clammed up and fell back on needing to look at the film. You'd think he'd have a colorful comment, but then you just realized that he regurgitated the same ol' phrases that became his cliches. I liked him, and I thought he was a genuinely good man, but there was never any excitement covering him.
Then there were idiots. Travis Henry was barely quotable. If you had to talk to him, you'd just cringe internally because you knew you'd never get anything good. Same with Cedric Houston, who simply was just too quiet to ever say much. Jabari Davis was like that as well. Then, there was canned-quote Casey Clausen, who talked like he had a mouth full of marbles.
Kiffin would always say something newsworthy, and Montario Hardesty and Chris Walker were quote machines ... but by that time, talking to players, much like Tennessee's football team, just wasn't the same. It never felt genuine that year because it didn't seem like Tennessee. Kiffin was just different, and his program was different.
I have many memories -- good and bad. There were tons of great games and a few bad ones. Tons of good players and a few bad. Tons of good stories and a few bad. But it gave me a different, unique perspective on UT football, and it's cool to open that history book ever now and again and remember those times.