Sept. 16, 2011
BY JOHN PAINTER
Travis Stephens knows a thing or two about being an underdog.
He was a sometimes forgotten running back on his own teams, biding time behind future NFL stars Jamal Lewis and Travis Henry.
And no one foresaw his sensational 2001 season, when Stephens finally grabbed the starter's role as a fifth-year senior and rushed for a school record 1,464 yards, earning All-America honors.
So when Stephens hears talk of this year's UT team facing an uphill battle against Florida in Gainesville, he can't help but smile.
"Being an underdog is kind of in your favor, that's just the way you have to look at it," Stephens said. "If you go in there scared, of course you're going to get beat. You can't let that affect you.
"But you can use it for motivation; a lot of people do. I believe those guys will go down there and do well."
Tennessee faces Florida this Saturday in its usual early-season showdown. The Vols are trying to surprise the experts and snap a six-game losing streak in the series.
Stephens remembers a similar scenario 10 years ago, even if the stakes were a little higher.
Because of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, all sporting events that season from the third weekend in September were postponed or cancelled. The SEC rescheduled its Sept. 15 games for Dec. 1 and pushed the SEC Championship Game back one week to Dec. 8.
"I remember we were at a low as far as our team had a lot of players hurt coming out of the Arkansas game (on Sept. 8)," Stephens said. "Even though the circumstances were bad with 9/11, it gave us time to get those players back and be at full force by the end of the year with all our guys."
So all of a sudden the two dominant teams from the SEC's Eastern Division - Tennessee and Florida were the only East teams to have played in the SEC Championship Game to that point - finally would have their showdown game at the end of the season instead of at the beginning.
"Everybody in prior years had wanted that game to be toward the end of the year because it was too early," Stephens said. "It had a lot of implications. We were No. 4 and they were No. 2 at the time, and of course the winner was going to the SEC Championship Game with a chance to play for the national championship."
Both teams were 9-1 overall and 6-1 in conference play. And, as Stephens recalled, Florida was ranked No. 2, and Tennessee was ranked No. 4.
Yet Florida was picked to win and win big by nearly all the experts.
"It was something that happened back at the hotel," Stephens said. "Lee Corso and those guys made their picks on (ESPN) Gameday, and we were all watching in our own rooms with our roommates. Everybody picked Florida and nobody gave us a chance.
"They gave us no chance. We said, `Hold on! We are the No. 4 team in the country. It's not like we're not even ranked or don't have a good team. After they said that, everybody just went crazy jumping and screaming in the hallways.
"That's how you knew everybody was ready to play."
That night, Stephens was ready from the opening kick. After holding Florida to a three-and-out, the Vols immediately put their senior tailback to work.
Tennessee drove 66 yards in 14 plays for a quick 7-0 lead. Stephens carried six times on the drive and three went for first downs. A Florida turnover put the Vols back in business, and Stephens carried three more times in a seven-play drive.
He waltzed into the end zone from 6 yards out, and just like that Tennessee held a 14-0 advantage.
"The atmosphere down in Florida was just tremendous," Stephens said. "I didn't know what to expect, I just knew I was ready. I had tears in my eyes before the game. I was ready. Any play that was called I was going to execute it as perfectly as I could."
Florida adjusted and rallied for 20 consecutive points in the second quarter. A pair of UT turnovers contributed to 10 points, and the Gators answered a Vols field goal miss with another scoring drive. Florida led 20-14 at halftime.
Stephens touched the ball just twice that second quarter, but one broke through the line for 49 yards and set up the field goal try.
"The focus was there," Stephens said. "And with the focus being there, some games you get into a zone. This was one of those games where every read was right. It was almost a perfect game. That's rare, but I fed off their crowd. It's loud down in Gainesville, but the focus was there."
The Vols regained their footing to start the second half. Tennessee opened with a five-play, 80-yard scoring drive that Stephens capped by sprinting untouched 35 yards to the end zone on a perfect draw play.
He caught his first pass and carried three more times in the quarter, once for a first down and the last two as the period ended with the Vols again on the move. Florida still led, but the margin was down to 23-21 with 15 minutes remaining.
