Nov. 11, 2011
BY JOHN PAINTER
Of course Billy Ratliff remembers the fumble recovery. Who doesn't?
Ratliff caused the "Stoerner Stumble" and fell on the resulting fumble, and Tennessee rallied for an improbable 28-24 win over Arkansas nearly 13 years ago this weekend on its way to the very first BCS National Championship.
The actual date was Nov. 14, 1998, and the Vols had just climbed to No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time in 42 seasons. Arkansas arrived in Knoxville having matched Tennessee's 8-0 start. The Razorbacks were ranked 10th, setting the stage for a classic SEC showdown with everything on the line.
Ratliff vividly remembers the play that changed the game's outcome. He's told the story a thousand times and happily would tell it to all 106,365 who were in attendance that day at Neyland Stadium.
"Most fans when they see me, that's the first thing they ask," Ratliff said. "How does it feel to be the guy who tripped up Clint Stoerner and made that play?"
But Ratliff also remembers what was going on prior to his being involved in one of the most famous plays in Tennessee football history.
"I was getting my tail whipped all game long," Ratliff said with a laugh.
And the reason was simple and staring straight at him every down through a pair of thick black glasses: Brandon Burlsworth.
"I was going against one of the best offensive linemen I've ever played in my life," Ratliff said. "I have never seen a guy dressed like him play as good as he played."
Burlsworth stood 6-foot-4 and weighed 308 pounds. His jersey didn't seem to fit, and through those glasses Burlsworth looked like a cross between Steve Urkel and Drew Carey. Yet he was an All-American that season and played like the second coming of Anthony Munoz.
"Of course, on defense we talked a lot of trash," Ratliff said. "This guy wouldn't say a word back to us. He just ran me over time after time."
Not only was Ratliff's personal battle against Burlsworth going poorly, the Vols were watching their national title hopes vanish just as quickly as they had appeared.
Arkansas had raced in front 21-3 and still was clinging to a 24-22 advantage when Tennessee quarterback Tee Martin threw incomplete on fourth down with just 1:54 remaining. The Vols had one timeout remaining, but even if the defense forced a three-and-out, only seconds would remain and UT would be stuck deep in its own territory.
Yet for some reason, Ratliff remained optimistic.
"I remember Tee threw incomplete on fourth down and the ball goes over. As Tee was coming off the field, I told Tee -- no one believes it, but it's true -- I told Tee, `Keep your helmet on. We'll be right back.' "
Ratliff immediately made his first tackle of the game, for a 2-yard loss, of tailback Chrys Chukwuma. Tennessee used its final timeout with 1:47 left.
"So first play, I make a tackle for loss in the backfield," Ratliff said. "Maybe Burlsworth was getting tired."
Facing second-and-12 at the Razorbacks 49, Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt relayed the offensive call to his quarterback Stoerner. It was a run-pass option, with Stoerner sprinting out from center after faking the handoff. Stoerner said after the game he was going to keep the ball in an effort to run time off the clock.
"I don't know what Coach Nutt was thinking," Ratliff said. "I guess he thought if he got a first down, the game's over. Personally, I thought if he just downed the ball the game was over.
"I'm lined up and I'm going to jump the snap and get in the backfield. As I came off the ball, I pushed Burlsworth back and didn't even think about the possibility of the quarterback being run over by the guy."
Ratliff's shove of Burlsworth was such that the Arkansas lineman stepped back onto the foot of the retreating Stoerner, causing the infamous stumble. Attempting to break his fall, Stoerner put the ball on the ground and it slipped from his grasp.
"It was unbelievable," Ratliff said. "You would have thought I had won the lottery. The play was like it was in slow-motion the whole time. It seemed like the ball sat there for 30 seconds. You heard everybody on the field yelling, `Ball! Ball! Ball! Ball!' I just jumped on it."
The rest is history.
Travis Henry carried five straight times, scored the game-winning touchdown and Tennessee came away with a 28-24 win. The Vols then blitzed Kentucky and blanked Vanderbilt, rallied late to beat stubborn Mississippi State in Atlanta and put it all together on a glorious night in the desert, edging Florida State to win the first BCS National Championship trophy.
"People say to me that we were lucky that year," Ratliff said. "I say just think about the last 60-something national championship teams. They were lucky too."
Ratliff remained in Knoxville after graduation and now works for Verizon Wireless.
"God had a different plan for me," he said. "I thought I would make it to the NFL, but after I finished school I had to find a job. I worked for the Knox County Trustees after college and have been with Verizon for about two years. Everything's great, and it's been a dream job."
And he still relives the dream of making that big play to help Tennessee to an undefeated national championship season.
"I'm usually not one to take credit for anything," Ratliff said. "l like to spread the credit around to everyone else. But when it comes to this story, I don't sugarcoat it. I tell it exactly the way it happened."