KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Antone Davis is settling into his new role as the coordinator of the Vol For Life program with the Tennessee football team and he feels right at home, back with the Orange and White.
"I have always wanted to come back to Tennessee and this is a great opportunity for me to be back and it is a great role," said Davis, who was hired to work as the leader of the football team's life skills program on Aug. 28. "So, I am excited to be back." A Vol legend in his own right, Davis has taken a long route back to the place he called home from 1987-90 while starring on the offensive line with the Vols. Davis has been charged with overseeing the VFL Program which is a comprehensive player support and character education program.
According to head coach Derek Dooley, the ultimate goal of the VFL program is to reshape the culture of the program into one that produces not only great players and teams, but even greater men.
"I was just looking for a change," said Davis, who earned consensus All-American honors with the Vols as a senior in 1990. "I spent five years in the restaurant business and that is not the business I need to be in. I have a lot to offer these guys from a standpoint of what I have done on the field and off. I think it has really ended up being the perfect way to get me back here." An NFL first-round selection by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1991, Davis went on to play seven years at the highest level of professional football which gives him invaluable experience that he can relay to the current Tennessee players.
"I have kept a good relationship with a lot of players from over the years," he said. "Guys know me, I think they respect me and I respect them. We are all the same family and know there is a clear voice and a better connection that says, `Hey we want you back.' If guys do want to come back and do want to come to practice, not only do we need them but they are welcomed back."
In addition to his prominent days with the Vols and in the NFL, Davis returned to the national scene with his appearance on the reality TV show, "The Biggest Loser," where he finished as the runner-up. Davis dropped an astounding 202 pounds, as he saw his weight go from 447 to 245 by the show's finale in December 2011.
"The show experience was good," said Davis. "I really leaned on what I learned (at Tennessee) to help me with the show. The things that the players will benefit more from that I experienced on the show are determination to succeed, determination to focus and, no matter how far you are backed into a corner, you can come out of it."
BEING A VOL FOR LIFE
In taking over the VFL program, Davis has been entrusted with teaching the current Vols what it means to be a Vol. The four-year VFL curriculum focuses on the often-overlooked personal growth of the student-athlete, encompassing the following topics: character education, personal finance, life skills, career development, spiritual growth, community service, mental conditioning, personal branding, and navigating the social media landscape.
"I think (the VFL program) can grow, I think it should grow," said Davis. "I think this is the element that a lot of people miss. Coaches are so busy, we have limited time with the players. Who handles all the other stuff. When I turned pro I was dying for someone to talk to about how this is going to be, what is it going to really be like, how am I going to deal with my money, who do I trust, who do I talk to.
"Now these players have a full-time resource that they can go to because I have been through every single step that they are going to go through. That covers all other sports, all of these kids. The coaches are very busy and they don't have time to do the stuff that I am dedicated to do because I have the time just to do that."
The players at Tennessee have a constant reminder of Davis' legacy at UT, one they see every day. As an All-American, Davis' picture is emblazoned on the wall at the Neyland-Thompson Complex just outside the football locker room.
"My picture is on the wall so I think they have seen that." said Davis. "A lot of people watched the television show and I think that a lot of the players know that. They still have to take the time to get to know who the person is and who the man is. So I look forward to that and rightfully so."
Davis is looking forward to building relationships with the current Vols where he can share his life story and help them build their own tales all under the orange umbrella.
"They don't know me as a person, they haven't sat down and talked to me so I didn't expect them to know a whole lot, other than what they have seen around," Davis said. "At the same time we are part of the same fraternity, they are going to welcome me in and we have mutual respect already."
With 120-plus players in the football program, Davis knows it will take many meetings for the players to get comfortable with him. That is his first mission as the VFL Coordinator.
"Short term - it really is just to get to know the guys," said Davis. "I want to present myself as a resource to them and let them know there is somebody that they can reach/touch daily that played here, that has history, that has an understanding of what the tradition is."
He is ready to serve in any role that benefits the players' well-being.
"So short term, just getting to know them and just explaining to the guys what it is supposed to be like and what it is supposed to look like. Honestly, Coach Dooley already has that under control. Long term - just infiltrate these guys lives and be around them, be a resource for them and hopefully direct them in so many ways off the field that they need to be directed."
Being removed from campus for more than two decades won't be an obstacle for Davis. He is ready to connect the past and the present.
"I think it is important to say that the tradition is still here and the bloodline is still here," Davis said. "It is huge for me to have played under Coach Majors and trained under Coach Fulmer and to understand what that is all about and to carry that forward. I think that is the bloodline, that is the tradition the guys what to know about. What was it like? How did you build a program? What is it based on? Why is Tennessee, Tennessee?"
Davis will make sure they know why.