Feb. 22, 2005
In the late summer of 1968, Ray Nettles came to the University of Tennessee from Jacksonville, Fla., as a 19-year-old freshman football player.
Part of a 38-member recruiting class, he began a journey that would lead him to stardom at Tennessee (1969-71), followed by a distinguished Canadian Football League career from 1972-80 and finally as a CFL Hall of Fame and Museum selection this year.
Nettles is the third former Vol to be inducted into the CFL Hall of Fame, joining defensive tackle Dick Huffman (1942, 46, inducted 1987) and quarterback Condredge Holloway (1972-74, inducted 1989).
Nearly a quarter of a century after his last game in 1980, the memories are still fresh in his mind.
"It's my greatest football honor," said Nettles. "It's overwhelming to be associated with such outstanding athletes. It's a highlight to have been associated with the University of Tennessee."
Recruited by Jack Kile, Nettles was part of the continued resurgence of Tennessee football in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when the Vols won nearly every time out and seemed to find new ways to win each week. You could always find Nettles' orange jersey No. 58 close to the football.
"He was always one of my favorite players," said Bill Battle, his coach at Tennessee in 1970 and 1971. "He had more energy, enthusiasm and love for the game than any player I ever coached. He was a tough guy, who led by going full speed in practice and in the games. He made practice fun and increased the tempo and intensity. It's a rare breed who can do that."
He was part of a solid class that season, coming to Knoxville with other future Vols, including Tom Bennett of Somerville, Joe Balthrop of Clarksville, Jackie Walker of Knoxville, Curt Watson of Crossville, Carl Johnson of Palatka, Fla., Sonny Leach of Raleigh, N.C., Bobby Majors of Sewanee, Phil Pierce of Athens, Gary Theiler of Louisville, Ky., and Phillip Fulmer of Winchester. That class produced All-America selections Walker and Majors, All-SEC selections Watson (three times), Majors and Walker (each twice) and... Ray Nettles. Not to mention producing a head football coach at Tennessee.
"We were close-knit team," Nettles said, speaking of his time at Tennessee. "It was a real team effort led by coach Herzbrun and coach Battle. We all looked to each other to do our jobs to be successful. Coach Herzbrun got the best out of us and made us depend on each other."
Nettles was listed as a center at 6-0, 190, on that 1968 freshman roster, but made his mark as a linebacker in his three varsity seasons, playing at 6-0, 220. He led the 1971 team in tackles with 108 solos and 66 assists for 174 total. He had 15 solo tackles in the 1971 Alabama game, 22 total.
He played behind Jack Reynolds as a sophomore in 1969, learning everything he could from "Hacksaw," an All-America selection that season. He would start the next two seasons and would make his imprint felt on the gridiron and on opposing players.
The Vol defensive units in those years were record-setting groups, forcing an SEC record 36 turnovers in 1970 and setting NCAA records for interceptions (25), yardage off interceptions (782), yards per interception (31.3) and touchdowns off interception returns (7), all a year later. All these records still stand.
The one constant of that time in Vol history was that Nettles was generally there to congratulate a defensive teammate whenever a teammate scored. That welcome consisted of a flying tackle administered by Nettles, followed by a pile of orange shirted teammates.
"Ray started that and was the inspiration for it," Battle said. "He was always the first one there."
Nettles said he thought it would be the "biggest thing in the world for a defensive player to score."
There weren't that many chances, he said. "I wanted to be there when it happened, and most of the time I was."
Like Reynolds, Nettles had some personality and some pizzaz to him, being pictured in the 1972 football brochure wearing an Arkansas hog hat after a narrow 14-13 triumph in the 1971 Liberty Bowl.
"It was something out of the ordinary," said Nettles, "The fans were giving us a hard time. We were on the bus going to the game, and I got off the bus, took the hat and got back on. I still have it. It was my last game at Tennessee, maybe, I thought, my last game ever."
After leaving Tennessee, Nettles had been a sixth-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in the NFL draft, but decided to join the B.C. Lions where he ultimately spent nine seasons in the CFL.
After playing in the Coaches' All-America game in Lubbock, Texas, he joined the Lions at the beginning of the 1972 season. Following a short time at outside linebacker, Nettles became the team's starting middle linebacker, becoming known as much for his colorful off-field personality as for his on-field feistiness.
He was named to the Western Football Conference's All-Star teams each of his first three years with B.C., making the CFL All-Star squad in 1972 and 1973. In 1973 he also won the Schenley Award as the CFL's outstanding lineman after winning the DeMarco-Becket Memorial Trophy as the WFC's top lineman. A series of injuries slowed him in 1975, a year in which he was named a co-winner of B.C.'s Dietrich Most Inspirational Player award, and he still recorded 112 tackles.
