100 Days of Vols #21 -- The Great 21

USA TODAY Sports

When Tennessee passed from the very capable hands of Andy Kelly to the gun-slinging Western North Carolina native, Heath Shuler helped take the Vols to the next level.

Within the paragraphs of these blog entries and the sacred walls of our Big Orange memories, we're supposed to wax poetic about things that make us love our great Volunteers. The most special of these that I've written thus far is the 1986 Sugar Bowl/Sweet Taste of Sugar entry, because that game and season were the instruments on which I cut the teeth of my Vols fandom.

I feel similarly sentimental and strong when it comes to Heath Shuler.

While I was actively and avidly following Tennessee football during the days of Andy Kelly and even Jeff Francis, the rise of the 6-foot-2, 215-pound Shuler to prominence paralleled with my coming-of-age as a sports fan. When Shuler's miraculous two-week coming-out party occurred during the early part of the 1992 football season, I was on the cusp of 13 years old; advanced in age enough to understand and appreciate what I was witnessing.

I was old enough that toys didn't mean much to me anymore. I was young enough where girls didn't really mean that much to me, either. Pretty much at that time, my life was sports. That time really began the climb to my personal apex of fanhood that culminated from 1995-1998 with an Atlanta Braves world championship and Tennessee Volunteers national championship.

As a long-suffering Braves fan, I was a year removed from witnessing the worst-to-first 1991 baseball season that really heightened my senses as a sports fan and opened up the passages of emotional euphoria that can come with winning important games.

Now, with football season looming -- a season many believed would be a difficult one for the Vols -- I had reached the point of my life where I was waking up early Saturday morning to listen to "Coach's Coffee" on WYTM-FM out of Fayetteville, Tenn., discuss the previous Friday night's eventual 5A state champion Lincoln County Falcons football game, and I was keeping the station on the dial to listen to "Leonard's Losers," to see what ol' Leonard had to say about the upcoming day's SEC football games.

I'll never forget hearing Leonard preview the '92 Vols game against No. 14-ranked Georgia, talking about how long a day it would be for the Vols. Instead, a young, dynamic sophomore quarterback by the name of Heath Shuler led Tennessee to a come-from-behind, 34-31 victory over the Dawgs, which was punctuated by an improbable 4th-and-14 play on the game-winning drive that covered 22 yards to Ronald Davis down to the UGA 18 in a game in which UT forced six turnovers.

Shuler capped that 80-yard drive with a 3-yard touchdown keeper with 50 seconds left to pull out the win -- the first of two huge wins by interim coach Phillip Fulmer that would ultimately lead to him controversially replacing Johnny Majors, who missed the first part of that season for heart surgery.

"We had just gone 80 yards on our previous scoring drive, so we were all confident we could go the distance," said Shuler, who had 233 yards and ran for two touchdowns in his second career start. "We knew we could get it done."

The next week, Shuler and the Vols got it done again, stunned fourth-ranked Florida 31-14 in a driving rain at Neyland. Shuler threw for a touchdown and ran for two more, piling up the kind of numbers and swagger that would eventually transform him into a Volunteers legend.

All UT fans pretty much know what transpired later in the season. Sitting at 5-0 and ranked fourth in the nation, UT fell three times in consecutive weeks -- 25-24 to unranked Arkansas, 17-10 to eventual natioanl champion Alabama and 24-23 to Steve Taneyhill and the South Carolina Gamecocks -- to put the final nail in Majors' coffin and fall out of the SEC Championship picture. Shuler muddled through some inconsistency during that forgettable stretch, for sure.

When the national spotlight shined on Shuler during the Hall of Fame Bowl against Boston College, he became a household name, setting the stage for the next incredible season. Though Shuler couldn't beat Alabama, he directed the top offense in Tennessee history in 1993, piling up an average of more than 440 yards and 39 points per game. He passed for 2,353 yards and 25 touchdowns, while bulldozing his way to being a force on the ground. Basically, he was Tim Tebow before Tim Tebow -- except he had a better arm.

He bypassed his senior season for the NFL, getting drafted third overall by the Washington Redskins. I'll never forget grabbing up every one of his football cards, buying a throwback #5 Redskins jersey and cursing Norv Turner at every turn for platooning him for Gus Frerotte. Between Turner's ignorance, Shuler not being able to fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants like he did in college and a bum foot that would finish him early, Shuler became one of the biggest draft busts in NFL history. But nothing can sully his Tennessee legend status.

It's easy to forget about Shuler because his successor was Peyton Manning -- arguably the greatest Vol of all-time. But for those of us who watched him, it isn't a stretch to say he's perhaps the greatest athlete to ever play the position for UT. Between his laser-rocket arm, toughness and solid wheels, he was able to do it all. He also had a knack for carrying Tennessee to huge wins. While the Vols were really, really good before he came, Shuler was the first real nationally-known Tennessee quarterback since Condredge Holloway.

[Editorial note: While Will and I have had various conversations about the similarities in how we were raised, I couldn't help but laughing out loud when I did a Google search for Heath Shuler and stumbled across this article he'd written. When you read it, note the similarities throughout. It's uncanny. It's like we were from the same household. Literally, the stuff about the No. 5 jersey was NOT copied. Our childhoods simply mirrored one another from a distance. I wrote everything you've read prior to reading it.]

Kelly was an exceptional quarterback, one who was regionally recognized, beloved within the state but was really unheralded and largely unknown nationally. Shuler ushered in a new era of Tennessee football -- becoming a player whose name was on the tips of every national analyst in the country. Peyton Manning solidified the national brand on his way to becoming an icon, and Tee Martin took us the entire distance to a national championship in 1998. But Shuler was a pioneer who blazed his trail across the Smoky Mountains from Bryson City, N.C., to Neyland Stadium and into our Saturday television sets.

His legacy at Tennessee doesn't include championships. It didn't net a Heisman Trophy or anything. Instead, Shuler's presence greased the skids during a nasty time for our program. And while the Majors divorce and subsequent rise of Fulmer would be a ragged scar on the face of Tennessee that would never really heal, the residual fallout nationally was minimal because of the wins Shuler produced.

To this day, I insist Shuler is my second-favorite Vol ever behind Al Wilson. That's not a knock on Peyton Manning, who I love dearly. It's just because Shuler escalated my Tennessee love to a fever-pitch. He made me the Big Orange Crazy Person I am today. And he'll forever hold a special place in my heart for doing so.

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