June 14, 2014
By Brian Rice KNOXVILLE, Tenn.
KNOXVILLE, Tenn.-- Father's Day is an occasion that celebrates the bonds that fathers build with their children. Often, sports become a strong part of that bond, with fathers passing on their love for sports and teams to the sons and daughters that look up to them.
For five Tennessee freshmen, the bond with their fathers and the link to their chosen sport goes even deeper, down to the jersey they will wear and the legacy they will leave.
Dillon Bates, Elliott Berry, Evan Berry, Neiko Creamer and Todd Kelly, Jr. all come to campus at the University of Tennessee as second-generation Volunteers, each following in their fathers' footsteps in Orange & White. The similarities between them are many, their stories with common themes.
Each was born long after their father's career at Tennessee had concluded, most after the cleats had been hung up for the final time. None were pushed toward the sport, but each father helped son grow their talents when the sport became a passion. And when the elite level of talent each displayed developed into the reality of playing major college football, they all were encouraged to make their own decision.
All five ended up in that same orange jersey.
FINDING THEIR WAY
For Kelly, the pull of that color showed early on.
"It's very special to me," Kelly said of wearing the same orange jersey as his father, Todd Kelly, Sr., an All-SEC defensive end at Tennessee. "He's the reason I started playing football. Growing up, we looked at pictures and highlight videos of him and seeing him in that Vol orange made me think that I wanted to be like him, and hopefully I will be."
Creamer developed a love for college football with his dad Andre, a defensive back and punt returner from 1984-87.
"Growing up watching college football, watching football period, the biggest thing in my mind was my dad, because that's who I looked up to," Creamer said. "When I was old enough to realize that he was a Tennessee Volunteer, I was like `Wow, that's really cool.' I began to watch the program up and seeing the players that came out of the program, I realized how the strong the tradition that Tennessee Football had is."
Gathering with his dad's old teammates to watch game film gave him a deeper appreciation of his dad's accomplishments as a Volunteer.
"He had old film that I used to watch to see how the team was back then," Creamer said. "His teammates that he's still close with are like my Godfathers, so I wanted to see what they were talking about. I didn't really know what I was looking at, I was just watching my father, but now that I look back, I watch and see how they played, the way football was then."
BONDS FORGED ON THE FOOTBALL FIELD
As they grew, the bond between fathers and sons jumped from the living room to the playing field. James Berry, a running back at UT from 1978-81, coached his sons Eric, now with the Kansas City Chiefs, Elliott and Evan in youth football in Fairburn, Georgia. Elliott Berry credits the direction of his dad from a young age for the success of he and his brothers.
"Dad was my coach all the way up until I was 14," he said. "It means a lot, not too many people get the chance to have their dad coach them. I think it made us better players because he was harder on my brothers and I, and I feel like we benefited from that a lot."
Bill Bates, a UT safety from 1979-82 and a longtime special teams ace for the Dallas Cowboys, also coached his three sons growing up and in high school. Graham was a letterman at Arkansas State from 2008-11 while Hunter played for Northwestern from 2008-12. Now Dillon begins his career at UT this fall.
"We always had the choice whether we wanted to play football or another sport or any other activities," Dillon Bates said of his brothers' experiences." Most of us took the same path, but he was a big help coaching, giving us tips. Football was always a subject in our house, SportsCenter was always on the TV. He helped a lot in my football IQ and really laying the game out for me."
The senior Bates was able to bring his NFL coaching experience to the table in his sons' development. Following his career, Bates spent time working for the Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars before taking an active role with his sons' high school.
"He was always there after practice to talk about it, to talk about what we could improve, just the little things to work on each day to make us better," Bates said. "There was never a time where he was demanding me to do anything, he was just always there to give me a little push to be better at the sport. He was never pushing me to it, I was pushing him to help me."
The relationships all started in the backyard, a place that Kelly remembers specifically.
"We went out to toss the ball, I was probably about five years old, and I caught it," he said. "So he was like `Maybe you can play a little bit.'"
The early evaluation of Todd Kelly, Sr. was correct. And it was underscored as he stood on the sideline as a youth league coach in Knoxville, where he watched as his son scored four touchdowns in his first organized football game.
"When that happened, he knew something was to come in the future."
When that future came, Todd Kelly, Jr. knew where his dad wanted him to play football, but he never said it. He helped his son walk through the recruiting process, accompanying him on visits across the country.
"He didn't know I was going to be a division one football player," Kelly said of his father's thoughts early in his high school career. "Once he figured that out, he didn't want to put pressure on me. Everywhere we went, there was something different about the schools. I knew where he wanted me to be, but at the same time, he wanted me to make the best decision for me and it ended up that way."
Just as Kelly didn't feel pressure for Tennessee, Neiko Creamer didn't even feel pressure to play the sport.
"I was a basketball player growing up," Creamer said. "I only played football because my dad was a coach, so I knew the game. Once I got older, I fell in love with the game. But he never put pressure on me to play football."
A LEGACY TO BUILD UPON
With the lessons taught, the shared bond of coming to play for Tennessee could be seen as the culmination of all the fathers helped to build with the sons. But that's not the way the sons see it. Now is the time for the lessons to pay off. It's not pressure to uphold the family name, it's the edge to keep pushing on.
"It gives me more motivation to follow in the footsteps and play at the same ability that he had," Bates said. "It gives me something to shoot for and work toward."
For the Berrys, who saw Eric star in his three seasons at Tennessee from 2007-09, the orange jersey brings with it the opportunity to strengthen the family bond, just as their brother's time at UT did.
"It means lot to us to be able to have those memories with him," Elliott Berry said of his father. "It's one of those things that you have that is passed down from generation to generation, it's cool to be a part of that."
Later this year, the fathers will see their sons go through the same Tennessee traditions that they helped build. The first game in Neyland will be emotional, from the Vol Walk to the first run through the "T." It will surely be an stirring moment for the fathers and the sons.
"I don't know how he's going to feel," Creamer said of his father seeing his first run through the "T." "It might bring memories for him. I know he's proud of me and that will be a great feeling for him."
"I want to see the look on his face," Bates said of his father as he takes that first run through the Pride of the Southland Marching Band. "I know he'll be proud. I'm looking forward to the journey."
Kelly made sure the family pride was visible to all every time he pulls on the jersey.
"I'm going to take pride in having "Kelly Jr." on the back of my jersey," he said. "I told them to put the "Jr." on there so everyone knows I'm a legacy and I'm here to bring Tennessee back to where it was when he was here."
And when the journey is done, his name and the names of all the newest Tennessee Volunteers will be added to the Letterman's Wall outside the Neyland-Thompson Sports Complex. The structure features the name of every Tennessee letterman in every sport in the history of Tennessee athletics. It's a feature that stuck out to Creamer from the start.
"It was cool to see that, knowing that I'm a member of Team 118 and he played 30 years ago, but we'll both be up there," he said of seeing the wall for the first time. "I can prolong the legacy."