"Whatever play was called, I wanted to make sure it worked," Stephens said. "Whether it was a pass play and I had to block hard, a run play where I was getting the ball or if I was cheering on the sideline, whatever I had to do to support my team I was going to do."
With momentum back on Tennessee's sideline, the Vols went to Stephens time and again for one dagger after another. He carried over right guard for 34 yards to set up a touchdown, and then torched the Gators for 68 more to set up another.
"In high school, I had a game where I rushed for 359 yards against Henry County and it felt similar," Stephens said. "There was nothing they could do to stop us. I felt like I was in a zone. Every move, every play they called, I was going to make the right cut.
"I don't know how else to describe it. When you get in that zone, nothing goes wrong. And the momentum of the game helps you too. You feed off the plays your teammates make, and we definitely had that going that night against Florida."
Stephens carried two more times later in the fourth as the Vols were milking the clock, rushing for zero and minus-1 against a virtual 11-man Florida front. The Gators scored late but couldn't complete the two-point conversion, and Tennessee held on for an epic 34-32 victory.
Stephens' final big play of the night - his 68-yard run to the Florida 9 - didn't just have an impact on the win over Florida. It also carried over into the SEC Championship Game the following week.
That's because Stephens suffered a slight wrist fracture that hampered his effectiveness against LSU in Atlanta and against Michigan in the Florida Citrus Bowl.
"I don't even remember what play I hurt my wrist on," Stephens said. "I remember after the game I noticed that my wrist was hurting, but I don't recall what play I hurt it on.
"It happens like that. Sometimes the next morning or a couple of hours later you feel something hurting you. My adrenalin was going so heavily, nothing was going to keep me out. I didn't feel it until hours after the game."
Even including the final two garbage-time runs, Stephens had eight first downs, scored two touchdowns and rushed for 226 yards on just 19 rushing attempts. It was then and remains today the eighth-best rushing yardage total in school history.
But none of those other seven came under nearly as bright a spotlight.
"I was always more ready for the big games," Stephens said. "The coaches try to make sure you're up the same for a game against Florida as you are against Vanderbilt.
"But teams like Georgia, Florida and Alabama - you knew they weren't going to play around with you and you knew they could beat you. You had to be ready for those teams."
His Florida performance was the perfect icing to Stephens' All-America campaign. He was named to the national first team by the Associated Press and Football Writers, and was a Doak Walker Award finalist.
How could Stephens not win the Doak Walker after his prime time performance? Deadlines were never adjusted after the 9/11 postponements and voting ended at the end of November, one day before Stephens broke loose in Gainesville.
"It really just came from the off-season workouts," Stephens said of his senior success. "Everybody has people doubting them and saying they can't do something. In my case especially, I had not gotten a chance to shine for a whole season. When you're a running back, you've got to get into a rhythm. You can't have one or two carries and come out of the game.
"It was my season that senior year where I was able to relax and, as long as I was able to prepare myself, I was ready for anything that came at me."
Stephens, who wore No. 34, says his running style was influenced by another No. 34 - Chicago Bears hall of famer Walter Payton. And Stephens sees that same drive and desire in this year's Tennessee running game.
"I like how (Tauren) Poole's running the ball," he said. "He's running it hard, and he's running it the right way. I like how they run the ball downhill. They call that Tennessee football, you know. You've got to pound that rock; that's what you've got to do. You've got to run it hard."
Stephens, now 33, commutes daily from his hometown of Clarksville to work for Gaylord Entertainment in Nashville as a supervisor for convention services, mainly at the Opryland Hotel. Even 10 years after his playing days, Stephens' co-workers always know when football season rolls around.
"Everybody on my job comes up to me and asks, `Travis, you ready for the game?'" Stephens just laughs. "It's almost like I'm getting ready to play. And of course Tennessee has a lot of support around here. I'm a big fan now.
"I just hope the guys can go down there and get a win. I know it's going to be tough with that crowd noise, but I have a good feeling about this year. They've grown up, and I feel good about our situation and going down there and actually getting a win."
Spoken like someone who knows a thing or two about being an underdog.
Did You Know? Travis Stephens was Tennessee's leading rusher in the 1999 BCS Championship Game win over Florida State. He had 61 yards on 13 carries.