Before Tyler Bray, Good Ainge and Bad Ainge, Iceman, Tee Martin's rings and a pair of Heisman runners-up, there was Andy Kelly. At the controls of the Tennessee offense during the genesis of the program's greatest era was not an NFL prototype, but a local kid from Dayton.
I've said this before a number of times on this site, and it will always be the best way I can personally describe Kelly's contribution to Tennessee Football: when I was a kid, I wanted to be him when I grew up.
Andy Kelly was a starting quarterback at Tennessee from 1989-1991. I was 8-10 years old. And as he helped raise the program to national prominence again, he made a generation full of boys pretend to be him in our backyards, #8 jerseys ragged from so much use.
Kelly was surrounded by some of the best talent the program has ever seen on offense, and that certainly didn't hurt. Over the course of his career he would hand off to Chuck Webb and Tony Thompson while throwing downfield to Carl Pickens and Alvin Harper. He was protected by a pair of offensive linemen taken in the Top 10 of the NFL Draft. The Vols had all the right tools and the right amount of balance offensively to allow Kelly to run the offense to perfection. He didn't need the best arm or the fastest legs. He was among the best ever at making the most of the talent (which was considerable) and the moment (of which there were many) along the way to championships for Tennessee.
As a starter Kelly finished his UT career at 24-5-2, the third best winning percentage in school history for quarterbacks who started in 3+ years. He is fifth all-time on UT's passing leaderboard with 6,397 yards, behind Manning, Clausen, Ainge, and Bray.
Sometimes it didn't take much. After coming on in the second half of 1989 and pushing the Vols to the SEC Championship in a three-way tie with Alabama and Auburn, Kelly went just 9 of 23 in the Cotton Bowl against #10 Arkansas. But one of those completions went for 84 yards to Anthony Morgan, and the Vols got a 31-27 win to finish the year 11-1. But in 1990 Kelly was often at his best against the best competition. Against eventual National Champion Colorado, Kelly threw for 368 yards and a pair of touchdowns in a 31-31 tie. The Vols didn't much need him thanks to an avalanche of second half turnovers by the Gators in Tennessee's 45-3 win. He did struggle against Alabama and Auburn, but against #1 Notre Dame Kelly was spectacular: 399 yards and a pair of touchdowns on a magical afternoon that finished just short when he was intercepted in the end zone on the final drive. But he still led the Vols to their second straight SEC Championship.
His finest moment came against Virginia in the Sugar Bowl. The Cavs were undefeated and ranked first in the nation until their quarterback Shawn Moore was injured. Moore returned for the bowl game and Virginia built a 16-0 halftime lead. The Vols made it 16-3 in the third, then unleashed a fourth quarter for the ages. Kelly went 14 of 18 for 143 of his 273 yards in the final fifteen minutes. Down 16-3, the Vols scored a touchdown, then Virginia kicked a field goal. Then the Vols scored a touchdown, then Virginia kicked a field goal. Then Kelly led the Vols downfield and Tony Thompson cashed in as the final seconds ticked away for a memorable 23-22 victory in UT's last appearance in the Sugar Bowl.
For an encore in his senior season? Kelly was the man at the wheel during The Miracle at South Bend, going for 259 yards and three touchdowns, including the go-ahead score on the screen pass to Aaron Hayden. He would finish his career as Tennessee's all-time passing leader in every major category.
He then spent fifteen years in Arena Football, and when he retired he was the career leader in every major passing category for the entire league.
Your childhood always makes for a better story. Mine chose to see less of Kelly's rough outings against Alabama and more of the big numbers in big games. And most importantly, that those big games ended in victories more often than not. Kelly is the only Vol quarterback of the modern era with a pair of SEC Championship rings.
For my generation, growing up in East Tennessee Andy Kelly made you believe you too could put on the orange and white and lead the Vols to victory. And even as an adult, Kelly remains in the conversation for my favorite Vol of all-time. And he's still with the program, serving as a sideline reporter for the Vol Network, a great way to help make the past part of the present.
Andy Kelly won a pair of SEC Championships, rewrote UT's passing record book, and was a part of a ton of memorable victories. But more than any of that, Andy Kelly was the one who made me say, "When I grow up, I want to be the quarterback for Tennessee."