Feb. 3, 2012
BY ANDREW LENTZ
INDIANAPOLIS -- Somewhere at this moment, someone is dreaming of playing on football's biggest stage, as three former Vols will do Sunday night at Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.
On the heels of National Signing Day, in which aspiring athletes all over the country chose the route that best suits them to reach their dreams, Shaun Ellis, Deon Grant and Jerod Mayo are preparing to live them.
Ellis and Mayo, members of the New England Patriots, and Grant, representing the New York Giants, all chose Tennessee as a means to reach this moment. And all three attained much more than the opportunity to say, "I'm going to Disney World."
"I think playing at Tennessee, it prepared us for more than just winning," Grant said. "I think that was just natural. That was ingrained in us so early when we first signed there.
"I think they prepared us more being great with our education and also being men, going out there, being successful and not getting in a lot of trouble. I have to say I took that more than anything from signing with Tennessee."
"It makes you grow up," added Ellis. "It makes you become more responsible, and it challenges you. You become a man (at Tennessee). The tradition at Tennessee definitely speaks for itself. Overall, you want to play in the SEC, and you want to play at one of the best schools that has done it for a long time."
Ellis, Grant and Mayo played pivotal roles in Tennessee's tradition. Ellis and Grant were teammates on UT's 1998 national championship team and played on a pair of SEC Championship squads (1997 and 1998). Mayo, a future first-round pick, helped the Vols reach the SEC Championship Game in 2007.
Individually, all three left their mark, giving their all for a program that has returned the favor and then some.
Grant earned All-American and All-SEC first-team honors in 1999 after intercepting nine passes, which tied for the NCAA lead that season. Ellis was also an All-SEC first-team selection in 1999 after wreaking havoc in the backfield with the fifth-most tackles for loss in a single season by a UT player (19.5). Eight years later, Mayo found himself on the All-SEC first-team roster.
"Those guys (former UT coaches Phillip Fulmer and John Chavis) really paved the way for me as far as becoming a professional," Mayo said. "They take football serious down there, studying film, breaking film and doing things like that. Also, becoming a man. Those guys really had a major influence on my life."
Although Tennessee has helped produce 329 NFL draft choices -- most among any SEC school -- signing a National Letter of Intent to play on Rocky Top doesn't ensure a spot in the league.
Still, Tennessee's program encourages the work ethic to help decrease the gap between dream and reality.
That was the case for Ellis, who grew up in Anderson, S.C.
"Just the overall competition that was there when I came in, and how we went about our business and worked," Ellis said. "We always prepared for a tough day...We responded. We had great leadership on that team. The physicality we practiced with every single day transitioned over to the NFL."
The Vols were at their peak when Grant was wearing orange, and one of UT's best defensive backs of all-time believes Tennessee is headed back to the top with head coach Derek Dooley.
"They're definitely headed in the right direction as far as signing the coach that they have there now because he seems like a genuine coach that definitely cares about the players first and wants to win," Grant said. "That's where it starts at. He reminds me of Coach Fulmer when he was there. He had our best interests at heart first. Coach Dooley is showing that now."
There's a reason that Sunday will mark the 20th Super Bowl in the last 21 that has featured a former Vol, and it all started with a dream.