The pictures come back to me all the time, even if ever briefly in my mind.
A trashed, goal post-less Neyland Stadium field flooded with Tennessee football fans celebrating an overtime win over hated Florida. The remarkable goal-line stand against Auburn. Jamal Lewis being helped off the field following his knee injury in the same game. Peerless Price erasing all doubt against Alabama with a 100-yard kickoff return. Clint Stoerner, mid-stumble and fumble. Tee Martin completing 23 consecutive passes against South Carolina. The second-half surge to get the Vols past Mississippi State in the SEC Championship Game. The beautiful bomb from Martin to Price in the national championship game. Dwayne Goodrich's 54-yard pick-six. Phillip Fulmer hoisting the crystal trophy.
How do you write about all that?
With everything that happened that season, it's difficult to believe the Vols went 13-0 and beat Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl by the score of 23-16. It seemed even more improbable going into the season as UT had to replace all-time great Peyton Manning. It perhaps seemed less likely after a win in the Carrier Dome over Syracuse where the undefeated season chance was almost immediately erased.
So many times, the Vols were down. A few times, they were even beat. But somehow, that team always found a way to win. They were super talented, they were resilient and persevered, they had some of the greatest leaders in Tennessee history, and they just won football game after football game.
As a true freshman at UT, I absorbed it all, enjoyed it all, relished it all. To be there during that time and experience a game day in Knoxville, to be present as it was happening ... you could almost feel you were witnessing something special. Not only was it special to me because I was away from home for the first time, doing things like camping out in line for Florida tickets [I had 50-yard line seats], partying on the Strip, and experiencing the star-struck 17-year-old stuff like seeing football players in my classes. But, even so, I took it for granted. I simply figured since UT had been so good recently, the Vols would continue to be there, and it was inevitable that we'd win more national championships while I was in school.
Man, was I wrong. It's been hard times lately, but we've always got the glory days to look back on.
And those were them. That Tennessee defense was incredible under John Chavis, boasting players like Al Wilson, Raynoch Thompson, Darwin Walker, Shaun Ellis, Dwayne Goodrich, Deon Grant, Fred White and Eric Westmoreland. The offense had Tee Martin, Jamal Lewis, Travis Henry, Cedrick Wilson, Shawn Bryson, Chad Clifton, Cosey Coleman and Jermaine Copeland. Of course, Phillip Fulmer, John Chavis and David Cutcliffe led the charge.
The team -- much like Auburn three years ago -- just got better and looked more like a team of destiny as the season went on. Early on, there were concerns. Martin completed just 9-of-26 passes for 143 yards against Syracuse, and UT needed a pass interference penalty and a last-second 27-yard field goal by Jeff Hall to win.
Florida's Collins Cooper missed a game-tying field goal in overtime even though UT mustered just 235 offensive yards. The Vols defense came through as they forced four fumbles, two of which were caused by Al Wilson.
After dismantling Houston, the Vols went to Auburn and won 17-9 in a game that was clinched by a goal-line stand and a Shaun Elllis fumble return for a touchdown. Dad and I had tickets and watched that game from the stands at Jordan-Hare. The fourth-down stop on the goal line stand happened right in front of us.
The Vols then went to Athens and dismantled the Bulldogs 22-3. A bunch of buddies and I went down between the hedges [my first trip down there] to witness the win. As we were walking to our seats, grown men barked at us. After the Vols drubbed that tail, we did the barking as they left early.
Henry ran for 113 yards and two scores againt the Tide, and Price's 100-yard touchdown return secured a 35-18 win. Martin set the NCAA record for consecutive completions in the South Carolina win, and the Vols followed that game up with a win over UAB.
Then it was time for the battle of unbeatens as Arkansas came to Knoxville and jumped out to a 21-3 lead. But UT continued to chip away until Billy Ratliff pushed Hogs guard Brandon Burlsworth back into Clint Stoerner, causing him to fumble and Henry gaining all the needed yards on his way to 197 as the Vols won 28-24 in improbable fashion.
Kentucky and Vanderbilt posed no threat, and the Vols were undefeated in the SEC Championship Game, a game they trailed Mississippi State 14-10 in the fourth quarter before two touchdowns within 32 seconds led to that win. Then came Florida State, and Tennessee took care of the Seminoles to win their first championship since 1951.
It was all pretty remarkable. And it's hard to believe that it was 15 years ago.
It's time Tennessee got back to where it belongs.