Oct. 7, 2011
BY JOSH PATE
Georgia has always held a special place in Charlie Garner's heart.
Garner grew up watching Georgia great Herschel Walker dominate the Southeastern Conference -- and wanting to be like Walker, too. Garner, who is from Virginia, even verbally committed to play for the Bulldogs before attending junior college and winding up at Tennessee.
So with the Bulldogs coming to Knoxville for a 7 p.m. kickoff Saturday (TV: ESPN2) and Garner being recognized as Tennessee's football legend of the game, it's extra special for the great running back.
"Hershel Walker, I was a fan of his," Garner said. "Going there initially and seeing what he had done and walking where he had walked, he was a legend in himself. I was feeling that urge to go there and try to duplicate what he was doing. When I went to Georgia (for a recruiting visit), I had a fantastic time. But when I went to Tennessee, that felt like home.
"I took a trip to Georgia and I verbally committed to them, but wound up going to Tennessee. This game itself is going to have an importance on my being there. It's going to be great."
The Georgia ties didn't stop in college. When he got drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles, Walker was there to guide him during his transition to the NFL. Walker was on the backside of his professional career, and Garner was just starting. The Eagles provided Garner with the perfect teacher in Walker.
"Hershel Walker has always been a real quiet man with that Southern drawl," Garner said. "But the things he did say were very powerful, and when he did speak you listened. I guess I got there 11 or 12 years later, and he was still the fastest man on the team. It was phenomenal to watch."
He chose Tennessee because he said it felt like family. He trusted head coach Johnny Majors, and he developed a bond with assistant Phillip Fulmer, who became head coach in 1993.
"The guys there were all about winning and winning first," Garner said. "That's what I wanted. I wanted to win championships, and they were coming off of back-to-back SEC championships. I wanted to be involved in some of that winning. The tradition at Tennessee supersedes itself."
This weekend, when Tennessee hosts Georgia and Garner is honored, he hopes the Bulldogs get walloped like they did when Garner was a senior in 1993.
Tennessee was ranked No. 8, while Georgia was ranked 22nd. The discrepancy showed. Tennessee ran away with the nationally televised ESPN game 38-6.
"That was a memorable game because we put it on them," Garner said. "Georgia was a good ballclub, but at the same time we just jumped on them early and kept the foot on their throat. They finally gave under pressure, and we walked away with a nice victory."
The Vols went on to a 10-2 record that season, with losses to Florida and in the Citrus Bowl to Penn State, Tennessee's first full season with Phillip Fulmer as head coach.
"The first game," Garner said as he pored over memories. "That first night game against Southwestern Louisiana. I remember it like it was yesterday, coming out in that night game and seeing the stadium packed the way it was. I never got to play on the field and do the things I wanted to as a football player (that night), but as far as being memorable, absolutely. Running out of the T for the first time, that was the most memorable thing about it."
For Vols fans, however, the memories came by way of the statistics.
Garner played just two seasons at Tennessee but ran for 928 yards in 1992 and then had 1,161 yards his in 1993. In just two seasons, Garner ran for 2,089 yards and 10 touchdowns. What's even more impressive is his 6.7 yards per carry average.
That type of production was typical of what Garner expected as a Tennessee running back.
"When you sign on to go to school at Tennessee, as a running back or as a football player in general, you know there are a lot of expectations that are going to be placed on you," Garner said. "You have to go out there and succeed. When you go out there and do the things that you're capable of doing, you can go out there and let your natural talents shine. That's what I was able to do with the coaching staff we had and the way they helped me grow as a man."
"There were a lot of games in Knoxville my senior year that I really didn't get a chance to play in the second half," Garner said. "We had a talented stable of running backs. All of us could have gotten it done at any given time. We'd be up 25 or 30 points and, well, they'd bench me and then would have to bench James because he's running well, and then Aaron and then finally you got Jay Graham. All of us played in the NFL together. At that time, you were going to have a problem regardless of which running back was running the ball.
"I couldn't understand how we all ended up there, but at the same time we all fed off each other and all learned from each other. It was one of the most phenomenal experiences I've ever had because I've never played with that much talent in the backfield, ever. Not even in the pros."
Tennessee went 19-5 over Garner's two seasons in the backfield. He was drafted by the Eagles despite all the criticism that he was too small or that he couldn't run against NFL linebackers. Of course, Walker was there to help him get adjusted. Garner played five seasons in Philly before going to San Francisco for two years. He finished his career with the Oakland Raiders and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and now maintains a home in Tampa.
For this weekend, however, he'll be in Knoxville wearing orange. Garner has been gone from UT for nearly 20 years, but the orange is still a part of him as much as it was when he signed on to become a Volunteer.
"I'm just getting chill bumps," Garner said of coming back to Neyland Stadium. "I saw the tickets with the stadium on it and I just get chill bumps like I was going on that first walk from Gibbs. I can't wait. I look forward to getting back there and being a part of the Rocky Top Nation again and just expressing my love for the untouchables."