Nettles was traded to the Toronto Argonauts in 1977. In addition to being named Toronto's outstanding defensive player, he was an Eastern Football Conference All-Star in 1977, and won the honor again in 1978 as a member of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats.
Nettles completed his 122-game career with a series of one-year stints with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (1978), Ottawa Rough Riders (1979) and Calgary Stampeders (1980).
Nettles now lives in his native Jacksonville with wife, Bonnie.
"I thought I could compete anywhere, no question about it," he said. "It's a matter of being in the right place at the right time. A lot of good things have happened to be in athletics. It was my duty to take things as far as I could."
The Canadian Football Hall of Fame is a good destination for the old Tennessee linebacker who created so many memories during his career at Tennessee and in Canada.
Hamilton, Ontario -- Former Tennessee Vol linebacker Ray Nettles, was among five players named for induction into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame and Museum on Feb. 16.
Joining Nettles in the player's category were Rod Connop, Ed George and Willie Pless, named the CFL's top defensive player five times and the league's all-time leader in tackles. Gord Currie was also be inducted as a builder.
Nettles wanted to play professional football as a linebacker after culminating his football career at the University of Tennessee in 1972. A native of Jacksonville, Florida, born August 1, 1949, Nettles had been a sixth-round pick of the Miami Dolphins in the NFL draft, but decided to join the B.C. Lions where he ultimately spent nine seasons in the CFL.
After playing a college coaches' All-Star game in the U.S. he joined the Lions at the beginning of the 1972 season. Following a short stint playing outside linebacker, Nettles became their starting middle linebacker, becoming known as much for his colorful off-field personality as for his on-field feistiness.
He was named to the Western Football Conference's All-Star teams each of his first three years with B.C., making the CFL All-Star squad in 1972 and 1973. In 1973 he also won the Schenley Award as the CFL's oustanding lineman after winning the DeMarco-Becket Memorial Trophy as the WFC's top lineman. A series of injuries slowed him in 1975, when he was named a co-winner of B.C.'s Dietrich Most Inspirational Player award, but he still recorded 112 tackles.
Nettles, 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds, was traded to the Toronto Argonauts in 1977. In addition to being named Toronto's outstanding defensive player he was an Eastern Football Conference All-Star in 1977, and won the honour again in 1978 as a member of the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Nettles completed his 122-game career with a series of one-year stints with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats (1978), Ottawa Rough Riders (1979) and Calgary Stampeders (1980).
Pless began his CFL career with Toronto in 1986 but was dealt to the B.C. Lions four years later. He joined the Edmonton Eskimos in '91 and spent eight seasons there before finishing his career with Saskatchewan in 1999.
Pless was named a CFL all-star 11 times and captured his first outstanding defensive player honour in 1992 before winning it four straight years (1994-'97).
Connop spent 16 seasons with the Edmonton Eskimos, who drafted him in the first round, ninth overall, in 1982. After missing two starts because of injury in 1983, Connop played 210 consecutive contests. He was a CFL all-star six times and captured three Grey Cup titles before retiring in 1998 as the Eskimos all-time leader in games played (303).
George spent seven CFL seasons as an offensive lineman with Montreal and Hamilton, starting in 1970. George earned all-star nominations as both a tackle and guard before heading to the NFL in 1975. He returned to Canada in 1978 with Hamilton, spending his final two pro seasons with the Ticats.
Currie began his coaching career at Regina's Balfour Tech high school in 1950, at one stretch leading his team to 40 straight victories. Under Currie, Balfour won eight Saskatchewan titles. After leading Balfour won its sixth straight provincial high school championship in 1965, Currie joined the Regina Rams junior squad. He guided the Rams to an Alberta Junior League championship, eight Manitoba-Saskatchewan league titles, seven Western Canadian junior championships and six national crowns, the last coming in Currie's final coaching appearance in 1976.
NETTLES HONORS AND AWARDS:
- Schenley Outstanding Lineman: 1973
- Western Football Conference outstanding rookie: 1972
- Western Football Conference outstanding lineman: 1973
- CFL All-Star: 1972, 1973
- Western Football Conference All-Star: 1972, 1973, 1974
- Eastern Football Conference All-Star: 1977, 1978
- B.C. Lions outstanding rookie: 1972
- B.C. Lions outstanding defensive player: 1972, 1973
- Toronto Argonauts outstanding defensive player: 1977